I Have a Story, Therefore I Am

MUSICAL THEATRE: THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, book by John Guare, Lyrics by Craig Carnelia, Music by Marvin Hamlish, presented by the Royal Academy Musical Theatre Company, Thursday, 28th June, 7.00pm

This is kind of a nest of Russian dolls of a show: book by John Guare (he of Six Degrees of Separation) based on a story which became a screenplay (or was it the other way around?) by Earnest Lehman (who wrote screenplays for everything from The King and I to Portnoy’s Complaint) and the screenplay (whether before the short story or after) was in collaboration with Clifford Odets, that great 30s playwright of the Left, in a way America’s conscience, writing, amongst other heartbreakers, Waiting for Lefty, about the struggle to organise amongst cab-drivers in New York, and all this, including Earnest Lehman’s own experiences writing press releases for questionable entertainments early in his career, is nested inside that great work of corruption in the newspaper world, Lost Illusions by Balzac, the first and maybe the last word on whether “I have a story, therefore I am” is a gentle beginning to an inevitable descent into perdition.

There’s the idea that America is the Garden of Eden, a return to a prelapsarian state, an ‘everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds’ world in which all people and actions are fundamentally good and there will be, come what may, a happy ending. Or there is Balzac, French, a revolutionary, in so many ways aligned with the American idea of revolution, a Napoleon of the novel, fighting campaign after campaign, heaping exaggeration on hyperbole, working to reveal a fundamental inhumanity, the original sin present in every single tiny detail of human existence. No matter how pure your motives, how true your intentions, beneath it all lies evil, inescapable, undeniable.

What’s always surprising is finding this revolutionary spirit, this essential paradox, nested within mainstream American entertainment. Earnest Lehman was an inspiration to the generation of scriptwriters who followed him, the generation responsible for those great Hollywood movies of the 60s and 70s, inspirational because he could somehow channel entertainment into something much darker, much more critical, much more nuanced. Who would have ever thought that Marvin Hamlish, he of ‘I’m Playing Your Song’, would be involved in a show like this?

And who would have thought that I would see, in the space of a couple of weeks, in a theatre of what can only be called luxurious ambiance, nested in Marylebone, that capital of the very expensive glass of wine, two musicals, this and Working (the common denominator is intriguingly mysterious Craig Carnelia, lyricist and sometime composer) both so fundamentally critical of a certain pervasive worldview, that wealth and success equal moral superiority.

And these shows don’t produce themselves. It’s not an accident that the nuance, the critical facility is so clear, that the paradox of the dark and the light so well defined. It’s tempting to think of these students in their own prelapsarian state of perfection before they must inevitably enter the fallen world of the West End musical, when their undeniable talent and facility seem to suggest the possibility of something so much more important, so much more urgent.

Paul Corcoran