Marvin Hamlisch sits alone at a table in Sardi's, the post-theater eating and watering hole for what's left of the Broadway crowd and what's left of Broadway. He's nursing an iced tea when I arrive for our post-show dinner appointment. Already awarded Oscars for two movie songs ("The Way We Were" and "The Sting") and a Pulitzer Prize for "A Chorus Line," Hamlisch has composed a new Broadway musical, "Sweet Smell of Success."
It's a puzzlement to Hamlisch why so many reviewers have reacted negatively to the new production.
Doesn't Broadway need new musicals in a sea of revivals and shows that would have never made it to Broadway during the "golden years" of Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe? Doesn't New York need diversions now more than ever? Don't we all need numbers to talk about other than Sept. 11? Isn't this a good show?
It most surely is a good show. Clive Barnes of the New York Post liked it and so did I.
"Sweet Smell" is based on a 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, but the musical is not the film and is not meant to be. It's about a man who failed in vaudeville and seems determined to take revenge by ruining a lot of lives. Having failed at his first love, he becomes a critic of those who have succeeded. True theater lovers (and performers) believe this to be the profile of most critics.
J.J. Hunsecker (wonderfully and chillingly played by John Lithgow) is a gossip columnist for a New York newspaper in the style of the late Walter Winchell, whom he's supposed to represent. Unlike in the movie, a "back story" has been written for Hunsecker's hard-charging associate, press agent Sidney Falco (Brian d'Arcy James). Falco is transformed by Hunsecker's evil magnetism from a potentially nice guy into a demon. The back story is an important addition for the musical because it deepens the sense of Hunsecker's poisonous personality, which corrupts all who meet him.
As Hunsecker's power increases, he's not content with gossip and theater reviews. He branches out into politics. Like Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (played by Andy Griffith in the film "A Face in the Crowd"), Hunsecker succumbs to his evil nature, ordering the murder of his "enemies" and seducing Sidney to become his co-conspirator.
While no one leaves the Martin Beck Theatre whistling a happy tune (though the song "Dirt" is inspired), this is a show about the corrupting and destructive power of evil.
Hamlisch is too much of an optimist to criticize the reviewers. He's already working on his next musical, and given his extraordinary success, he never has to worry about his next meal. I'll criticize the critics for him.
New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley doesn't like the new show, especially the "Greek chorus" which provides commentary and sometimes acts as a demonic tempter of Hunsecker and Sidney. I find it reflective of the spirits that speak to all of us one whispering in our left ear to do right, the other whispering in our right ear to do wrong. Brantley also doesn't appreciate the music, or Craig Carnelia's lyrics, yet both fit the show, which is what words and music are supposed to do.
I don't know how tall Lithgow is, but in this show he's larger than life. He owns the stage and the audience. A man behind me gasped and tsk-tsked about Hunsecker's behavior.
Author and journalist Pete Hamill writes a Playbill essay for the benefit of those who didn't live through the 1950s, the era in which "Sweet Smell" is set. Titled "Winchell's Time," Hamill recalls the arts, theater and society of 1952 New York City, a time both culturally and chronologically "long ago and far away." As with many others who live by various swords, Winchell (and Hunsecker) are done in by the same weapons (in this case, poison pens) they use on others.
Yes, "Sweet Smell of Success" is dark but it is well worth seeing. Among many other contributions, it reminds us that evil is not limited to suicide bombers or airplane hijackers, but that it lingers in every human being, awaiting an opportunity to be let out so it may do its destructive work.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.