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September 19, 2017

Getting the Dirt on Sweet Smell of Success


We New Liners all fell in love with Sweet Smell of Success as we worked on it, as it was truly a privilege to work on material this strong.

I notice that when we talk about it to other people, the first thing we talk about is the sizzling hot jazz music by the great Marvin Hamlisch, and we also talk about playwright John Guare’s script, which our music director called “the wittiest and wickedest” script he’d ever worked on.

After all, the source material, both the short story and the film, are so rich and so well-crafted, and then the stage musical builds on that with more superb writing — and, not incidentally, twice as much story, since the film and original story are Act II in the musical. The story of Act I is entirely new backstory that is, again, masterfully constructed.

However, we often forget to mention Craig Carnelia’s amazing, acrobatic, smart-ass lyrics, which are every bit as rich and impressive as the show’s other elements. As just one example out of many, let’s look at a lyric from the song “Dirt,” which is in the middle of Act II as the story takes a short breather before a roller-coaster final twenty minutes. During this breather, the leads all vacate the stage, and the ensemble talks directly to us.

Strike that. The ensemble talks for us. They explain why it is that sixty million Americans read J.J.’s nasty gossip column every morning. But aside from the rich, insightful content here, and the awesomely smug perspective, the actual construction of this lyric is worth a look.

It’s worth noting that the script often refers to the ensemble as press agents, “whisperers” (i.e. Greek chorus), and other things. But here, there’s no label; they’re just “ensemble.” They’re outside the story for a moment. They are our stand-ins. Brecht would’ve loved it.

But it’s even more than that. The actors in the ensemble play multiple characters throughout the show. This time, they’re playing us. They’re playing the people who read the gossip columns in 1952 and the people who consume the equivalent material today. The song starts with a chant… Notice anything odd about it?:

Feel the heat
On the street;
Can you feel it?
Gonna gonna be,
Gonna gonna be good…
Feel it comin’…
Yes, yeah,
Good, uh-huh,
Hot, hot, hot…

Yes, gossip is as good as sex for these folks. For us. Notice how short the phrases are. As the gossip-orgasm builds, the ideas get simpler, devolving from “Feel the heat on the street,” to the more vague “Gonna be good,” all the way down to single syllables. And the alliteration of “Gonna gonna be, gonna gonna be good” gives it percussion. At the end of this section the lyric and the rhythm unmistakably mimic the rhythm of sex. Then the music explode…in a gossip-orgasm…?

Gimme what I’m hungry for:
The one thing that’s never a bore…!
It’s the reason I read.
It’s an animal need.
I don’t pick up the paper
For the sports or the news;
Those ain’t
The sport
That I choose.

You’ve gotta love the assumption that gossip is just a healthy pastime, like football or baseball. Also notice the great alliteration in “reason I read” and “pick up the paper,” and the repetition of the “th” sound in Those / The / That in the last three lines. This is really well-crafted. They go on:

With my bacon and eggs.
They go together like a skirt,
And a nice pair of legs.

Notice the assumed sexism which was (along with homophobia) a big driver of gossip when this was written. We know they’re not talking about men’s legs. Also notice that in the third line of this verse, there’s a full phrase where there was only the repeated single word “Dirt” in that place in the previous verse. It’s a wonderful way to use traditional song form — audiences need clear signposts, like verses and choruses, in their songs — but also to play around within those forms. It’s a cool surprise, and it underlines the casually sexist rhyme.

But it’s not just the abstract dirt — celebrity gossip — that we love; it’s the physical dirt, the tactile experience of holding newsprint, the turning of a page to find something unexpected, something many people are mourning today as we move into a digital world. It’s the whole experience.

Got the ink on my fingers,
Got the smudge of a smear.
Oh my!
What dirt
We got here!

Again, notice that the more emotional they get, the shorter and simpler their sentences get. We have the close repetition of the sounds in “ink” and “fingers,” and the almost onomatopoeic alliteration of “smudge of a smear” — it almost sounds like ink smearing.

Having now explained their appetites, they give us an example. Here’s the dirt they love so much. It’s like a soap opera, but it’s real.

Dallas is a doper,
Dallas is a red;
Susie’s gonna leave him flat.
Dallas used to grope ‘er,
They were gonna wed;
Look out, look out! Splat!

Notice how many assumptions these strangers make about Susan and Dallas, knowing nothing more than what they read in the gossip columns. And the music tells us how much these folks love that Dallas is a drug addict and a commie.

Schadenfreude in the first degree.

Of course, Dallas is neither. These folks know how nasty their impulses are, they know objectively that people deserve privacy, they know that the gossip columnists can destroy people’s careers, but…

Kinda makes you feel bad.
But don’t the public have a right to know,
Like our forefathers had?
It’s in the constitution!
Call a commie a commie,
Give his reefer a light;
Dallas is dirt
In black and white.

If it weren’t true, they wouldn’t print it in the paper, would they? Notice the third line rhymes with the first, but again it’s extended. Also, up until now, dirt meant gossip in this song, but now “Dallas is dirt…” People are dirt too. They’re ink. They are whatever J.J. Hunsecker says they are. For sixty million readers, there’s no larger reality here beyond the items in the columns.

Then the ensemble watches as some poor schmuck (Dallas in the script, but it could be anyone — no one is safe) picks up a paper and finds themself in it. Our stand-ins can barely contain their salacious delight:

There he is!
This is it!
Go on over and see what the paper says!
You could sit
For a bit;
Later on you can read it to Susie in bed.
Man, you’re already dead,
Don’t you know?

Watchin’ them rise is a ball,
But nothin’s as sweet as the fall…

And that’s the crux of it. Schadenfreude. Misery loves company. And then the music bursts forth in a jazz version of a primal scream:

Got a hunger to feed,
Got a hunger and a thirst,
Gimme, gimme some dirt,
Take me down in the dirt!
It’s an animal need!
Give it to me in the First

It’s so primal, so animal. It’s not a choice; it’s an addiction. Or are they vampires? But as aggressive and fierce as this lyric is, it doesn’t negate the beautiful cons
truction. Break the verse above into two four-line stanzas, and you can see the rhyme scheme. The first lines both end with “dirt,” though the second time the line is extend, like it was earlier. The second lines rhyme (feed and need), and the third lines rhyme (thirst and First). The fourth lines don’t rhyme, for a reason: the surprise of no rhyme mirrors the surprise of starting the phrase with more sexual imagery (“Give it to me in the…”) and ending it with the Constitution.

Carnelia brings it all home with a trick Sondheim often uses: creating the feeling of building momentum by increasing the rhyming, especially by making a whole stanza rhyme (think of the end of “On the Steps of the Palace”). “Dirt” ends with a Big Finish musically, a great string of rhymes, some alliteration (“whole who’s-who,” “give me / get me”), but also the most disturbing content of the entire song:

Give me something that can get me through,
Something dirty on the whole who’s-who
And keep this in mind as you do:
It don’t have to be true…
Don’t have to be true…
Don’t have to be true…

This is the language of addiction. The more of it you get, the more of it you want. And remember, the ensemble is standing in for us. That’s us telling the columnists that we don’t really care if what we read is true or not, as long as it’s juicy, as long as we get our fix. These are your friends on Facebook sharing a nasty article about a politician they hate, without bothering to check if it’s true or not. It don’t have to be true…

What’s fun about this song is how it places this whole ugly story right in our laps. We give J.J. power. At the same time, this song is a five-course meal for your ears; such brittle, jittery jazz matched to such fun rhyme and alliteration, and all in the service of really insightful social commentary.

The whole show is this rich. It was a real joy working on it.

To purchase a copy of The Sweet Smell of Success click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.