Thursday, July 29, 2004

Obscure Musicals: WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?

This show, which opened on Broadway in 1964 and ran over 500 performances (but lost money), already has an excellent background article available online. Read this article, part of the terrific What Makes Sammy Run? website, devoted to all the incarnations of Budd Schulberg's on-the-make, hustling anti-hero. The article tells most of what needs to be told about this show; I just want to mention a few other things.

First, What Makes Sammy Run? was one of several shows that followed in the wake of the success of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. With the smash success and Pulizer Prize victory of a musical comedy about an amoral schemer clawing his way to the top, other producers thought it was time to adapt various older stories about, well, amoral schemers clawing their way to the top. David Merrick produced I Can Get it For You Wholesale, adapted by Jerome Weidman from his own novel; this was a fine show (which I'll write about some other time) mostly remembered today for introducing Barbra Streisand. And producer Joe Cates unveiled What Makes Sammy Run? adapted by Budd Schulberg from his own novel (he co-wrote the script with his brother Stuart). The problem with these shows, as compared to How to Succeed, is that that show was a cartoon, a spoof; Wholesale and Sammy were adapted from more serious stories and dealt with characters who really hurt other people in their rise to the top. Lehman Engel, the conductor for What Makes Sammy Run, wrote about how unpleasant it was to follow Sammy's adventures for an entire evening:

Sammy Glick goes after everything with hammer and tongs, and the sight we see is neither pretty, unexpected, nor entertaining, and nothing is added to whet our interest along the way. He is an unstoppable steamroller. Then, too, What Makes Sammy Run? is thin for the stage... There was no attempt made to remedy this by creation of a real subplot, and so we were stuck for a full evening with people we didn't care about and a far too familiar situation.

I think that's about right; and I don't usually agree with Engel's evaluations of shows (but that's another story). Schulberg's novel is very effective and Sammy is a character who continues to fascinate and infuriate people -- but the story of the novel doesn't have all that much to it; it's basically Sammy knocking down one person after another to get to the top, until he finally meets one person (Laurette, the boss's daughter) who knocks him down, and he gets his comeuppance but good. There's not an evening's worth of story in there, nor in Schulberg's observations about Hollywood, which were sort of worn out by 1964. And one of the themes of the novel -- that Sammy's rise to power is a metaphor for the rise of fascism -- is inexplicably retained in the musical (Al explicitly compares Sammy to Hitler, and Sammy even-handedly replies that Hitler stole from his playbook); if it was slightly offensive in 1941 to compare a Hollywood con artist to Hitler, in 1964 it's not so much offensive as boring and silly.

There might have been more of a story if Schulberg could have turned the good guy, Al Manheim, into a sufficiently interesting character, a guy we could cheer for while recoiling from Sammy; but Al is even more of a nothing in the show than in the book; like many observer-narrators in novels (think Nick in The Great Gatsby) he seems pointless when the story is adapted to a medium that doesn't require a narrator. Speaking of which, you can see signs of the amount of hasty rewriting the show underwent in the fact that Al starts out narrating the show, as he did the book, only to drop the device partway through the first act (the show briefly returns to this device at the beginning of act 2, then drops it again).

The choice for Sammy Glick was Steve Lawrence. Yes, of Steve and Eydie infamy. But whatever you think of their wholesome lounge-lizard act, you've got to admit that both were and are extremely talented entertainers. In fact they were exactly the kind of performers for whom, in Broadway days gone by many stage and film musicals would have been written. But this was the '60s, and the age of the star vehicle was already nearly over; Lawrence would only do one more musical after Sammy -- Golden Rainbow, co-starring with Eydie Gorme. It was his effectiveness as a performer that kept Sammy running for as long as it did.

The rest of the cast was equally good: Robert Alda (the original Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls) as Al Manheim; Sally Ann Howes as Kit, the designated love interest, and Bernice Massi as Laurette; she was generally agreed to be the best thing in the show, apart from Lawrence (in part because the bitchy Laurette gets most of the best lines in the script).

The website states that Ervin Drake's score "contained some of the best theatre music of the period," which is overstating things rather a lot. Drake was a pretty good pop songwriter, one of the last of the successful non-rock pop songwriters. His most famous credit is the Frank Sinatra song "It Was a Very Good Year." His score for Sammy definitely sounds like the work of a pop writer making his first try at theatre writing. The songs are all integrated into the action and appropriate for the characters, but the sound is not that of the period in which the show is set, nor of '60s Broadway, but of early-'60s, Vegas, TV-special pop music. "A Room Without Windows," which became a hit for Lawrence, is a generic pop song about Getting Away From It All, dressed up in an orchestral arrangement that features all the standard lounge-act sounds, including a flute obbligato to pep up the second refrain. "The Friendliest Thing," which Laurette sings while seducing Sammy and which has become the show's most enduringly popular song, is a great example of the easygoing, wholesomely sleazy ballad, ambling along to a melody built almost entirely out of a single phrase. These songs are good, but they don't sound like theatre pieces; they sound like specialty spots.

"My Home Town," Lawrence's other hit song, is a nice example of how a pop song can work in and out of context; out of context, it's just a charming song about how the singer feels at home in a city he's just moved to; in context, it features Sammy turning on the charm (to impress a character he will use and eventually destroy) while obliquely making the point that Hollywood is the true "home town" for creeps like Sammy. This is good theatre songwriting, one of the last essays in the great Broadway tradition of fusing theatre and pop into one; so is the final song, which all the critics called attention to, "Some Days Everything Goes Wrong," where Sammy proclaims his determination to keep on running; so is the duet for Sammy and Laurette, "You're No Good," a sort of Satanic bossa nova. Alda also got a good ballad, "Maybe Some Other Time."

But mixed in with the good stuff are too many duds. Some of these may have arisen from the necessity to write for Steve Lawrence's specialties; "Lights! Camera! Platitude!" is an overlong and lame and not even very accurate sendup of Hollywood cliches, but it gave Lawrence (and Howes and Alda) a chance to do some clowning around. But there are other songs that fit in with the plot and the proposed dark tone of the show, and are just bad. Someone once selected "You Help Me" as the worst lyric in Broadway history; it isn't, but it's definitely stupid, an attempt to write a Cole Porter list song without caring whether the list makes any sense (this is sung by Al, sarcastically responding to Sammy's statement that he was trying to "help"):

You help me
Just like Oedipus helped Rex.
You help me
Just like Oscar Wilde helped sex.
Like a snake helps baby birds back to her nest,
Like it helps to find a gun when you're depressed,
Like it helps a girl to flunk her rabbit test,
Like gifts that tick,
Like arsenic,
Like that -- (gestures as if cutting his throat)
That's how you help me.

Uh... yeah. All of Kit's solos are pretty dull too, with equally clumsy lyrics ("I'm your only raison d'etre / To love and honor, et cet'ra"). With only half a good score and only half a story, it's no wonder that Abe Burrows, called in to direct (and punch up the book) felt a need to distract the audience with jokes and staging tricks -- one of the good songs, "I Feel Humble," climaxes with the entire stage being plunged into darkness, followed by a spotlight picking out Sammy, who completes the number. Without Burrows, and Lawrence, I don't think this show would have run a few months, let alone a year.

Drake wrote one other show, Her First Roman, a disastrous musical adaptation of Caesar and Cleopatra (proving yet again that adapting Shaw into a musical can work once and only once). The score was another mixture of the good and awful, but the good stuff wasn't as good as in Sammy. The cast album of Sammy was recorded by Columbia, but Lawrence owns the rights; unfortunately, he somehow lost the stereo tapes, with the result that his website offers the cast album only in mono. If you can find a used stereo LP for a decent price, it's worth a listen, for the good parts.


Anonymous said...

Get a load of this person who calls Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme "lounge lizards", labels their work as "infamy", acts as though there's widespread support for that opinion ("But whatever you think of their wholesome lounge-lizard act...") and finishes them off with a grudging left-handed "compliment" about how we've "got to admit" that Steve and Eydie are talented!

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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