Baby, It's Dark Outside

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For a movie about unscrupulous people doing nasty things to one another--a 96-min. black-and-white film that flopped at the box office in 1957--Sweet Smell of Success has nuzzled its way into the hearts of a surprising number of moviegoers. The story of a powerful gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster), modeled on Walter Winchell, and the ambitious press agent (Tony Curtis) who tries to curry his favor, it now seems one of the high points of Hollywood film noir. With its crackling Clifford Odets-Ernest Lehman dialogue ("You're dead, son. Get yourself buried"), it offers a cynical, clued-in portrayal of the underbelly of New York City night life that seems both nostalgic and more relevant than ever.

The perfect recipe for a Broadway musical? Hardly, but that didn't stop a bunch of talented people from trying to pull it off. Dark and cynical are not the ideal colors for a Broadway musical, but they can work (see much of Sondheim). And there's something irresistible about bringing this film classic to a Broadway theater just blocks from the Manhattan night spots its characters once haunted. Alas, the musical that opened on Broadway last week, after much anticipation, is a sizable letdown. And therein lies another all-too-familiar Broadway tale.

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More than four years in the making, the project attracted a list of producers longer than 42nd Street's chorus line, and some of the theater's top creative talents: playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line), director Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon) and star John Lithgow, as the ruthless columnist J.J. Hunsecker. But the parts weren't jelling in January, when the show opened for a pre-Broadway run in Chicago. To soften the movie's cynical edge, the creators had played up two subsidiary characters: Hunsecker's young sister (Kelli O'Hara) and her jazz-musician boyfriend (Jack Noseworthy), a couple the columnist tries to break up. "If you're going to swim in the shark tank, you need a way to get out," explained director Hytner. With three love ballads between them--including the show's final number--the young couple were too much front and center, and they turned the show slack and sentimental.

A packet of mixed reviews convinced the creators they were on the wrong track. Some fast rewriting ensued between Chicago and Broadway: the young couple's stage time was reduced (and one of their songs cut) and the ending entirely reworked to give the last scene to Hunsecker. The show is much improved, boasting some strong performances (especially by Brian d'Arcy James as the toadying press agent), and it deftly captures the film's acid view of how power corrupts--and show-biz power corrupts absolutely. But it's still a pale shadow of an icy masterpiece.

The first problem is Lithgow. In the film, Lancaster was a soft-spoken monster, as frightening in absentia as he was in person. (He's offscreen for nearly two-thirds of the movie.) To showcase its above-the-title star, the musical builds up his character--adding some '50s-era Red-baiting, hammering home the movie's hints of incest and even making him a former vaudevillian (as the real Winchell was), to justify an upbeat music-hall number. Yet Lithgow is too soft and pliable, less Satan than satin.

Hamlisch, a master of jazzy pop froth, strains to write in a minor key (though he does deliver a couple of peppy songs, including a Chorus Line-style rouser called Dirt). Guare's book adds too much character back story (the first act plays like a prequel to the movie) and makes a plotty film even plottier. Hytner, the British wonder-worker who has shown that visual theatrics can serve the emotions rather than overwhelm them, doesn't do enough to relieve the show's darkness.

But mostly the musical illustrates Newton's second law of theatrical motion: after trying too hard to give the show some uplift, the creators have swung too far in the opposite, downbeat direction. Hunsecker is not just an egotistical columnist now; he's the Godfather, even ordering a murder. For all its cynicism, the movie managed to convey the racy excitement of its tawdry milieu. "I love this dirty town," Hunsecker famously snarls. The musical just makes us see the dirt.