What Makes Sammy Run?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 19, 2006
This production of What Makes Sammy Run?—billed as a "world premiere" of a new version of the 1964 musical—clearly represents a labor of love for its director, adaptor, and principal instigator, Robert Armin. In a program note and a curtain speech, he tells us that he first saw this show in summer stock nearly 40 years ago, with Frank Gorshin in the title role, and that he's been eager to put the show back on the stage ever since. His efforts include not just remounting what he saw but an attempt at "fixing" it; I've read various reviews and other contemporaneous accounts of the original show and they differ on what made Sammy not run. How has Armin fared at his possibly quixotic task?
To answer that question, I'll begin with a summary of the story, which is based on Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel of the same title (Schulberg wrote the original book for the musical with his brother Stuart). It's about a guy named Sammy Glick (né Glickstein), a hustler with naked and seemingly limitless ambition. We meet him first as a copy boy working at the fictional tabloid "The New York Record," where he's sort-of taken under the wing of drama critic Al Manheim. When Sammy "helps out" Al by going directly to the managing editor to make a correction to one of Al's pieces, he starts to show his true colors; he also gets the boss's attention and very soon Sammy has a column of his own, usurping some of Al's turf. Sammy's rise is rapid: he steals a story idea for a movie from another journalist, talks his way into selling it to super-agent Myron Selznick, and in short order he's in Hollywood, on the payroll as a screenwriter at a major studio. He wastes no time in wooing Kit Sargent, a famous writer who's also working at this studio (she falls for him in spite of herself), as well as Sidney Fineman, head of production.
By the end of Act One, Sammy has become a producer in his own right, and is beginning a potentially very lucrative relationship with Laurette Harrington, the spoiled and headstrong daughter of the studio's main backer. Act Two brings him close to achieving his dreams, as he finds a way to topple Fineman and wed Laurette. When it's disclosed at the eleventh hour that Fineman has committed suicide and that Laurette has a taste for the ladies herself, it appears that Sammy may at last have gotten his comeuppance. But the final song, entitled "Some Days Everything Goes Wrong," ends with the line "most days everything goes right"—Sammy is indomitable and undefeatable to the end.
Sammy Glick is a fairly unlikable central character for a musical, but this is by no means an insurmountable difficulty, as shows as varied as Carousel, Pal Joey, and Sweeney Todd have proven. The problem with What Makes Sammy Run?—and I think this is pretty fundamental—is that neither the book nor the score really allow us to get to know him. We don't need to love the guy, but we ought to understand what makes him tick (see title); Armin's new book and Drake's augmented score (there are four new songs in this revival, and some original material has been altered and/or removed) don't provide much information for us to work with. There are the briefest of allusions to Sammy's impoverished Lower East Side past (a few lyrics in his first song, "A New Pair of Shoes" plus a very quick visit from his brother Izzy), and except for these there's really nothing that explains what started Sammy running in the first place. As for his technique, well, we see him in action from time to time, but the songs Drake has written to show us Sammy at his slickest are generally pleasant but generic pop tunes. The show's big hit number, for example, is called "A Room Without Windows"—what does that mean? Why would Sammy want to take his love interest to a room with that particular attribute? It feels random and unenlightening.
With only a sketchily defined title character at its core, What Makes Sammy Run?'s real protagonist turns out to be Al Manheim, who in this version is relentlessly nice (if occasionally naive where Sammy is concerned); even though he's hard to care about because he's so bland, it is Al who gets the big second act ballad ("Something to Live For") and who, indeed, goes off into the sunset with the girl (Kit) at the final curtain.
Mankiller Laurette has very little to do; a budding starlet named Billie Rand gets the show's sexiest number, "The Friendliest Thing," in a scene with Al that pretty much shuts the story down cold. (Paradoxically, as performed by Jessica Luck, it's the most effective number in the production; this song was assigned to Laurette in the original version.)
Running some three hours, this new What Makes Sammy Run? is a long, hard sit. Occasional attempts at humor (notably the musical number "Lights! Camera! Platitude!," the big Act One show-stopper) fall flat, usually because they're so dated.
Armin's staging is nevertheless pretty miraculous given its Equity showcase code budget; sketchy scenic effects define the locales quite effectively, and there are plenty of appropriate period costumes on hand, designed by Joanne Haas. Jack Dyville's choreography is fairly minimal, but Armin's blocking works well on the small West End Theatre stage.
The ensemble, though, is uneven. Carl Anthony Tramon seems badly miscast as Sammy, never demonstrating the smooth suavity and charm that gets the character where he goes, or the insatiable drive that fuels his brazen acts. Both Larry Daggett (Al) and Moira Stone (Kit) have lovely singing voices, but their characters are really hard to care about; Kristin McLaughlin sinks her teeth into Laurette, but as noted above, she hasn't very far to go. Jeffrey Farber (Fineman), Steven Patterson (Harrington), and Selby Brown and Matthew Napoli (each in a variety of roles) acquit themselves well. But Darron Cardosa and Jessica Luck both overdo the schlemiel bit as, respectively, the geeky journalist who becomes Sammy's ghostwriter and Sammy's girlfriend from the old neighborhood.
As the many series of concert-style revivals of musicals (Encores!, Musicals Tonight!, Musicals in Mufti, etc.) attest, we live in a time of endless re-creation. That makes for great history, but not always great art. I really do think I understand Armin's impulse here—there's more than one beloved show from my youth that I'd love to see gussied up and given it's proper due at long last. But shows flop for a reason. Maybe, instead of wondering how to make Sammy finally run, it would be better to devote attention to something new.