Gossip has become such a ubiquitous part of American culture that it's often considered — for better and often for worse — a form of entertainment. Open a newspaper, turn on the television, surf the Internet: it's inescapable. In the 1950's, gossip had fewer professional practitioners, but they were far more powerful, even lethal. Like columnist J.J. Hunsecker, who elevates scandal mongering to a malevolent art form in the musical Sweet Smell of Success.
The show, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia, book by John Guare and direction by Nicholas Hytner, is based on the novella by Ernest Lehman and the 1957 film by Lehman and Clifford Odets. Hunsecker is a fictional character, but he's inspired by Walter Winchell, one of the most widely read and frighteningly influential newspapermen of the 1930's, 40's and 50's. "It's not important that the audience know who Winchell was," says Carnelia, "but it's important that they're acquainted with a world in which a gossip columnist could be that powerful. And that's something we address: 'You think you know what a gossip columnist is? You don't know anything.' Winchell was something else. J.J. Hunsecker is something else. Winchell had the power to make or break, which is unheard of in today's world."
Sweet Smell of Success is the scathing portrait of Hunsecker (John Lithgow) and the havoc he wreaks on people's lives: not just the celebrities and politicians who orbit his world, but on the toadying press agent Sidney Falco (Brian d'Arcy James) and on his own sister Susan (Kelli O'Hara) and the musician she plans to marry.
The movie starred Burt Lancaster as the immoral Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the amoral Falco, two of the most relentlessly disagreeable characters ever captured on screen. It's fun to watch the soulless Lancaster bully and manipulate everyone he comes in contact with, and Curtis desperately and ruthlessly try to claw his way to success, but the audience has no emotional investment in either character — which simply won't do in a musical. "When we began working on the show, we agreed very early on that we needed a back story," says Hamlisch. "We needed to know how Sidney became the No. 2 man to J.J., how he became a kind of manservant to J.J. That's very different from the movie. In our show, Sidney is someone you might despise here and there, but part of me really feels for him. Because you see him start out as an OK guy, and you watch him descend. I think the show has a tremendous emotional core. You come out having been moved."
"We found as we worked on the show that the story we're actually telling is 'the rise and fall of Sidney Falco,'" says Carnelia. "John Guare, who came on to the project before any of us, got the idea of doing a back story from the novella, which starts about six months or a year before the film does. The back story that he put together, and that we have refined together beyond John's initial work, is somewhat different from Ernest Lehman's original story. But the idea that we would know how Sidney got this way is very much a part of this show." Also very much a part of the show is Manhattan — so much so that it becomes an additional character. "Bob Crowley found a way of giving us a vision of the New York skyline that is oddly both literal and impressionistic," says Carnelia. "And Natasha Katz has lit that basic set in so many different ways that it keeps changing and moving."
The pulse of New York in the '50s is captured in the music, its character in the lyrics. "There are, in a way, two scores going on here," says Hamlisch. "One is the sound of the clubs, and the other is the inner workings of the characters, which has more of a theatre-music sound, although the glossary of musical terms is still the fifties. There was a lot of exciting jazz going on at that time, and we very much enter that world. We use a big band, a jazz band — lots of saxes and horns, with the addition of a cello."
"The source material is so dense with language," says Carnelia, "and both John Guare and I had great fun with the language. Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker are both in the word business and have a great facility for words. I suppose it all speaks as New York because it's edgy and fast and on the make. We're dealing with people with questionable values, but they know how to word these questionable values brilliantly."
Audiences may not find much to like about the characters of Hunsecker or Falco, but they're bound to find them entertaining. "Often when you see a cagey person on the stage, you find yourself admiring the way the cagey person pulls off whatever he's doing," says Hamlisch. "He can get himself out of anything. That's part of the game that goes on in this show, as J.J. for a long time keeps pulling things off, keeps winning. There's something very devilish about that. But the devil can be very enticing."
"It's an exciting world," adds Carnelia, "and that's what we've put on the stage."