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“Yes, of course, yes!” Those are the words with which Clive Barnes, then The New York Times theater critic, greeted Promises, Promises the day after it opened on Broadway.
It was 1968, and the Broadway musical in general was in big trouble. Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll were transforming the culture, but Broadway was still living in the 1940s and ’50s, singing old-fashioned songs and telling old-fashioned stories. True, Hair had arrived earlier in the year. But it was an anomaly. So it’s little wonder that Barnes and other critics went wild for this musical version of The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning film of eight years before.
With an unabashedly pop score by Top 40 tunesmiths Burt Bacharach and Hal David—“rock for over-30s” one critic called it—a tart, bracing book by the hit machine Neil Simon, and a series of coolly effective dance numbers by the up-and-coming choreographer Michael Bennett, Promises, Promises struck observers as the very model of the modern Broadway musical.
Part of what made it seem so fresh and up to the minute was its raffish, blithely jaundiced take on America’s business culture. The nebbishy hero, C. C. Baxter, ascends to the executive suite by letting married superiors use his apartment for their trysts with office secretaries. The idea that a woman could someday run the company would be laughed out of the office. But the bygone circumstances and outdated attitudes that permeate Promises, Promises seem current once again thanks to a certain hit television series. “If someone wanted to make a musical of Mad Men,” says Rob Ashford, “it would be Promises, Promises.”
Ashford, who earned his Equity card (and fell in love with the score) dancing in a production of Promises, Promises at the famed outdoor Muny theater in St. Louis in the early ’80s, is now director/choreographer of the revival with Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes in the lead roles. Unlike the original, which all but screamed 1968, this production sets the clock back to the period depicted in the 1960 movie. So Ashford decided the twist would be the impetus for his choreography. “There’s no twisting in the show at all,” he says. “But the twist explains so much about how people used their bodies then, about the physical life of the characters.”
While the production is staying true to the movie, it’s not entirely faithful to the original musical. One of the great hits from the Bacharach songbook, “I Say a Little Prayer,” has been added to the score to give Chenoweth more singing time. And to add more dancing time, the overture is now the occasion for an elaborate production number—one of five in the show—that sets the tone for the relationships in the insurance office.
Even without a big opening dance number, the choreography Bennett devised for the original production has become the stuff of legend. He came to Promises, Promises with two Broadway shows under his belt, the flops A Joyful Noise and Henry, Sweet Henry, and two Tony nominations. For Promises, which would earn him his third, he pulled out all the stops. In “Turkey Lurkey Time,” created to close the first act on a high note, Donna McKechnie led the ensemble in a frenzied office party dance—Barnes likened her to “a steam hammer in heat.” Broadway folklore maintains that the “Turkey Lurkey” head snaps kept local chiropractors happy throughout the show’s two-and-a-half-year run.
Ashford, who won a Tony for his choreography in Thoroughly Modern Millie and a Fred and Adele Astaire Award for his work in Cry-Baby, says he doesn’t lose sleep over following in the footsteps of the man who created A Chorus Line. Even when he’s preparing a new show, he avoids going to musicals or watching dance. He doesn’t want to risk seeing “images that stick in your head,” he says. “There’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to know.”
As for re-choreographing Promises, Promises, he’s both respectful of the Bennett legacy and firm about distancing himself from it. “I’m a huge Michael Bennett fan,” he says. “He was amazing. But I don’t think about that. Maybe because I’ve done a lot of new musicals, and I’m used to starting from zero, I just try to think of the show as if it’s brand new.” Then he adds, “Storytelling and choreography have changed a lot over the last 42 years.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Photo of Ashford in rehearsal by Joan Marcus