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Reviewed by:
  • Promises, Promises
  • Maya Cantu
Promises, Promises. Book by Neil Simon. Music by Burt Bacharach. Lyrics by Hal David. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. Broadway Theatre, New York City. 10 July 2010.

Nostalgia reigns as the zeitgeist of 2010. In its first Broadway revival, the 1968 musical Promises, Promises, which is set in New York, speaks to an American audience feverishly watching television's Mad Men and gazing at a more prosperous past. While his production capitalizes on the musical's vintage appeal, Rob Ashford's staging is hardly enveloped in a rosy, nostalgic haze. The revival is sensitively [End Page 121] attuned to the tonal nuances of Promises, Promises, based on Billy Wilder's seriocomic 1960 classic film The Apartment. Without undermining the slapstick and one-liners that pepper Neil Simon's satiric book, or the syncopated buoyancy of its Burt Bacharach–Hal David score, Ashford's Promises, Promises foregrounds the musical's cynical undercurrents as a corporate Faust story.

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Sean Hayes (Chuck Baxter) in Promises, Promises.

(Photo: Joan Marcus.)

The "promises" of the title demand moral compromises from both sexes. Executive dining room waitress Fran Kubelik (Kristin Chenoweth) holds a torch for J. D. Sheldrake (Tony Goldwyn), the company CEO who repeatedly promises—and fails—to leave his wife for her. Sheldrake's secret liaisons with the self-destructive Fran occur in the apartment of meek accountant Chuck Baxter (Sean Hayes). In exchange for lending trysting space, Chuck ascends the corporate ladder, landing promotions that become meaningless once Chuck learns about Fran and Sheldrake. Musing that "those kind of promises take all the joy from life," the disillusioned junior executive resigns, with Fran at his side.

As a dark vision of 1960s corporate culture, it is difficult not to see the AMC drama Mad Men as a likely motivating factor in Promises, Promises' reappearance. Despite running for 1,281 performances in 1968, the musical never attained the status of a first-tier classic. Prior to Mad Men, Promises, Promises might have seemed a dated, risky prospect in the high-stakes market of Broadway musicals. Yet with the passing of the American Century, our recession-weary country eulogizes a time when the national ego soared skyscraper-high. Although laced with twenty-first-century irony, Mad Men exerts a highly nostalgic appeal that has influenced not only Americans' water-cooler conversation, but also television ads and modern fashion. While Promises, Promises' characters work at the Consolidated Life Insurance Company, rather than at an ad agency, the musical's lecherous executives, sexually available secretaries, and liquor-stocked desks strongly evoke the television drama. Promises, Promises' new setting, which was shuffled from 1968 to 1962, only reinforces comparisons between the two.

While the chronological move has not affected the musical's fundamental dramaturgy (The Apartment was set in 1960), it has shaped the costume designs of Bruce Pask, who fills the stage with a prismatic array of jewel-toned dresses and dapper suits. Nostalgia also factors heavily in the production's musical score. Ashford has interpolated the Bacharach–David chart-toppers "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home," sung by Fran with little provocation beyond giving Chenoweth two more potential showstoppers. Jonathan Tunick's scaled-down version of his original orchestrations, accented [End Page 122] with ethereal backup vocals, more effectively convey period authenticity.

Like its revival, Promises, Promises was conceived at a time of nostalgic ambivalence. Near the beginning of the show, Chuck vows: "I want a lot / And I know I'll get it all / Just like someone who's twice as big as life." A quintessential Broadway anthem of ambition, the Algeresque song is a throwback to older musicals, which are often set in the idealized "wonderful town" of New York City and feature underdogs who make good through pluck and perseverance. Yet in the American musical of the late 1960s, when dark-edged "concept musicals" like Cabaret revolutionized the form, the rags-to-riches story lost its optimistic luster. In the age of the Vietnam War, cynicism about institutions, ranging from politics to marriage, transformed Broadway. Promises, Promises is a stylistic hybrid: its dramaturgy...


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