When I moved to New York in February, I was thrilled to learn that one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history, Moose Murders, would be receiving its first New York revival off-off-Broadway. I excitedly bought my ticket and headed down to Alphabet City (OMG just like in Rent!) to the theater, which looked a little like the rec hall at the Sharon Community Center where I made my community theater debut as the Munchkin Coroner in a suburban Massachusetts production of The Wizard of Oz when I was seven years old. Before I left the theater, I tweeted:
Revelation of the night: "Off-off Broadway" is NY for "community theater."
— David Levy (@itsdlevy) February 6, 2013
All of this serves as a preamble to today’s column, which is about my trip last week to see another notorious ’80s-era flop, Smile, which just concluded a run off-off-Broadway in a concert staging by the Musicals Tonight company. There are, at most, five reasons why anyone cares about Smile nearly thirty years after it played Broadway for just over a month:
- The book, lyrics, and direction were all by Howard Ashman, making his Broadway debut after the tremendous success of Little Shop of Horrors, which happened to be hitting movie theaters just as Smile hit Broadway.
- The music was by hitmaker Marvin Hamlisch, returning to Broadway for the first time after the one-two punch of A Chorus Line and They’re Playing Our Song. At the time, A Chorus Line was the longest-running Broadway show in history.
- It was based on a well-regarded movie, also called Smile, directed by Michael Ritchie. The film shows up on Netflix (and, I imagine, cable television, if you still have that) every so often. It plays like a not-quite-as-outrageous first draft of Drop Dead Gorgeous, and the cast features Bruce Dern, Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole, and choreographer Mike Todd. It was well-reviewed but not all that popular when it debuted. It has achieved something of a cult status.
- The song “Disneyland,” from this score, rivals “Meadowlark” as one of the most overused audition and cabaret songs among ingenues. And although “Disneyland” is the only number from the score that seems to have taken root outside of the show, most of the score is very good.
- That song was introduced by Jodi Benson, who starred in Smile on Broadway, and would go on to make her name in Ashman’s next hit as the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
Here’s why it failed:
- The book is terrible.
- Me and My Girl opened the same season.
- Les Miserables opened the same season.
You may not remember Me and My Girl, a forgotten British musical of the 1930s that came to Broadway for the first time in the 80s and caused a sensation — largely due to Robert Lindsay’s star turn. It was a runaway smash. (Trust me.) And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about Les Mis.
Now, plenty of shows with great scores have been rescued from terrible books with some time and revision: Candide and Merrily We Roll Along are probably the most famous examples. But the problems Smile faces seem particularly unfixable given that the writers are no longer with us (despite the example set by No, No, Nanette).
First, there’s the problem of too many characters. Like last season’s Hands on a Hardbody, Smile attempts to give us a handful of beauty pageant competitors to care about, plus another handful of folks backstage. It’s hard to know who’s story is being told, whom to root for, or occasionally even where to look. Are the adults heroes, villains, or supporting characters? We’re not even sure by the end of the show. How many of the girls are we supposed to care about? Well, two of them have actual personalities; one is a racist caricature, and another is a caricature of a racist… and there’s still a dozen more who have moments, but not real stories. Robin, one of the two girls we’re meant to root for, doesn’t want to be in the pageant, isn’t sure why she’s at the pageant, and earns our affection mostly by being less horrible than the rest of the girls. You sort of wish Bobby’s friends from Company would appear and beg her to want something – want something!
All of this is to say that the experience of seeing the notch-above-community-theater production of the show on stage at The Lion last week wasn’t exactly thrilling.
Thankfully, as with most shows that have ended their time on the Great White Way, Smile does live on through its songs. The challenge with this group of songs is that the writers (and from what I understand, Hamlisch in particular) were so stung by its failure that wouldn’t allow the songs to be recorded for a long time. Sure, “Disneyland” became a cabaret standard, but the rest of the score quickly faded into obscurity, except for some bootlegs passed around among collectors.
Following the show’s closing on Broadway, the writers revised it one more time, creating a slightly less dark version for licensing purposes; this is what’s playing off-off-Broadway right now. A recording of this version of the score, featuring many members of the Broadway cast, was made specifically so interested theater companies could hear the score, but it was not released commercially. In 2008, PS Classics put out an album called Howard Sings Ashman, a collection of song demos recorded throughout the writer’s career. The album was a two-disc set, with the second CD containing the entire score of Smile performed by its authors. While it may not be as fun to listen to as a full cast recording, it’s the closest we’re likely to get. If you’re a fan of Ashman’s work — and between Little Shop, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, who isn’t? — it’s worth purchasing.
(Four songs from the score had been previously recorded on Bruce Kimmel’s Unsung Musicals series, featuring a full orchestra and appropriate casting, although the arrangements and orchestrations were not those from the show. Those albums are unfortunately out of print today, but easy to find wherever fine used showtunes albums are sold. Additionally, two songs from a previous attempt by Hamlisch to musicalize Smile, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, can be heard on Sara Zahn’s exceptional album Witchcraft: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh. I’m not sure why Leigh left the project. It’s likely that her songs were considered too dark for Broadway. But today, they sound spot-on, making me wish someone could create a new version of the show using material from both lyricists.)
One small bit of trivia to close off our rather rambling exploration of Smile that will also tie us into the next installment of Remedial Queens. In 1985, Hamlisch and Ashman approached Bob Fosse about directing and choreographing Smile. Fosse demurred, but Ashman recorded the meeting, and PS Classics posted a transcript to their website when they were promoting the Howard Sings Ashman album. It’s fascinating. Then again, there’s little about Fosse that wasn’t fascinating, as Sam Wasson discovered when he set out to write a new Fosse biography. That book is about to arrive on shelves — all 700 pages of it. Tune in next time for a review!