AISLE SAY New York

PROMISES, PROMISES

Book by Neil Simon
Music by Burt Bacharach
Lyrics by Hal David
Based on the screenplay “The Apartment” by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Directed and Choreographed by Rob Ashford
Starring Sean Hayes, Kristin Chenoweth, Tony Goldwyn
with Dick Latessa and Katie Finneran
Broadway Theatre, Bway between 52nd & 53rd
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Though my actual review of the revival of Promises, Promises is relatively short, it has (for me, anyway) little meaning without some broader historical perspective; subsequently, I dug into my archives to reread the review I wrote of the Encores! concert 12 years ago. Which, to my mind, not only does the job of providing context, but gave me an unexpected jolt of personal perspective as well. I'll explain more about that later. For now, let me start with a "reprint" of that prior review. The present day me will return after with my appraisal of the 2010 revival on its own terms and also by way of contrast.

1997

Considering how imperfect a musical time has proved “Promises, Promises” to be, I was not prepared for the wave of nostalgia that nearly overwhelmed me during its “En­cores!” concert pre­sentation at City Center.
     I distinguish “nostalgia” from a refreshed memory—such as provided by the current “Encores!” inspired revival of “Chicago”. I saw the original “Chicago” several times when I was in college, and certainly I make associations be­tween the show and that time of my life…but they’re casual, not deeply felt or terribly profound.
     “Promises, Promises”, on the other hand, punched every possible button. Because I saw it on Broadway when I was 16, at a time when I was just beginning my love affair with the theatre, be­fore I knew I’d be writing mu­sic and lyrics, but af­ter music had become an ineradicable force in my life, and when the seminal influences—among them composer Burt Bacharach—were just be­ginning to take hold. I remember vividly who I was, what I was, how I felt, what it meant to me. And I remember, with great affection—and some sadness—the terrific actor and lovely man I first saw playing the lead, Gene Rupert (he was the third, after Jerry Orbach and Tony Roberts), who became a friend of mine after I wrote him a fan letter—struck down in 1980 by a bad heart at an indecently early age; he was not much over 50, looked a full decade younger. I remember my dreams, my foibles, my naēveté, my mistakes, the youth­ful arro­gance that hid rampant insecu­rity…
     And I remember things about the show that many have forgotten. Understandably so. Taken as a piece of material, “Promises, Promises” is but a blip in the literature. It’s nobody’s textbook example of an ideal musi­cal, its subject matter is (historically speak­ing) negligible, it contains no innovations of structure or theatricalization, and from all outward appearances it is straight ahead and traditional-minded. When concept musicals and narrative experiments were starting to bubble and perk, “Promises, Promises” was a format di­nosaur.
     And yet it left an indelible mark upon mu­sicals to follow that is still with us.
     Its contemporary then-mod New York feel (it was 1969) provided, I think, the first suc­cessful conventional musical theatre rep­resen­tation of that era to have the ring of authen­ticity. (“Hair”, a cul­tural period anomaly, was assiduously anything but con­ventional. As for other attempts—say, the “Rhythm of Life” number in “Sweet Char­ity” or “You Are Not Real” from “The Ap­ple Tree”—those were, though terribly en­tertaining, imita­tions of what “establish­ment” songwriters perceived “mod” musical vocabulary to be about: cutsey-poo com­ments made with a satiric bias and an arched, su­perior eyebrow.) “Promises, Promises” took the main­stream sounds of the late six­ties for grant­ed…because they were Burt Bacharach’s nat­ural lan­guage; unlike anyone else who had written for the theatre until that time, Bacharach was in the loop.
     After “Promises”, contemporary popular music started to find its way into the musical theatre in a more organic fashion, in no small measure be­cause Bacharach legitimized its use. Not to take anything away from the formidable Mr. Sondheim and the more ap­parent innovations wrought by “Company”, but there are snatches of that score that would not ex­ist as we know them, were it not for the Bacharach imprimatur. Listen to any Bacharach album and then lis­ten to “Com­pany”’s opening number. The influence col­ors the number in fills, riffs and rhythms and is utilized as a very conscious iconography for urban New York. This is even more ap­parent in Jonathan Tunick’s or­chestra­tions. It was Tunick, remember, who or­ches­trated “Promises”. In an in­terview he said he listened to all the Bacharach albums, then just or­chestrated as he felt the com­poser would have; and in that same interview, freely admitted that he bor­rowed several or­chestral effects from “Promises” for “Com­pany”—the fe­male backup singers in the pit orchestra, for one.
     But the presence of Bacharach’s contribu­tion goes even deeper than bor­rowed/appropriat­ed/pro­cessed musical ef­fects. It extends to technology. Bacharach was the first to configure and mike the pit or­chestra to approxi­mate studio conditions.
     So if “Promises, Promises” was such a turn­ing point, why has it been rendered so rela­tively ob­scure over the last two decades? Here’s the premise. Check it out (the actors named in paren­thesis are the “Encores!” con­cert performers):
     A musicalization of the Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond screenplay for Wilder’s film “The Apartment” it tells the story of Chuck Baxter (Martin Short) a junior ac­countant in a large in­surance firm on the fast track to nowhere. He is barely even noticed by Fran Kubelik (Kerry O’­Malley), the pretty young cafeteria worker on whom he has a serious crush. It is not until one of the company execu­tives, Mr. Dobitch (Eugene Levy), targets Bax­ter for a single man with a bachelor apart­ment. Dobitch asks to borrow the key: he wants to use the place to conduct an extra-marital fling. In return, he’ll rec­ommend Bax­ter for promotion. Word soon gets around and Baxter has several execu­tives taking turns with the key. Eventually, the company’s head honcho, Mr. Sheldrake (Terrence Mann) calls Baxter to his of­fice. Finally, the promo­tion will be forthcoming. One condition: Sheldrake wants access to the key. Exclusive access. Having taken things this far, Baxter obliges. Unaware that Sheldrake’s extra-marital fling is with…Miss Kubelik.
     In the world of this musical, women exist mostly for the purpose of men being able to take them to bed—and the ones who aren’t merely props…are victims (like Fran) or sluts, like Marge MacDougal (Christine Baranski), who picks up a heartbroken Chuck in a bar at the top of the sec­ond act.
     Positively antediluvian.
     In 1969, before sexual harassment be­came a regular headline issue, when sex com­edy was still a viable genre, we more or less accepted the show’s premise without a blink. Now…?
     Well, at “Encores!” the musical proved it­self anew to be a fascinating curiosity. For the book, by Neil Simon, is as structurally sound as any of the best libretti ever pro­duced. It’s to the point, economical, clean, breezily paced,­ impeccably plotted and terri­bly funny. On the other hand, ex­cept for the characters of Chuck and the grumpy doctor who is his next door neighbor (Dick Latessa), every character is either a cartoon (the executives and their mistresses), or a no-frills, no revela­tion essence. Mr. Shel­drake, for example, has enough coolly ex­pressed executive attitude to be a formidable opponent…but in the crunch, he is the per­fect cliché of the philandering husband with a suave line of bullshit and promises for his mis­tress—at times to the point of uttering boilerplate rationale and ex­cuses. Which makes him both more loathsome and less interesting.
     And then there’s the—I’m sorry, there’s no bet­ter word for it—misogyny. No matter how amused and invigorated we are—and that is the predomi­nant condition—there are mo­ments when you are pulled up short and can do naught but gasp. I’ll tell you about one such in a minute.
     The lyrics by Hal David are also a fasci­nating anomaly. As a pop lyricist, Mr. David achieved his idiosyncratic greatness not be­cause of wit or clever wordplay—which are all but nonexistent in his work; nor by evoca­tive imagery—he’s a meat and pota­toes, sim­ple noun-and-verb man, with a knack for cre­ating nice-sounding kneejerk plati­tudes (“What the World Needs Now”, “Alfie”) and singable sweet nothings (“The Look of Love”, “You’ll Never Get to Heaven…”). No, Mr. David’s great tal­ent—and one that can’t be un­der­es­timated, despite any of the considera­tions above—lay in the ability to create great hooks. Memo­rable, high profile, catchy-as-hell title ideas. They were almost always the best part of the lyric; the devel­opment of those ideas tended to be of mono and bi-syllabic simplic­ity—at times just plain silly (anyone remember the score to “Lost Hori­zon”?): no revela­tions, no deep thoughts, Hallmark card homilies with some­what more grace and showman­ship. You could almost zone out once the title registered on your ear.
     And that’s why he was the perfect lyricist for Bacharach, whose music was so busy with time signature changes, tricky rhythms, so­phisticated harmonies. Hal David’s words could ride the wave of all that—rise, fall, peak and rhyme with un­canny periodic­ity—and yet stay the hell out of the music’s way. By him­self, a modest talent with a glib, marketable facil­ity. In collaboration with Bacharach however—the synergy was posi­tively amazing. Objectively, his stuff shouldn’t work as well as it does. But some­times, and especially in the pop world, the belly tells you more than the head. And Hal David’s stuff went right for the vis­cera—it just had that feelgood thing.
     Obviously, that made him totally un­e­quipped to be a theatre lyricist, a discipline for which sub­stance is key—also the ability to write for charac­ter, and to drive a story forward. Examine just about any song in “Promises, Promises”, though, and you’ll find that it only restates or re-enforces what the scene leading up to it has already told us. (The one exception is “Wanting Things” a maudlin, introspective ballad for Sheldrake that is—though musically beauti­ful—unearned, obvi­ous and un­convincing.) And yet…
     This simplicity is the perfect contrast for Neil Simon’s high density high comedy, pro­viding a respite, and allowing the ear to process, without effort, the signature com­plexities of Bacharach’s music. “Promises”, in fact, may be the one mod­ern American musical of any con­sequence in which the usual principles of theatre-songwriting crafts­manship simply don’t matter. David was the right lyricist in the right room with the right ma­terial and the right collaborators at the right time. More powerful juju than wis­dom.
     But because he was no more sensi­tive to women than Mr. Simon, in this en­deavor—and hadn’t the verbal dexterity to cover it with a quip—he too produced mo­ments that create a dis­quiet­ing shudder in today’s world. Take “Where Can You Take a Girl?” a comic song for the four horny ex­ecutives, in which they mourn the loss of access to Chuck’s apart­ment and yearn for new nookie nests. Of course, in the late six­ties and early sev­enties, the nov­elty of four goofy-looking, middle aged guys trying to be hip, singing a pelvis push­ing rock tune about their hormonal urges created the humor. Back then, you didn’t as­sociate rock with overweight establishment “suits”. It was a funny image…and clearly that was the in­tended joke.
     Today, the joke doesn’t land. Even though the play is set in the late 60s, we still see it with 90s eyes, and it’s no longer a stretch to imagine mid­dle aged rock­ers—even if they are dressed conser­vatively. So the visual as­pect is only mildly fun. And our attention is drawn inexorably to the words:
 
Where can you, if you’re a man,
Take a girl, if she’s a girl
That you can, can never take
Home for a little drink
Like other guys who live alone can do?
Most married men play cards.
Most single men play house.
We like to play house too.
 
All we need is one place.
A small apartment, a truck or trailer,
Old or new.
Oh there must be some place.
A baby carriage, a kiddie car will do.
We aren’t proud.
Where can you take a girl
That you just can’t take home?
 
     At City Center, the audience didn’t blame the performers, understanding the circum­stances and the occasion…but boy howdy, could you feel the pall descend. A friend of mine, himself a veteran of the show (he toured in the fi­nal bus and truck company) called the lyric hate­ful. He’s not far off the mark.
     These endemic lapses in basic humanism were the only things that put a crimp in the “Encores!” pre­sentation, which was other­wise a tasty retro-hip confection. (Well, there was one other thud in the evening: the reinstatement of “You’ve Got It All Wrong”, a number cut in out of town try­outs: a warning sung by Sheldrake’s executive secretary [Jennifer Lewis] to his latest mistress, Ms. Kubelik, who responds with musical de­nial. Hardly a Sondheim-level trunk song, it’s perfectly awful and merely attenuates a terrifically written scene that requires no em­bellishment. Had such a song absorbed and become the scene, it might’ve functioned—cer­tainly the emotional stakes are hot enough—but again, that kind of dramaturgical dexter­ity is not in the lyri­cist’s arsenal.)
     In large measure, the evening was a con­cert adaptation not only of the material but of the orig­inal Broadway staging by the late Robert Moore (director) and the late Mi­chael Bennett (choreographer)—though only the live Rob Mar­shall receives pro­gram credit for the recreation. Even the minimalist set-pieces de­signed (?) by “scenic consultant” John Lee Beatty are an hom­age to the Robin Wagner originals.
     For the most part, you could have pre­dicted the performances, so ideal was the casting: the slick banality of Terrence Mann’s evil; the delicious, ditzy nuance of Christine Baranski’s seductive dipsomania; the ferrety desperation of Eugene Levy’s glad-handing; and the impeccable Borscht Belt timing of Dick Latessa’s bedside man­ner.
     The only wild cards were the leads. Kerry O’Malley, a relative unknown proved very effec­tive—if not outstanding—as the leading lady, and quite obviously cast to approxi­mate the hard-edged belt of the Broadway and London Frans: Jill and sister Jenny O’Hara, Lorna Luft and Betty Buckley. It’s a cutting sound, and not always pleasant, but unques­tionably a conscious choice. And in the play­ing, the one significant philosophi­cal change from the original. Ms. O’Malley’s Fran was trapped by the material into re­maining a vic­tim…but she was not without spine and righ­teous anger. Not a bad adjust­ment.
     I must say, Martin Short took me by sur­prise. The original Broadway/London/road Chuck Bax­ters—Jerry Orbach, Tony Rob­erts, Gene Rupert, Bill Gerber, Will MacKenzie—had in common that they were big, sweet na­tured, slightly stupid galoots. Mr. Short is—well, short—and savvy. But his first entrance dispelled any and all doubts. His naēveté was charming, convincing and adorable. He was a wonderful Chuck Baxter. Dif­ferent. But di­vine.
     With the show’s original cast album so long (and so bewilderingly) out of print, one hopes there will be a recording of this “En­cores!” render­ing as there have been so many of the ones previous. A better cast seems unlikely, and, as always, the musi­cian­ship of Rob Fisher lead­ing The Coffee Club Orchestra is beyond re­proach.
     Considering how dated and even inappro­priate the sensibility of “Promises, Prom­ises” is today, the concert was rewarded with ap­plause that was not merely enthusiastic, but genuinely affectionate. Partly that’s be­cause there was so much laughter, and such a strong story being told—and told, warts and all, well. But I think, as I write this, more than a little bit of the affection had to do with others in the house re­acting…well, I won’t say as I did; that would be too ex­treme…but in recognition of hav­ing lived through the period. In recognition of the indelible impression the music of Burt Bacharach made on our lives, the associa­tions it conjures.
     And maybe ultimately we forgive “Promises” its trespasses because in doing so, we look back and forgive our own…

 


2010
 
Astonishingly, no commensurate wave of nostalgia hit me during director-choreographer Rob Ashford's resourceful and, in the best sense, slick new production. In part, I attribute that to the fact that, unlike the Encores! concert, this staging is not an homage to the original. Though for the most part not reinterpreting the show or imbuing it with the weight of present day revisionist attitude that it just can't bear, he nonetheless has his way with it: the images, dances, segues, designs all reflect freshness of conception. That put some distance on it for me. As to the rest: I don't know, but I guess having had that catharsis at the concert, and being over a decade older to boot, I was unlikely to be as susceptible, and in a way, I was sorry not to be. For Promises holds up far less well than I thought, even forgiving the tresspasses of its male chauvenism.
 
And the problem may be that in doing everything tastefully and (with minor exceptions) right-mindedly possible to gussy up the show for the new millennium, Mr. Ashford and company have made us pay that much more attention to it, beat for beat. He's set it in 1962. as close to the era of the original 1960 Billy Wilder film as you can get and still justify go-go dance moves and the distinctive Bacharach pop sound as fitting into the landscape, but there are nonetheless artifacts of 1968 in the dialogue (some of them, ironically, bald adjustments that make one even more aware of the adjusting). He has also very cannily taken care to make the show's few neutral and dead spots dynamic: Though the traditional, medly-style overture is a critical mood-setter for the show, it's an easy few minutes through which certain audience members might keep muttering among themselves, or just zone out. Asford incorporates it into the visual stylings—soon after it starts, the show curtain becomes a backlit scrim through which we see Sean Hayes as Chuck at his desk, going through his day, while around him his fellow employees dance through theirs, immediately establishing the period dance vocabulary. When Tony Goldwyn's Sheldrake sings his private self-pitying confessional "Wanting Things"—usually a stage weight, because, really, who gives a hoot about Sheldrake's conscience?—Asford shows us the "things" that haunt him, as ex-mistress after ex-mistress appears in dream lights behind him. It's a brilliant "save"—and yet, you're aware, watching it, that it's a save. (Paradoxical sidebar: As I much younger man, I was privileged to become friends with Gene Rupert, who played Chuck on Broadway for about a year [he had been standby to Tony Roberts previously] and he once remarked to me that "Wanting Things" was the "best song in the score" in a way that suggested to me that this wasn't merely his personal opinion, but a shared insider sentiment. Perhaps there was some synergy between the number and Edward Winter, the actor who introduced it, who would make playing heels a specialty of his career [remember Colonel Flagg on M*A*S*H?]. All I know is, it was dull in the hands of his replacement, James Congdon [who likewise sings it dully on the London cast album—he was among the American company {along with Roberts, Betty Buckley and Jack Kruschen} assembled to introduce the show there] and I've never known it to work.)

Speaking of which, Hal David's lyrics emerge as far less competent than they seemed even by the forgiving pop-feelgood standards cited above. It's not merely their naive regurgitation of immediate book material that's more striking—it's that they often make no literal, dramatic sense. Fran sings "I get this feeling on my own" regarding her misgivings about Sheldrake, after we've seen Sheldrake's secretary warn her. Chuck sings of his reputation, "Half as big as life they say," when we've just seen him be totally ignored. "They" aren't saying anything. His problem is being noticed at all. And etcetera. Nothing much you'd flag if you just let the songs wash over you, but as soon as you listen, you're struck by a slovenliness and inappropriateness of detail that makes you wonder if anyone on the creatuve team even paid that much attention, back in 1968. Certainly you're viscerally aware of how, in 2010, the actors are doing their best to camouflage self-consciousness as they try to "sell" the sentiment of the songs over the literal meaning of the words. (One of Ashford's very few missteps, and the only one of consequence, is the interpolation of two Bacharach-David songs from the non-theatre pop catalog: "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House is Not a Home" to add to Kristin Chenoweth's song roster. They may have been needed to secure a star, but all they do in the show is make the lyric/sense disjunct even more pronounced and attenuate the character's dramatic arc.

Speaking of character—the cast is quite good. Mr. Hayes is a charming Chuck, Mr. Goldwyn (like Mr. Winter of the original cast) has being the smooth heavy down to a fine sheen (and carries a tune respectably). And as he did in the Encores! concert, Dick Latessa assays the curmudgeonly doctor having lost absolutely none of his comic edge. Alas,  the petite but powerful Ms. Chenoweth hasn't lost much of her edge either and that's why, yes, as you've heard, she's miscast as Fran Kubelik, a character who requires enough sweet vulnerability to eventually feel belivably suicidal; not the clear-eyed, feisty tenacity that is the Chenoweth hallmark. Since old rockers are no longer the oxymoron they used to be, the executives are not cast as over-the-hill tummlers, but are insterad played by seasoned musical theatre pros who have entered into a subtly more contemporary (and thus younger-seeming) middle age, more like the more vigorous execs of How to Succeed… This doesn't take the curse off their song, but somehow it takes the pall off, maybe because the added degree of mercenariness adds enough intentional character self-awareness lets us view them properly as minor comic villains rather than oblivious comic buffoons. In any event, it helps.

But not enough. Rob Ashford and his cohorts have brought Promises, Promises as far to the edge of revivability as it can possibly go…but it never goes quite far enough, because at the core, the show resists the help. Notwithstanding the charm of its performers, the vitality of its music and the funniness of the dialogue, as an entity, Promises, Promises is no longer charming, vital and funny—it's the relic of an insensitive sensibility that only shines harsher under the polish and better lighting…

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