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A Tale of Two Tryouts

Tony nominees 'Millie' and 'Sweet Smell of Success' have been changed--not always for the better


The phrase "out-of-town tryout" evokes images of a train chugging into Philly, Boston or Baltimore, loaded with show folk, most of them smoking. Over here, the writers rewrite like maniacs; over there, in the bar car, the composer engages in frantic discourse with the piano--did bar cars really have pianos?--while the dance director hammers out a new step surrounded by performers wondering if this musical's going to fly after all.

Tryouts no longer work that way, if, in fact, they ever resembled the Broadway mythology reinforced by movies like "42nd Street" and "The Band Wagon." Air travel lacks the glamour of train travel. The phrase "not-for-profit regional theater" doesn't sing like "out-of-town tryout." More and more Broadway-minded musicals begin their lives at a nonprofit stage a time zone or two away from Shubert Alley.

Even now, however, seeing a musical in its embryonic form remains one of show-going's great privileges. A tryout represents the start of something potentially big, perhaps even as large as last year's Chicago premiere of "The Producers."

We must remember, however, that "The Producers" does not happen every year. That much has been made clear by the current, dispiriting Broadway season.

Tonight, the 56th annual Tony Awards will put as happy a face as it can on the 2001-02 Broadway lineup.

Two of the most heavily nominated musicals--"Thoroughly Modern Millie," tonight's likely big winner (it has 11 nominations), and "Sweet Smell of Success" (seven nominations)--illustrate two markedly contrasting tryout tales. The moral of "Thoroughly Modern Millie": Do not throw the baby out with the rewrites. The moral of "Sweet Smell of Success": Don't be afraid to start over, or nearly.

"Thoroughly Modern Millie," based on the 1967 film, tried out in the fall of 2000 at the La Jolla Playhouse. I saw it there, then I saw the heavily revised edition last month in New York. And I have never seen a promising show go south so badly from tryout to Broadway.

In La Jolla, "Millie" had a relaxed comic spirit. Its silliness didn't feel leaden; it was buoyant. True, the show didn't yet have an ending, and the score was all over the place, veering from new material (by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Dick Scanlan) to songs from the film to period artifacts revised. But its problems were fixable.

Encouraged by the La Jolla reception, the creative team went to work and apparently couldn't stop from futzing with every single element, even the elements that worked. The Broadway "Millie" features eight new songs, as well as a greatly expanded, spanking new and plug-ugly design scheme, selling fantasy Futurist images of Manhattan. In the title tune, and the most fetching new ditty, "Forget About the Boy," the new orchestrations and arrangements sound labored, fussy and restless. The key changes come willy-nilly, and neither tune lands as well as it did in the tryout.

In story terms, the flapper Millie bends over backward to clarify what show people love to call the heroine's "journey." Now, Millie has a big moment in a new song ("Not for the Life of Me") early on, in which she gambles everything on little ol' New York by defiantly tearing up her one-way ticket back to Palookaville. The way Sutton Foster delivers it, it's the eat-'em-alive 11 o'clock number--and look at the time! It's only 8:13!

Right away you know something has happened to Foster's performance. By the time she tackles the actual 11 o'clock star solo, "Gimme Gimme," it's as if the song were called "Gimme Gimme Gimme That Tony." And if Foster wins one tonight, the Tony committee may have to consider changing "best actress" to "most actress."

What happened? Director Michael Mayer and company, I suspect, decided that in the wake of Sept. 11, the show really was about New York as fantasy island, the isle of dreams and reinvention--Oz, though an utterly charmless one.

Compared with "Millie," the saga of "Sweet Smell of Success" is more modest. In the wake of its indifferently received Chicago tryout, the show has improved somewhat. The musical, based on the incomparable 1957 film about a vicious gossip columnist and a barnacle of a press agent, now has a sharper opening number, one less egregious ballad for the overexposed young lovers, a less messy and more satisfying ending. These changes, by director Nicholas Hytner and his team, are all to the betterment of the show.

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