So I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweet Charity lately, and started before The New Group made its surprising announcement that it will revive it in a small off-Broadway theatre with one of musical theatre’s biggest stars, Sutton Foster. Why off-Broadway? Foster has a lot of fans, and the show’s a big star vehicle, one that doesn’t obviously lend itself to a small presentation. I musical directed a production many years ago, where a large company danced on a stage that had been constructed on top of a swimming pool, in a Broadway house, no less. Weird, sure, but less weird than the New tiny theatre idea.
No, the reason I’ve been thinking about Sweet Charity is because a couple dozen friends of mine are doing it. Their performances are coinciding with the Los Angeles shows of my revue, The Things We Do For Love, so, I, alas, must miss it. My musing about my favorite tart-with-heart musical shouldn’t be construed as me telling them all how to do it. They’re capable people in capable hands.
There’s a story about how Sweet Charity got its book writer that I dearly love. It involves carrying a really large tape recorder to Italy. Why really large? Well, this was more than fifty years ago, and there was no such thing as a small tape recorder. It was a big reel-to-reel player, and you had to thread the tape through, kind of like with a movie projector. But if you’re old enough to remember threading a movie projector, you might be old enough to remember reel to reels and if you’re not I’m just speaking Greek.
Where was I? Oh, Italy. Neil Simon had written a movie and it was shooting there. The married couple traveling all the way to see him was Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. They’d been working on a musicalization of a coincidentally Italian film, Nights of Cabiria and wanted to convince Simon to do the book. At this point, they had a bunch of songs by Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, along with choreographic ideas about how they’d be staged. Bob & Gwen set up that machine, played the songs as Gwen performed some of the steps and Bob described what the audience would see. Simon knew Nights of Cabiria and now he was being presented with something no writer has ever been presented with: a fully-realized show that merely needed some funny dialogue to lead from fantastic number to fantastic number. Or that’s how it seemed at the time. Later, of course, further structuring was needed. What convinced Simon to join wasn’t the ease of the assignment, it was the fabulousness of the numbers: a club scene with rows of dancers holding their fists as if they were sparring with punching bags, a moment so exciting for the protagonist that a marching band in uniform appears out of nowhere, the aspirations of three down-on-their-luck females expressed as a fiery rooftop dance, the dead-eyed look of rent-a-dancers confronting yet another set of customers.
To fully appreciate that last one, Big Spender, check out an obscure early Stanley Kubrick film called Killer’s Kiss. It’s a black-and-white from the fifties, filmed on location in Times Square. The camera follows the characters up the stairs over a store and there’s a room where strangers dance with a cashier booth. Lonely men in suits buy a ticket, give it to a “professional” dancer, and then get to hold them tight as at least one pair of feet moves to the music. Now, we jaded moderns take the whole scene as a stand-in for sex with prostitutes. But not every rent-a-pas-de-deux led to a “happy ending.” Take the scene at face value, and the city is crawling with men so lonely, they long to have any sort of physical contact with a young woman.
The inherent sadness subtly pervades Sweet Charity. Yes, men seek sex. But some men are desperate for the less salacious touch you find on a dance floor. And, most extraordinary of all, there’s a girl on that floor who wants love and marriage and to get the hell out of that life. Pre-feminism, it seems to her that her options are few. Explicitly, she’s told she couldn’t be a secretary or even a hat check girl, and the pair that can envision themselves in those careers goes on to mock Charity’s dreams. The idea that she can marry her way out of the sordid life she lives has a certain logic to it – what else can she do? – and her middle name is Hope.
We invest, emotionally, in Charity’s dream. We want her to marry that respectable fellow (the second Neil Simon character named Oscar). To me, this pulling for the heroine is the most important component in Sweet Charity’s success. Yes, there are tons of fabulous Fosse production numbers, Doc Simon punchlines and the sexiness of the milieu, but caring for the character trumps all.
Dorothy Fields’ lyrics do most of the work here. They may be as good a set of lyrics as were ever written, filled with slang expressions that are so particular, they just feel right. “Tonight I landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam.” I don’t think any other lyricist could have come up with that, and there were doubts, when she took on the project, that a sweet and respectable little old Jewish lady could write for contemporary urban bar-girls. “Let me get right to the point: I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.”
But they do, you know. People misinterpret Big Spender as merely a song in which women get to be sexy. As staged by Bob Fosse (repeated in his debut film), it’s more about the boredom of having to sing this feigned come-on night after night.
It’s been fifty years since the show premiered, and sexual politics have altered so much, it can be hard to recall that many musicals had fun with the idea that some women have such shapely bodies, men’s knees turn to jelly. This was very much at the center of the previous Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Bob Fosse collaboration, Little Me, which used a different female lyricist, Carolyn Leigh. That played the concept for laughs. Here Charity is said to be built for everything but talking, a line that doesn’t quite tickle my funny bone, but sure tugs at my heartstrings.
See what I mean for free at Circle in the Square, 50th between Broadway & 8th, June 12 & 13. 8pm both nights and also a 2pm matinee on Monday, the 13th. Just walk in the joint and grab a seat, no ticket required.