Nothin’s as Sweet as the Fall

You don’t really notice it when you’re watching the show or listening to the cast recording – at least I didn’t – but bookwriter John Guare and lyricist Craig Carnelia have built an incredibly sophisticated, complex, subtle, artful piece of storytelling with Sweet Smell of Success.

It succeeds in all three of the important categories: Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics; or in other words, artistry, pure entertainment, and substance. It seems a mystery and a shame that it didn’t run longer on Broadway, this exquisite film noir musical, from the pens of three top professionals, Guare, Carnelia, and the great Marvin Hamlisch, writing the score of his career (his last theatre score, unless you count The Nutty Professor, which never made it to New York). But honestly, it’s another show (like many we’ve resuscitated) that belonged off Broadway in a more intimate production.

I’ve already blogged about our show’s form, its content, its historical and culture context, and its craftsmanship. But as I’m discovering now that we’ve opened our production, you never stop discovering new things in this rich, dark material.

One thing I noticed only after we put the whole how together, how Guare and Carnelia have peppered the word sweet throughout the show, often meaning very different things, always underlining the irony of the title (which is never mentioned verbatim, by the way).

In “Break It Up,” early in Act II, as all hell is breaking loose, Sidney sings these lines:

Ooo, once you been there,
It’s tough to settle for less.
Ooo, I’m so close I can
Smell the smell of success…

And that’s when the irony of the title hits us. At this point, the shit Sidney is tangled up in doesn’t seem much like success. Even though he can’t see it, we can. Which means the “smell” isn’t a good one. Which means the word sweet in the title is darkly ironic.

In this world in which almost everyone lies, what value do words have? And in a show in which the word sweet can mean anything, we realize there’s no one here to trust, not even our narrators, Sidney and the other press agents as our Greek Chorus.

So here’s a quick tour through the sweet in Sweet Smell of Success. You’ll notice our two “decent” characters, Susan and Dallas, never use the word.

It first pops up late in Act I. When Sidney successfully cons J.J. into plugging Dallas in his column, J.J. says, “This is the sweet part of this racket – helping your pals.” Of course, he has no idea he’s actually helping the man who’s going to take his sister away, and that Sidney is actively plotting against J.J. It’s one of the few times J.J. is ironic without knowing it.

Later in the same scene, in the song “For Susan,” J.J. sings, “Ever so sweetly the orchestra plays for Susan…” But the subtext of the scene, J.J.’s creepy attraction to his sister, works in opposition to the innocence of the memory. It’s a sweet memory for J.J., not so much for Susan.

In “Rita’s Tune,” Sidney’s girlfriend sings, thinking she’s about to have a romantic night with Sidney (we already know she’s not):

Someone in sweet California
Plucked all these grapes from the vine,
To pop a cork in sweet New York…

Rita is only accidentally ironic here. She means it; she just doesn’t know her boyfriend is about to walk in, shatter her, and leave. That’s her sweet New York.

Immediately following, in “Dirt,” the press agents sing about the celebrities they write about:

“Watchin’ them rise is a ball,
But nothin’s as sweet as the fall…”

Yeah, schadenfreude-sweet

Backstage at the telethon, when J.J. and Sidney are pretending outrage over the lies Sidney himself has planted, J.J. says to Susan, “No worry, sweetheart. You’re safe at home.” That’s two sweets for Susan. But soon after, J.J. is on the phone bullying the club owner Billy, and J.J. snaps, “Warm up the brain, sweetheart. Insert the truth.” Susan hears this; does that make the word sound different to her now…? It’s a word that reminds the listener of the power structure – the powerless would never call the powerful “sweetheart,” only the other way around…

The last time the word sweet appears in the show is when Sidney is arranging for Kello to beat up Dallas, and Kello ends their conversation with, “Very sweet doin’ business with you, Sid.” Sweet, as in nothing of the kind.

So how does all this work on us? How does it enhance the storytelling? It tells us, even if just subliminally, that there are no rules in this world, despite the outward appearance of 1950s order. Words mean whatever you want them to mean. Lies and truth are interchangeable. Readership equals power equals Truth.

In 1952, J.J. (and his real-life counterpart Walter Winchell) had a false authority because his column appeared in a daily newspaper, not because of the veracity of his items. Readers generally believed that if it was printed in the paper, it was properly vetted for accuracy and it could be trusted fully. Today we are living through the inverse, when it’s incredibly easy to create the appearance of authority online, so that the average reader can’t tell the difference between a hack blogger and an experienced, maybe Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, between Drudge and Breitbart and Vox.

Truth is secondary, then as now, less important than what’s juicy, or in our current lingo, clickbait.

At the top of Act II, when Sidney actually does tell J.J. the truth about meeting Susan, J.J. doesn’t believe him. Why should he? The truth has no currency in this world. When we get to the final scene of the show, the lies pile up upon lies, all tangled up in bits of truth. There’s no hope of untangling them, only the possibility of escape.

The only other time the word truth is used in the show is the J.J. quote on the truth or lie of the item, and he’s lying about his fondness for Dallas. There’s no truth here. Plus, he’s sort of doing the right thing, but for all the worst reasons.

I’ve described the show on a couple occasions as a moral horror story, and as a moral thriller. It’s been fun over the first three performances to see how quickly the audience engages with our story, and how riveted they are to the crazy, twisting, shocking story that unreels before them.

I’ve described some of our New Line shows as roller coaster rides.

This is one of those. You will love it.

It’s a wild, wonderful, hip ride through the dark depths of modern humanity, and it’s a hell of a fun trip! Come join us! We run through June 24, and you can get tickets through MetroTix.

Long Live the Musical!
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre


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