For Burt Bacharach, 'Promises, Promises' was one Broadway hit too many

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For Burt Bacharach, 'Promises, Promises' was one Broadway hit too many
Sean Hayes, left, and Kristin Chenoweth perform in the musical "Promises, Promises," in New York, March 26, 2010. Burt Bacharach, who died Feb. 8, 2023, called the Broadway show the hardest thing he had ever done. “I was quite content being in the studio and making my records.” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Laurence Maslon

NEW YORK, NY.- In the late 1960s, when Broadway show tunes and popular music were veering in opposite directions, producer David Merrick, one of the most hidebound curmudgeons on Broadway, reached out to one of the most successful American pop composers of the time: Burt Bacharach.

Bacharach (who died on Feb. 8 at age 94) had more than a dozen international hits with his lyricist partner, Hal David, including “Walk on By,” “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “The Look of Love.” That last song was introduced in the spy parody “Casino Royale,” and, in fact, Bacharach had met Merrick at that movie’s London premiere in 1967. They agreed to work together if the right project came along.

Bacharach wasn’t exactly bedazzled by the bright lights of Broadway. “When I was getting successful with pop songs, and having hits, there wasn’t something burning inside me that said, “Boy, I need to write a Broadway show,’” he said in an interview for the 1985 book “Notes on Broadway.” “I was quite content being in the studio and making my records.”

It just so happens that when Merrick eventually wrangled playwright Neil Simon to adapt Billy Wilder’s 1960 Academy Award-winning film “The Apartment” as a musical, it was Simon who pushed for Bacharach and David, as he wanted to update the material and incorporate a sound that might reach contemporary audiences. “Promises, Promises,” as the show would be called, centered on a well-meaning milquetoast accountant in a New York insurance firm who essentially pimps out his apartment to his superiors in exchange — so he is promised — for a series of promotions. Merrick, a master of the Show for Tired Businessmen (“Do Re Mi,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “How Now, Dow Jones”), assembled the perfect team for a show about tired businessmen.

The material was beautifully tailored for Bacharach and David’s sensibilities — urban, witty, rueful, alienated but passionate — and the songwriters were faithful to the tone of Simon’s book: a savvy mix of wisecracks, romantic heartbreak and contemporary satire.

But one early aspect of this collaboration was telling: While Simon and David crafted the text together in New York, Bacharach remained deeply involved with other studio projects in Hollywood, setting his music to David’s lyrics from afar. He would not arrive in New York until September 1968, with the first Broadway preview just two months away.

Despite the distance, Bacharach was demonstrating how his command of the pop charts could pay dividends — even before the show went into rehearsals. “I thought it would be great if the music came out a couple of months before, so [theater audiences] would have some familiarity with the work,” he recounted in the liner notes to a 1989 three-CD set of his music. His eternal muse, Dionne Warwick, recorded two songs from the incipient score, while Bacharach worked his usual meticulous magic in the protected confines of the recording studio, getting his complicated rhythms just right. Warwick’s single of the “Promises, Promises” title number hit No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

“As musicals go, it couldn’t have been easier,” Bacharach recalled in “Notes on Broadway.” “The financing, getting it done, getting it in the theater — it just went with lightning speed.”

Then came the November tryout in Boston, where Merrick’s usual boorish behavior was on display. He apparently demanded a hit song for the second act, so that the nebbish hero, Chuck, could connect romantically (however tenuously) with Fran, the elevator operator for whom he pines.

Bacharach would have gladly obliged, but he was sent to Massachusetts General with pneumonia. Merrick stomped around and cursed the songwriters and supposedly threatened to hire Leonard Bernstein to replace them, but David beavered away and came up with wistful lyrics to a duet called “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” He even incorporated Bacharach’s malady: “What do you get when you kiss a guy?/You get enough germs to catch pneumonia./After you do/he’ll never phone ya.”

When he was released from the hospital, Bacharach found the melody to match the malady: “Maybe because I was still not feeling all that well, I wrote the melody faster than I had ever written any song before in my life,” Bacharach wrote in his 2013 memoir, “Anyone Who Had a Heart.”

Ahead of the New York opening, Bacharach wanted a sound more like what he was used to in a recording studio, so he brought in his frequent recording engineer Phil Ramone and had the Shubert Theater’s sound system redesigned. The orchestra was divided into small groupings (separated by fiberglass panels), each surrounding a microphone that would relay the sound to be mixed live at the back of the theater. And the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick (in one of his first Broadway jobs) added two guitars — one acoustic, one electric — and a quartet of female singers, billed as Orchestra Voices. The technical virtuosity of these innovations unnerved Merrick so much that, according to a New York Times article about the arrangements, he admonished Ramone and Bacharach: “I don’t want the audience walking out of the theater saying, ‘It’s a recording.’”

But even Merrick fell in love again after “Promises, Promises” opened on Dec. 1, 1968, to rapturous reviews. On opening night, he told a reporter that Bacharach was “the first original American composer since Gershwin.” In an article in the Times, John S. Wilson wrote, “The tight Bacharachian rhythmic patterns keep bouncing around in your head as you walk into the night, songless but pulsing with a busy little beat.”

But the experience didn’t make Broadway burn any brighter inside Bacharach. “Somehow I lived through it, and I’m still alive,” he told Rex Reed in a Times interview before the show opened. “But this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m wiped out by this show, man. I’ll be in Palm Springs on Wednesday.” And he was as good as his word — joining his wife, actress Angie Dickinson, in a newly rented desert home with a tennis court and a swimming pool.

A week or so later, a phone call to Palm Springs from Merrick confirmed that there were limits to what Bacharach could control in a live production, eight times a week. “He called me and said ‘Eight subs [substitute players] in the orchestra last night, including the drummer’ and guess who was in the audience? Richard Rodgers! This great, great composer. Richard Rodgers!,” he recounted in “Notes on Broadway.” “It made me feel just terrible, because my music is not that easy to play. A song like ‘Promises, Promises’ changes time signature in almost every bar. And I’ve got … a drummer who’s sight-reading, who’s never played it before.”

“Promises, Promises” was hardly an irreparable disappointment for Bacharach: The original Broadway production ran for 1,281 performances (and Jerry Orbach, who played the accountant, won a Tony Award for the role); there was a robust West End run; and a Broadway revival (sized and trimmed for contemporary tastes) in 2010 starred Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes. And “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” would become a smash single for Warwick in 1970, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart; it would also be the last time a song originating on Broadway reached the top spot on any of the Billboard charts.

That was probably cold comfort to Bacharach. Looking back on his Broadway experience for the CD liner notes decades later, he was definitive: “If you’re doing a musical, it’s going to change every night,” he wrote. “If you’re doing something on record, it doesn’t get changed every night. So that’s what I prefer to do.”

David, also quoted in the liner notes, said about his collaborator and the reality of Broadway: “If you’re a perfectionist, it can drive you crazy.”

Sixteen months after “Promises” opened, Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” arrived on Broadway and the modernity of its sound would have been unthinkable without Bacharach’s innovations. Indeed, many of them were reintroduced by Tunick, the “Promises” orchestrator, when he took on the orchestrations for “Company.”

“If I were hearing ‘Another Hundred People’ for the first time,” music critic Will Friedwald said in an interview for this article, “I would have guessed it was Bacharach and not Sondheim.”

Bacharach was initially philosophical about “Promises, Promises” — “If we knocked down a few doors with my rhythms or the new sound in the show, great,” he told Reed — but the theatrical magic he created for his only Broadway score is so apposite and hip and melancholy and sweet that it makes one ache for what might have been.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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