Sweet Smell of Success

Shubert Theatre

Broadway is one of those streets where it’s light enough to read the morning papers in the miracle of the night before, and there’s a trash can on every corner to remind you to do so.–Ernest Lehman, Sweet Smell of Success

In 1950 Cosmopolitan published a novelette by a 30-ish sometime flack named Ernest Lehman. The story (originally titled Tell Me About It Tomorrow) followed one J.J. Hunsecker, a ruthless reporter from Chicago who’s clawed his way to the top of the New York journalism heap by “adding new and scabrous meanings to the word ‘rumor,'” in Lehman’s description. But the tale’s protagonist was its narrator–Sidney Falco, a press agent bent on “scratching and crawling” to the same pinnacle of power occupied by his pal Hunsecker. Lehman recounts the soul-rotting deal that self-debasing Sidney makes to please J.J., who wants to derail a romance between his kid sister, Susan, and a nightclub crooner named Steve Dallas. Sidney plants vicious “blind items” in the press implying that Dallas is a reefer-smoking Red, ruining the young singer’s career and causing him to be arrested and beaten by a sadistic cop. But just as Sidney gets ready to inhale “the sweet smell of success,” he’s brought low by Susan, who proves herself as lethal a schemer as her brother. “The terrible thing about people like you,” Susan tells Sidney as he’s about to be beaten to a pulp, “is that decent people have to become so much like you in order to stop you.”

Lehman’s piece set insiders’ tongues wagging throughout the midtown Manhattan world that all-powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell dubbed “Cafake Society.” It was widely assumed that the vindictive, paranoid J.J. was modeled on Winchell (also known as W.W.), and certainly J.J.’s vendetta against Dallas recalled Winchell’s campaign to break up an affair between his daughter, Walda, and would-be producer Billy Cahn. Winchell brushed off the Cosmo story–but he got nervous a few years later when actor-producer Burt Lancaster purchased the property. The resulting movie, 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, was a star vehicle for Lancaster, whose blend of soft-spoken refinement and animal physicality made his portrayal of J.J. riveting. Sidney’s character was relegated to supporting status despite a fine performance by the impossibly pretty Tony Curtis. The film boasted angular, oddly lit cinematography by James Wong Howe, a sizzling jazz sound track by Elmer Bernstein, and a deliciously sour, eminently quotable screenplay by Lehman and Clifford Odets. Downbeat, cynical, and creepy in its suggestion that J.J.’s obsession with his sister was incestuous, Sweet Smell of Success was a financial failure (as Winchell gleefully reported). But over the years it became a cult classic. And as Neal Gabler writes in his biography Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, it “definitively established the image of Winchell as a megalomaniac”–and further eroded his reputation, in decline as a result of his association with discredited commie chasers Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn.

Lehman’s story and the film it inspired exposed the Winchell-ruled world of celebrity journalism, in which slimy press agents would “feed” unethical columnists nasty news (real or invented) about famous people in return for puffy plugs of the stars and supper clubs the agents repped. (In the story, Sidney describes the tawdry tidbits he and his colleagues concoct as “hunks of raw, red meat…seasoned…with the proper libel-proof words.”) On a larger level, the story was a scathing indictment of the American dream as an illusion of innocence and affluence masking an abyss of hypocrisy and brutal competition.

Its unsavory revelations, shocking to 50s audiences, are old news to today’s media-savvy audiences, but Sweet Smell of Success still has currency. The legacy of J.J. and W.W. lives on in supermarket tabloids and Internet rumor mills–even the lofty news and editorial pages of “legitimate” publications. And it would seem that the creators and producers–among them Lehman–of the new musical Sweet Smell of Success are banking on that. Given its world premiere here Sunday, the show is moving to New York in mid-March.

I hope Sweet Smell will succeed, but I think it needs reworking in order to do so. It introduces a marvelous story to an audience that may be unfamiliar with it; and it reminds us of how a gossipy press taints and trivializes our art, our politics, our very sense of ourselves as a nation. It is clearly a labor of love–something to be valued in a day when most musicals seem to be mere excuses for marketing tie-ins with fast-food franchises. It showcases a thrilling, moving performance by onetime Chicago actor Brian d’Arcy James as Sidney as well as strong (if still developing) work by John Lithgow as J.J., Kelli O’Hara as Susan, Jack Noseworthy as her boyfriend (renamed Dallas Cochran), and Stacey Logan as Sidney’s girlfriend. It features brilliant noir-style sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and lighting by Natasha Katz, whose depiction of Broadway as a valley framed by towering skyscrapers beneath a sprawling, ominous sky recalls Winchell’s description of the Great White Way as “the Grandest Canyon.” Craig Carnelia’s lyrics are well crafted, and Marvin Hamlisch’s jazzy tunes (in wonderful martini-music arrangements by William David Brohn) are catchy, though his syrupy pop ballads don’t fit with the rest of the score. John Guare’s dialogue is brisk and occasionally crackling–especially the lines lifted from the Odets-Lehman screenplay: “This is life. Get used to it.” “Here’s mud in your column.” “I love this dirty town.” “Integrity. Acute. Like indigestion.” “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?” And J.J.’s simultaneously cutting and complimentary assessment of Sidney: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

But Sweet Smell doesn’t slavishly follow its source, unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, another adaptation of a showbiz film noir. Guare, Hamlisch, Carnelia, and director Nicholas Hytner have sought to expand on the material. But in the process they’ve complicated and muddied the story, linking J.J., Sidney, Susan, and Dallas through a series of contrived coincidences too convoluted to describe here. This setup pads the first act with enough exposition for a season-long soap opera, wasting time that would have been better spent fleshing out the characters of J.J. and Sidney, perhaps with information from Lehman’s original tale.

Sweet Smell of Success falls short where other dark musicals like Chicago, Cabaret, and the current Broadway offering Urinetown succeed–they express the story’s moral, social, and emotional concerns in Broadway-musical terms. Winchell was an ex-vaudevillian, as J.J. is here–a fact that’s not exploited until midway through act two, when he does a soft-shoe routine as part of a telethon for the “J.J. Hunsecker Freedom Foundation.” Highlighting Hunsecker’s hoofing from the start would give the show a guiding metaphor–journalism as show business–and offer opportunities for Hytner and his novice choreographer, British ballet dancer Christopher Wheeldon, to lay on a bit of the old razzle-dazzle. While Hytner’s staging is impressively fluid it lacks kinetic excitement, and Wheeldon could use some inspiration: his choreography is functional at best and boring at worst.

At its strongest–as in the first-act number “Welcome to the Night,” in which Sidney accompanies J.J. on his nightly prowl for gossip–Sweet Smell focuses on the mentor-pupil relationship between the confident pro and the eager young comer, the preening tiger and the fawning jackal. But by the second act their connection has been obscured by the plot’s laborious mechanics. And at the climax, the focus shifts abruptly and unconvincingly to Susan as she confronts and conquers the treacherous Sidney and overbearing J.J. Her hard-won independence is admirable, but it hasn’t been important enough throughout to be the show’s final point.

Sweet Smell of Success is first and foremost Sidney’s story–a Faustian fable about a man who sells his soul for the world and loses the world along with his soul. D’Arcy James’s captivating intensity in the role makes it even more fascinating. With his charismatic presence, rich baritone, and sometimes uncanny resemblance to the young Tony Curtis, James communicates Sidney’s ambition and insecurity, his engaging energy and pervasive self-loathing. And though Lithgow’s J.J. is charming and insidious, he lacks the undercurrent of danger that would suggest malevolent power. (However, Lithgow’s skill as a song-and-dance man and speech singer in the Rex Harrison mold makes one hope his musical role will be beefed up.)

Sweet Smell is a work of intelligence, quality, and impressive ambitions. But at this point it’s less than musically memorable or dramatically compelling. No one knows how the show will do once it’s injected into what Winchell called “the hardened artery” of Broadway, but it’s one man’s opinion that surgery is called for.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/paul Kolack.