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Promises, Promises

at the Colonial through Oct. 26.

By James Lardner

IF THEY don't positively leap on stage with a hoot and a "Down with Jerry Herman!" sign, Burt Bacharach and Hal David nevertheless make a wicked entrance in the proceedings now on display at the Colonial. Each micro-second of music has the Bacharach-David signature: a souped-up piano, an unseen chorus blowing like the wind over solos and ensemble numbers alike, tunes that demand alternately a whisper and a belt, and lyrics that stick so close to life in its physical and emotional details as to leave no room either for clever allusions or technical bravado. The long and the short of it is that they're new (at least in the romantic world of Broadway success stories where writing the finest popular songs of the day counts for nothing), they're different, and they're here.

Forced to grope into theatrical history for an apt comparison, for a composer who was to the mainstream of Broadway music what Bacharach is to that mainstream now, I'd settle on Harold Arlen. Arlen too had a popular bent, wrote songs consciously and expressly for Negro singers, was by nature incapable of the straight, bright, terribly Broadway, Broadway tunes of which any second-rank Cole Porter creation is the perfect example, and on all these counts had to be regarded as an organism slightly foreign to the theatre (Mr. Arlen will of course forgive the laws of parallelism for driving him into the past tense). No such comparison says anything qualitatively about Bacharach's music, but the hard time I'm having phrasing even an abstract description of it does say more, I think, about the sweep of Bacharach's sonic vocabulary than about the boundaries of my verbal one.

Predictably enough, it fell to David Merrick to wrap Bacharach and his partner into a Broadway package, complete with a golden property and a golden boy to adapt it. The plan was to take The Apartment, one of the best American movies of the last ten years, and entrust its conversion to the amazingly successful Neil Simon, famous for his four concurrent Broadway hits. But as in all schemes where addition is allowed to pass for logic, there was the danger of the parts not resting snugly with each other, and it is exactly that danger which hits Promises, Promises hard. The plot, taken step for step from the Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond screenplay, must be counted an asset; Simon has certainly contributed a better than respectable quantity of laughs; and the Bacharach-David score is exceptional by any reckoning, absolutely top-drawer by current musical-comedy standards. The problem is that the property works at cross-purposes to the adaption, and the adaptation at cross-purposes to the score. On a piecemeal basis, Promises, Promises can with no exaggeration be called a distinguished musical, while as an entity it becomes a disappointing one.

AT THE HEART of this incongruity, I think, lies the gap between Wilder and Diamond on the one hand, and Simon on the other. There would be no cause to criticize the show in such terms if it hadn't retained so much from the movie and at the same time acquired so much that is new and not quite in phase. Besides holding fast to the screenplay's construction, Simon has used several short sections of dialogue intact, which have in common that they come from the story's more serious episodes. In the funnier scenes, he has cut loose with his own comic style, adding dialogue that is unmistakably Simon's to dialogue unmistakably Wilder's and Diamond's.

If that were the extent of the problem, Simon could easily enough discard all the lines left over from the movie and substitute his own. But much of his own dialogue, in addition to being incongruous, is downright awkward. Too many of the show's laughs as presently constituted drain the credibility of its characters and situations. For instance, Simon has the doctor from across the hall at one point volunteer that "Experimentally, I took a trip once on L.S.D.--I had a better time in Miami Beach when it rained for two weeks." Lines like that and "I'm just a general practitioner--You want sympathy, go to a specialist," belong to a certain branch of stage convention and not to real life at all. Hence the laugh they get must be destructive in an ultimately naturalistic context.

The same effect is compounded by the two lead actors, Jerry Ohrbach and Jill O'Hara. Both are talented but neither is quite right. Ohrbach settles comfortably into the easy, audience-conscious manner Simon has designed for him, draws all the requisite laughs, sings at least passably on occasion, but has none of the timely flavor or the essential fascination of Jack Lemmon in the movie. Miss O'Hara has some charm and quite a voice when her range and Bacharach's coincide, but has not yet defined herself sufficiently beyond the realm of run-of-the-mill ingenues. Still less fortunate is Edward Winter as Mr. Sheldrake, a transparent, utterly uninteresting characterization.

The failing of Promises, Promises is most evident, perhaps, when Miss O'Hara is called on to attempt suicide, one of the central events of the story. After singing a perfectly splendid song called "Whoever You Are," she reaches for the sleeping pills, a spot concentrates on them, and the scene fades out. But neither her dialogue nor her performance has justified this action: her relationship with Sheldrake, their break-up, and her despair are simply not convincing. And if the most serious action--the pivotal action--of the plot doesn't work, then the plot as a whole can't work either.

In sum, Simon and Co. haven't really made a musical out of The Apartment--not yet, anyway. They've been able to work songs in here and there--some knockout numbers among them--but when the plot descends into the nitty gritty of suicide, recovery, redemption and love triumphant, the book and score don't mesh. There is even a sizeable stretch in the middle of the second act where the music disappears altogether.

In Simon's favor, it should be said that (a) The Apartment is by no means a natural for the world of musical comedy; (b) His book is a good deal more entertaining than the average; (c) It will undoubtedly get a fairer shake from those who have not seen the movie; and (d) There is still time. The weeks remaining can probably best be used to replace Mr. Winter, who is mis-cast, and to cut or change a good deal of gratuitously cute dialogue (another example: "Hell hath no fury like a man who's lost his Wednesday nights").

Mention should be made of Michael Bennett's fast and loose choreography, particularly the sardine-can motif with which he conjures up a Second Avenue bar, of Robin Wagner's sensible sets, of Jonathan Tunick's really hot orchestrations, and of Robert Moore's uncommanding but attractive direction. Mention must be made of Marian Mercer, who in a small part does the best musical-comedy drunk in memory.

Finally, Hal David's lyrics deserve an extended analysis, which I won't give them save to say that they're always worth listening to, never in the smallest measure cheap, and possibly harbingers of a revolution in Broadway songwriting. David hasn't completely mastered the medium with his first try, but like Bacharach he can probably count on smooth sailing through the formative stages of his theatrical career. And that's about all even palpable geniuses can ask.

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