The best things about "Nick & Nora" are one backdrop, a performance or two and, to quote a lyric Richard Maltby Jr. wrote for another Broadway musical, "a song played on a solo saxophone."
None of these, of course, is enough to warrant sitting through the three hours "Nick & Nora" takes to tell its joyless tale. But at least these elements had something to do with why anyone would want to see a musical based on Nick and Nora in the first place.
The movies that starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles were great exercises in style. There was a strong element of fantasy in these urban sophisticates - and their wire-haired terrier Asta - solving murders between witticisms and martinis.
There was a fantasy element in all gumshoe pictures. Even the ones peopled with tough mugs were explorations of Grimm-like landscapes. You went into weird corners - generally in that weirdest of cities, Los Angeles - and met bizarre characters, who, like the gremlins or vengeful witches that knights errant met in dark woods, gave you clues that helped you solve a mystery.
The implication was that the world, for all its strangeness, had a unity that, with a little bit of help, you and your dog could figure out. It was reassuring and, with Powell and Loy, exhilarating.
None of the above applies to Arthur Laurents' reworking His Nick and Nora are having marital problems. Nora wants to do some sleuthing on her own, a feminist 50 years before her time. Nick is fairly lifeless because he is more attached to the bottle than he is to either Nora or detective work. Had the show been updated, these contemporary takes on the characters might seem interesting. Here they just add to the general dreariness.
Worse, this Nick and Nora are sexless. In the bad old days of the Hollywood Code, when explicit sex and even sexual language was taboo, libidinal energy lurked in every witty exchange, every knowing glance. In this version sex comes up a lot, but always as camp.
The mystery itself is so contrived that even if Humphrey Bogart had been resuscitated to solve it, no one would care.
As for the saxophone, its occasional emanations from the orchestral pit are all that link "Nick & Nora" with the melancholy world of film noir. Similarly, Douglas Schmidt has designed one backdrop of L.A. at sunset that evokes the romance of that city in its prime.
Nothing else about the material works. Charles Strouse's score is brittle and slender. Richard Maltby Jr.'s lyrics are more coherent than they are for "Miss Saigon," but they rarely add interest to Laurents' charmless, zestless book.
None of this gives the actors much to work with. Joanna Gleason, who plays Nora, Christine Baranski, who plays a college chum in trouble, and Debra Monk, who plays a jealous wife, are three of the funniest actresses in New York. You would never know it by anything they can do here.
Barry Bostwick showed what a dashing musical performer he could be 15 years ago in "The Robber Bridegroom," but as Nick, he's sluggish and subdued. It's as if he were addicted to tranquilizers rather than alcohol, which made the original Nick glow.
Remak Ramsey, Michael Lombard, Jeff Brooks and Kip Niven do well in mechanically written parts. Chris Sarandon sings with a certain style, but the character he plays is so tiresome none of his efforts pay off.
The most enjoyable performance of the evening is Faith Prince as the murder victim. The role is pure camp, but she does it with great savvy.
I'm afraid I must carp even at Riley, the dog who plays Asta. He does his tricks perfectly on cue, but he has none of the canine je ne sais quoi that made you look forward to every entrance of, say, Sandy. But that's true of the whole show. It does its tricks on cue. It has no character.
Well, we all knew, or at least shrewdly guessed, that the new (or perhaps, by now, newish might be apter) musical "Nick & Nora" would one day open at the Marquis Theater. It was a long time a-borning, but its day finally came last night.
The smart thing to say about this long-delayed musical by Arthur Laurents (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) would be that it needs work. But it doesn't need work - it needs rethinking from the top up to the bottom down. For what we have here is a bad idea turned sour, although there are one or two incidental sweetnesses along the way, littering its path like primroses.
First for the idea - and the problem. The concept was to make a musical, based on those martini-swilling, marital-bickering and utterly charming sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, as first envisioned by novelist Dashiell Hammett and later enveloped in video immortality by William Powell and Myrna Loy, in a movie series misleadingly named after "The Thin Man," which God preserve and thus so far has.
The bad idea apparently came to two young men, James Pentecost and Charles Suisman, who are now well out of it. The big problem came for Arthur Laurents, who is still deeply in it.
Laurents obviously loved the Hammett characters (and who with any sensibility doesn't?) and decided, reasonably enough, to write a totally new play around them, inviting Strouse and Maltby to provide incidental music. So, by way of some innovation, this is not a musical. It is a "bookical" - a book with songs rather than a songbook.
Next he avoided the actual themes of any of "The Thin Man" novels or movies, coming up with a personal mix somewhere between a paradigm and a parody, keeping to the spirit while abandoning the letter. Smart. Perhaps.
Thus we have a Hammett "Thin Man" script that Hammett and his film writers never wrote - trying, generally unsuccessfully, to maintain the tone of bantering hard-boiled wit, yet having better luck with the narrative structure and details. These are true to type - from such twists as the suspect with a secret love life ("The Thin Man") to the sleuths' pet dog Asta digging up a special clue ("Another Thin Man"), to the complete roundup of suspects for the final revelation of guilt which is common to the genre and special to the series.
The trouble is that throughout this whole complex web of crime and possible punishment, of clues and deduction, I found myself unable to give a damn. Meanwhile, Laurents was going purple in the face both as writer and director (for he functions in both capacities) to entertain us - with three Rashomon-style accounts of the actual murder, a little ballet of suspects, and a conga finale in a nightclub with one of them performing her Miranda rites in a little song called "Boom Chicka Boom."
The story is set in Hollywood (a first for Nick and Nora, who previously only haunted San Francisco and New York) which raises dangerously unfortunate comparisons with the season before last's "City of Angels." That joyous pastiche of the private eye film noir made its own rules and kept to them.
Laurents' "Nick & Nora," while also an exercise in style, has no style to call its own. Mind you, it is stylish. Stylish in details - the modish 1937 mention of Margaret Mitchell, the Vuitton-style steamer trunk full of Veuve Clicquot and Bombay gin, the fire hydrant for Asta - stylish too in the larger aspects of Douglas W. Schmidt's modestly bewitching scenery and Theoni V. Aldredge's consummately accurate costumes.
And then there's the score. Ironically, Strouse's music is far better than that Cy Coleman came up with for "City of Angels," and although even here it's a bit near the knuckle that the best number is called "Let's Go Home," the understressed and underutilized music is a real charmer, while Maltby's cleverly and aptly bespoke lyrics carry the play brilliantly.
But why a play and not a musical? And if a play, why not one more engrossing? And why does Riley (a cunning little canine) seem so much more like Asta than Barry Bostwick & Joanna Gleason seem like Nick & Nora, or (sorry, kids) Powell & Loy?
Nor is it Bostwick and Gleason's fault that they don't really engage us as people - they have no chance. This is a "Thin Man" with far too fat a book, and although both the stars wade through their expositions with courage and even panache, they don't come off as well as Christine Baranski as a Hepburn-type movie-princess called, of course, Tracy, and Chris Sarandon as a sleazy wiseguy union leader with aspirations to class and Nora.
The lesser roles are also handsomely portrayed - Remak Ramsay as an exiled German/Jewish film maker, Michael Lombard as a shady but brash police lieutenant with itchy palms and foot fetishism, Faith Prince as a lesbian, coke-sniffing accountant who knows too much and cares too little, Kip Niven as a first-generation Kennedy-style film producer, Debra Monk as his loyally alcoholic wife, and Yvette Lawrence as a South American bimbo-bombshell, all do themselves and the script proud.
But this "Nick & Nora" could have gone out of town for six months, stayed in previews until the millenium, and polished the show until the sunshine shone through it. It wouldn't have helped. If the original idea clunks you can crank it as much as you like, but you'll still end up with a clinker.
Leaving the Marquis Theater after "Nick and Nora," I kept hearing the same jaded comment from other members of the audience beside me on the escalator: "Well, it's not nearly as bad as they said it would be." True, this comment is hard to evaluate if you have no way of knowing which "they" these people are referring to. After all, nearly 100,000 customers paid full price to see "Nick and Nora" during its nine weeks of previews before its official "opening" last night, and that's a lot of suspects, each, no doubt, bad-mouthing the show to a different degree. Even so, I bet the theatergoers I overheard on the Marquis escalator are right. "Nick and Nora," in its finished form, is not as bad as they said, whoever the "they" might be. Which is not to say that it is good.
Like the less-than-gifted celebrity who is famous for being famous, this musical will no doubt always be remembered, and not without fondness, for its troubled preview period, its much-postponed opening, its hassles with snooping journalists and its conflict with the city's Consumer Affairs Commissioner. Indeed, the story of "Nick and Nora" in previews, should it ever be fully known, might in itself make for a riotous, 1930's-style screwball-comedy musical. But the plodding show that has emerged from all this tumult is, a few bright spots notwithstanding, an almost instantly forgettable mediocrity. As no one will confuse it with the hit musicals its authors have worked on in happier times -- "Gypsy," "West Side Story," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Annie" and "Miss Saigon," among many others -- neither is "Nick and Nora" remotely in the calamitous league of such recent, excessively previewed fiascos as, say, "Carrie" and "Legs Diamond."
The distinguished authors -- Arthur Laurents (book), Charles Strouse (music), Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) -- began with a highly promising idea, a musical murder mystery prompted by the glamorous husband-and-wife detective team created by Dashiell Hammett in the Depression and immortalized on screen by William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta, their canine sidekick. The setting is Hollywoodland, the atmosphere is meant to be that of a glittering black-and-white Art Deco movie musical, and the whodunit plot aspires to be adult and ingenious. Yet one need not indulge in invidious comparisons with the old "Thin Man" movies (which were not all that wonderful to begin with) or legitimate comparisons with Broadway's current, similar and far superior "City of Angels" to see that "Nick and Nora" was probably doomed before it played its first preview.
For starters, this production might have spent a little less time searching for the perfect Asta and a lot more time trying to find the right Nick and Nora. Barry Bostwick is a handsome leading man with an agreeable manner and sturdy voice, and Joanna Gleason, better still, is an astringent comic actress with impeccable timing and her own strong voice. But if either of these talents, together or separately, has the larger-than-life personality or all-around musical-comedy pizazz it takes to ignite a star-centric Broadway musical, that incandescence is kept under a shroud in "Nick and Nora." The heart sinks from their opening number, a low-key, charmingly written piece titled "Is There Anything Better Than Dancing?" Instead of setting the tone implied by its title, the song, as performed, reveals that Mr. Bostwick and Ms. Gleason have limited warmth and cannot really dance, and that their would-be Astaire-and-Rogers routines, wanly choreographed by Tina Paul, will have to be fudged all night. (As in fact they are, right through a finale that, if better executed, might have echoed "Rosie," the beguiling equivalent duet at the end of Mr. Strouse's "Bye Bye Birdie.")
The other fatal drawback for a musical aspiring to the style of "Nick and Nora" is tipped off in the second number, in which the evening's second banana, Christine Baranski in the role of an egomaniacal movie queen, sings of how "Everybody Wants to Do a Musical." The song is set in a film studio and is redolent of the Busby Berkeley era, yet the campy fantasy of its lyric is never illustrated with chorus performers or even scenery. To put it another way, the sparsely appointed and underpopulated "Nick and Nora" looks from the start as if it were produced on the cheap -- or as if its budget, however large, was not smartly spent -- and that impression never dissipates. The final production number of Act II, typically, is a Carmen Miranda send-up in which the singer (Yvette Lawrence) is backed up by two -- count 'em, two -- dancers.
All the other failures in "Nick and Nora" are secondary to its inability to deliver the glamorous stars and atmosphere promised by its title. (Such scenery as there is, by Douglas W. Schmidt, is bland and Theoni V. Aldredge, in a rare lapse, has costumed all the women unbecomingly.) As director, Mr. Laurents must shoulder some of the blame for those central shortfalls, as well as for the sluggish, stop-and-go gait of the entire, nearly three-hour evening. His talky book is also not his sharpest, offering a murder puzzle that is ambitious and convoluted without being pleasurable and Hollywood repartee that for all its knowing allusions to Max Ophuls, Joseph Kennedy and Louella Parsons is not especially funny. A subplot about Nick and Nora's marital travails seems to have been shredded into confusion during revision, so much so that the other man who briefly sours the couple's relationship (Chris Sarandon) is never coherently identified.
Though Mr. Strouse has written some rousing scores for frail shows ("It's Superman," "All American," "Rags"), that of "Nick and Nora" is not one of them. Yet there are some pretty tunes along the way, and one is always struck by how enthusiastically and professionally he and Mr. Maltby embrace and sometimes conquer the tough technical challenges of musical-theater writing. At their cleverest here, in one song in each act, they use witty music and lyrics to bring together all the suspects and motives in Nick and Nora's murder case so that the detectives and audience alike might weigh every conceivable scenario. At their worse, they give two of the most gifted comic actresses in town -- Ms. Baranski and Debra Monk -- flat would-be showstoppers that make the performers seem both unfunny and vocally uncomfortable.
A third supporting actress, Faith Prince, fares far better in the role of the evening's ubiquitous murder victim, Lorraine, a platinum-wigged film-industry bookkeeper who, among other attacks on her dubious character, is accused of trying to "play Barbara Stanwyck with Jean Harlow hair." Though Lorraine is already dead when the show begins, she keeps popping up again and again as her murder is re-enacted in repeated flashbacks to the scene and night of the crime. The dizzy Ms. Prince not only takes a mean pratfall each time the gunshots ring out but also brings a brash, belting delivery to "Men," a musical diatribe that almost does to its satirical target what Miss Hannigan did to "Little Girls" in Mr. Strouse's "Annie."
We can look forward to hearing a lot more from Ms. Prince. In the meantime, there is no escaping the unfortunate fact that the liveliest thing in "Nick and Nora" is a corpse.