Broadway’s latest trip to the movies presents one of its toughest translation assignments: How to turn a cinematic martini with a strychnine twist into a palatable stage entertainment to satisfy the masses that multimillion-dollar musicals must attract. Can the machinations of J.J. Hunsecker, the nasty nightlife columnist played with such smoldering economy by Burt Lancaster in the 1957 picture, be made to fill a Broadway stage? Can the groveling of desperate press agent Sidney Falco be set to music?
The answer is yes — anything is possible in showbiz, as Hunsecker would be the first to admit — but the results aren’t likely to vie for pride of place with the movie in the hard-bitten hearts of its many admirers, or to draw flocks of the uninitiated either. Broadway’s “Sweet Smell” is an accomplished production that has been assembled with diligence and care by a talented group of collaborators: composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, book writer John Guare, riffing on Ernest Lehman’s original material, and director Nicholas Hytner. It has some tartly flavorful passages — a zesty, engaging opening sequence, a performance by Brian d’Arcy James oozing an oily desperation that’s often riveting.
But this attempt to fashion a theatrical “cookie filled with arsenic,” to borrow a Hunsecker-ism, stints on both the cookie and the arsenic. It’s dark, sure, but it doesn’t transmit the thrill of being bad the way, say, “Chicago” does, and in pure entertainment terms it doesn’t deliver enough crunch to offset its sour flavor.
The show opens with a tangy film-noir fanfare from the orchestra, and the curtain rises to reveal John Lithgow’s grimly sardonic J.J. dictating his latest column to his secretary. The show’s attempt to marry the dictates of musical comedy with the sordid subject at hand is signaled right from the start, as J.J. dispenses items in the rhythmic rat-a-tat of a Catskills comic: “Dean Martin confessing at the Stork Club that he sees a psychiatrist once a week to help him stop drinking. It’s working. Every Tuesday from 3 to 4, he stops drinking.”
The chorus stalks through smoky shafts of light, singing a dark, catchy anthem extolling J.J.’s power. They’re joined by d’Arcy James’ jittery Sidney Falcone (J.J. will get him to drop the last syllable), desperate to get a mention of his client the Voodoo Club, and together they spell out in some of the show’s sharpest lyrics and dialogue the rules of the game: “A press agent works for a client/A press agent like to eat/The client says, ‘Get me in J.J.’/The press agent feels the heat.” The sinister system of the days when columnists like Walter Winchell, on whom Hunsecker was famously based, manipulated the minds and hearts of millions is elucidated vividly in an integrated blend of scene and song staged with propulsive precision by director Hytner and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
So far, so good, and Bob Crowley’s set, which presents an imposing, jagged Manhattan skyline hovering above the heads of the performers, wittily presents the musical’s milieu as the land of bottom-feeders, a subterranean place where human rats scurry about looking for cover and comfort. Natasha Katz’s lighting bathes the stage in neon nightclub colors, dark pink and purple and blue, that accentuates the show’s nocturnal mood.
The key plot elements of the movie are here: J.J’s obsessive, nearly incestuous affection for his half-sister Susan (Kelli O’Hara), and his manipulation of the ambitious Falco to break up the relationship between Susan and a nightclub piano player named Dallas (Jack Noseworthy, looking appropriately Chet Baker-ish). But while the movie packed these dark doings into a tense period of less than two days, Guare & Co. have stretched them out, providing additional scenes, mostly in the first act, giving background to the story and its players.
It’s easy enough to understand the decision to let the story breathe and delve a little deeper into the psyches of the show’s four principal characters, but the results sap some of the caffeinated, inexorable flow of Lehman’s tale, and these extra forays, mostly musical, are not exactly revelatory.
Susan and Dallas get much more stage time than their filmic equivalents did, but Hamlisch’s love songs for the twosome are thoroughly bland (and Carnelia’s lyrics, deft and often savvy elsewhere, grow cabaret-song generic on Dallas’ solo “I Cannot Hear the City,” for example). The placidly pretty O’Hara and Noseworthy have excellent voices, but the tension of the tale is somewhat mitigated by our utter lack of interest in whether these two will or will not live happily ever after.
Hamlisch, whose generally sunny song catalog hardly makes him a natural for this material, also has come up with a pretty dreary humanizing number for J.J., a lilting, nostalgic ode to sis that’s like an aural Hallmark card (“For Susan,” it is aptly called). Lithgow is not a natural singer, but he does his best here and in his climactic but derivative-feeling vaudeville turn (“Don’t Look Now”). Yet as proficient as his performance is, the material doesn’t allow for the kind of malign magnetism that you want from the character and the show.
In fact, most of the evening’s magnetism emanates from d’Arcy James, a terrific musical performer who has a few soaring solos announcing his desperate desire for and, later, exultation in the kind of power J.J. wields. That we never quite understand where this drive comes from is hardly the actor’s fault: He performs with an arresting intensity, and it’s fascinating to watch his Sidney ricochet woozily from being a wrinkled suit in search of a man to a smooth operator and back again.
But the score lets everyone down at one point or another. Songs tend to be more competent than exciting, and come in one of a few varieties: the pretty ballads for the lovers, those soaring solos, several aggressive choral numbers. The best of these are the opening salvo, “The Column,” and the rousing act-two highlight “Dirt,” but it says something about the show that these could almost be interchangeable.
Indeed, for all the swirling complexity of Hytner’s staging, aided by the stylish choreography of Wheeldon, a brilliant young ballet choreographer here making a fine Broadway debut, there’s a plodding monotony to the way the story unfolds here. The insistent presence of the chorus, used as a kind of fifth principal character — filling the nightclubs, stalking the streets, busting in on private reveries to comment sardonically on Sidney’s rise and fall — begins to seem a desperate disguise for the show’s lack of real vitality and momentum. (And after a while their omnipresence begins to grate: Don’t these people have a subway to catch?)
In recent years, musical-makers have struggled to find the right formula for turning dark material into shining theater — witness “Parade,” “Marie Christine” and “Thou Shalt Not,” or the two “Wild Party” projects from two seasons back. “Sweet Smell” is just the latest show to come a cropper trying to make a bleak story bloom happily onstage. Its grimness leaves you with a bit of an emotional hangover, but it doesn’t take long to realize you didn’t have much fun earning it.