New York has a magic about it that defies time, terrorism and the petty crimes that it seems to periodically allow itself to be inundated with. I can never come to New York without walking its streets and imagining what it might have been like in the past and what it will surely be in the future. Part of the vast pleasure of New York is, of course, the variety of what there is to do and eat, or the background feeling that you might reinvent yourself as a New Yorker—if your present circumstances were only a little different. The theatre perhaps catches this sense of what can be and the, “why don’t you just do it” attitude that is part of the spirit of New York.
If there is one Broadway show that captures something of this essence of New York, it is The Sweet Smell of Success with John Lithgow and Allen Fitzpatrick, as his alternate, playing the role of gossip impresario, J.J. Hunsecker. Based on a short story by Ernest Lehman, the show takes its inspiration from the 1957 film by Lehman and Clifford Odets, which starred Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the immoral J.J. wanabee, Falco. This smart and wonderfully atmospheric new production at the Martin Beck Theatre with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia and direction by Nicoholas Hytner is not directly about New York but about “making it” in New York and the dark and sometimes amusing consequences that attend that dream. The story line is loosely based on the life of Walter Winchell whose universe Pete Hamill brilliantly describes as follows:
“In the years after World War II, no city on the planet was as charged with glamour, energy and the sense of power as New York, and no New Yorker exuded power in quite the same way as a small vehement man named Walter Winchell. He was a gossip columnist for a grungy morning tabloid called the Daily Mirror, but such a description of his role doesn’t come close to describing his prominence and power. In those years, a stretch of Broadway from roughly 40th Street to Central Park was a kind of tinhorn American Versailles, and Winchell was the Sun King.”
John Lithgow does a marvelous job of capturing the brash and manipulative character of a gossip king. There are dark undertones of a Faustian bargain struck for a soul that a Hunsecker imitator, Brian d’Arcy James plays in the Falco-revisited character of Sidney. Sidney desperately wants to be just like J.J. and compromises his integrity and even the happiness of his friend Susan, played by the lovely Kelly O’Hara, (who is also J.J.’s sister) to have a shot at the same, nearly diabolical and ultimately tragic power that J.J. has. This power for evil has to be confronted and thwarted by a hero. Jack Noseworthy, as Dallas, does a wonderful job as the piano player and singer on his way up who confronts J.J.’s machinations by genuinely wanting to make it on his own without the false note of big city advertising. Jack is in love with Susan, who as J.J.’s sister, endures the suspicious concerns of her big brother who is only interested in her keeping him company in the friendless world he has created for himself. The sinister and disgraceful ending of the show is like an old time morality play and one whose lesson is still pleasing. The bad guys always get their due. (I won’t say more, so as not to spoil the story for first time viewers.)
There is so much more to this show than the story line and the wonderful music, which crackles with both nostalgia and hidden vitality. The real story is the atmosphere of New York in the nineteen fifties and the opportunity that this city continues to broadcast to the world. This has been a dream for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who have come to New York to find fame and fortune in a city that seems to ride at the cutting edge of time and humanity. I found myself endlessly charmed by this underlying dynamic and the feelings that it weaves behind your heart and in front of your nose. The stage by Bob Crowley and the lighting by Natasha Katz, for instance, creates a virtual, chiaroscuro world whereby you imaginatively enter New York, circa 1952. The skyline looks real—complete with backlit skyscraper and apartment windows; add a tiny suspension of disbelief, some smooth jazz and the 1950s are palpable. It is the momentum and flavor of the 1950s that so indelibly marks this production that it inexorably takes the viewer back to the older world that spawned the 1950s. I couldn’t help but feel the presence of literary minds like Ayn Rand and Taylor Caldwell, the bustling and optimistic America of the late 1930s and 40s, and the big thinkers who didn’t mind engaging their dreams in extra large proportions.
It is truly astonishing that the island of Manhattan which is only two and a half miles wide and thirteen and half miles long seems so very much bigger than it really is. The Sweet Smell of Success is, in much the same way, far larger than its pleasing story line. Whatever you do in New York this year, take in a show and live a little.
About Sean O’Reilly:
Sean Joseph O’Reilly is the editor of many award-winning travel books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial new book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.