Saturday, April 10, 2010

#2: Burt Bacharach

So Cheryl and Alex and I saw Promises, Promises, which is an oldish (70s, I think) musical revived on Broadway, still in previews.

The book to the show is by Neil Simon, who (very unoriginally on my part, I admit) very well might be my favorite playwright; naturally, it is brilliant. The dialogue is both hilarious and incredibly dramatically compelling.

The actors are delightful.* The leading man, whose name I have forgotten, has a lovely voice and a nice enthusiasm; Kristin Chenowith as the other lead is as predictably brilliant as the book. I never get tired of her and that weird-but-so-gorgeous voice.

The problem with the show, of course, is that the music is by Burt Bacharach.** There's just no getting around that, is there? The opening number, "Half as Big as Life," is fun and well put together but a little repetitive and a little anticlimactic. Fine, I can live with one dud song - until I discover that every song in the show is the same dud song! What was going on? The orchestration always had this identical laid-back dun DUH... duh dun DUH going on; every song was the same tempo, had the same melodic background, might very well have been in the same key! (On that note, I'm not sure I heard a single internal key change. I mean, come on, I might complain about the kind of clumsy modulations both musical theatre and pop composers so frequently use as a substitute for creating genuine drama in a song, but at least they've got something going on! And for god's sake, the answer isn't just to leave out not only drama but key changes as well!) Even the tango was super-chill! I didn't know it was possible for a tango to be so boring. "Say a Little Prayer for You" had nothing to do with its context in the show*** -- but at least it didn't ruin the moment it inhabited, unlike virtually every other song (have I mentioned yet that Kristin Chenowith had three identical solo ballads about the same thing, none of which had any dramatic arc whatsoever? She gave 'em everything she had, but I swear, even Carol frickin' Channing couldn't have given those songs any personality. At least they sounded pretty. Not that Chenowith's astonishing range was used at all in this show. I don't think any of the songs encompassed more than about half an octave). The show got to be very predictable: The script would seize me and build me up to a peak of either hilarity or tragic suspense, and then the orchestra would come in and I would plummet back down (or, by the end, sideways into the entirely wrong kind of hilarity. Laughing doesn't count if you're laughing at the music). If I were Neil Simon, I would have knocked Bacharach a good one for ruining my work. This is one of the few musicals I have ever wished was a straight play.

Actually, I take it back. "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" is a great song and is totally appropriate for its moment in the show, and the way the leads sang it together, sort of awkwardly, reminds me of when Ellen Page and Michael Cera sing "Anyone Else But You" at the end of Juno, which is my favorite part of the movie, and anyway I love it. It arrived about three quarters of the way through the second act, and I thought to myself, "Aha! The second song in the show!"

The choreography was good, in that it was fully appropriate for the music and the time period; I can't say much more. The dancers were talented but clearly still working hard at sticking together; I fully expect, however, that they'll be on top of it by the time they get out of previews. The set was period-appropriate. Basically, the production as a whole was great.

The show is based on an old movie, The Apartment, which I enjoyed a couple years ago and which I'm kind of proud of myself for figuring out. Unfortunately, it turns into an attempt at a sort of conglomeration of The Apartment, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and Mad Men, and just falls so sadly short of all of them.

And that's about it!

P.S. I perhaps have not yet mentioned the song "Turkey Lurkey Time," which I would suggest was the pinnacle of the show's absurdity, and not in a good way. The title - and my snarky aside to Alex that it was the worst version of "Steam Heat" ever - I believe sufficiently explain the entire number, so I will leave it at that.

*I should mention that Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall was the most hilarious thing I have seen in years, and absolutely stole the show, despite being in only one and a half scenes, and I hope to see her in everything from now on.****

**Here's what the New York Times said about the show when it first appeared: "Though the work featured memorable dance sequences by a choreographer on the rise named Michael Bennett, what really set it apart was its score, written by the solid-gold pop composer Burt Bacharach with lyrics by Hal David. Mr. Bacharach introduced to Broadway not only the insistently rhythmic, commercial-jingle buoyancy of 1960's soft-core radio fare, but also a cinematic use of Teflon-smooth, offstage backup vocals." No wonder I hated it. Those are for sure the last musical characteristics I would have asked anyone to introduce to Broadway. Just sayin'.

***I just learned via Wikipedia after writing this review that "Say a Little Prayer" and also one of Chenowith's innumerable ballads, "A House is Not a Home," were added for this revival so that Chenowith would have more to sing. While I appreciate anything she sings, I have to say that that was a TERRIBLE CHOICE. Were two big boring anticlimactic attention-losing ballads not enough? And if they were putting in "Say a Little Prayer" (maybe as at attempt at something upbeat? Given that both the ballads and the upbeat songs were actually all the same tempo?), couldn't they at least have added a key change or two? I'm afraid I have to subtract production points for this, which I previously had production quality/casting/directing/etc. in a relatively top notch on Shoshana's Broadway Ladder of Approval. Too bad.

****Oh shit! She was Sally Bowles in the Cabaret revival not too long ago! I bet she was wonderful and I wish I had seen it! And she was in My Favorite Year! I think she's my favorite actor ever.


  1. we used to have sheet music for The Apartment.

  2. Add Sondheim to the list of very boring composers - their music I mean. I can't remember the name of the other boring composer. He also writes hit musicals and I do not get it .

  3. Mrs Seid, Andrew Lloyd Weber?
    Sho, The title of this post is #2. What is #1?

  4. It's #2 on the list of what I said I would address, #1 being gendered words. I realize that it is in fact somewhat misleading!
    I don't think Sondheim is boring, although I don't like him either, for complicated reasons that nonetheless do not preclude me being glad he writes musicals. Andrew Lloyd Weber is just super boring.

  5. Yes- Andrew Lloyd Weber it is. Why don't they write musicals anymore like South Pacific and Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma?

  6. The gentleman lead of Promises, Promises is the actor who protrayed the effeminate gay character in the television show Will and Grace.