The Burt Bacharach-Hal David-Neil Simon musical “Promises, Promises” was a financial success in 1968 — running for more than two years and earning a Tony for its star Jerry Orbach — but the show fell off the Broadway radar in a way that very few hits do.
The score was widely dissed by Broadway buffs and the first cast album is considered a disaster in many circles (with claims that Orbach and co-star Jill O’Hara sang badly at a recording session that should have been rescheduled).
“Promises, Promises” opened when critics were wondering how the pop music explosion of the 1960s would impact Broadway.
While everyone seemed to focus on rock musicals such as “Hair” (which opened off-Broadway in 1967 and transferred to Broadway the following year), Bacharach and David brought an equally fresh pop sound to Broadway.
In collaboration with orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, the composer and lyricist demanded a new kind of pit band (more like the musician set-up they had worked with on their hit records) and an elaborate new sound system for the singers and musicians.
“Promises, Promises” pointed the way to a real integration of pop and Broadway that could have been much more lasting than the occasional rock musical success — Bacharach and David were two of the very few hit songwriters who were willing to take the time away from their lucrative recording careers to work on a musical comedy.
The lukewarm response to the score pushed Bacharach and David back into pop songwriting and no doubt discouraged such obvious Broadway-potential composing talent as David Bowie, Billy Joel and many more to steer clear of writing for Broadway (where a fast flop could erase months of work on a song score).
A few months ago, the first Broadway revival of “Promises, Promises” in 42 years opened to the same sort of lukewarm critical response (but solid audience reaction) and once again the score was shortchanged.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been enjoying the Masterworks Broadway CD which captures the wonderful singing and acting of Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth in the roles created by Orbach and O’Hara.
(I happen to like the original recording with the quirky vocalizing by Orbach and O’Hara, but must admit that the new stars have much stronger voices.)
Chenoweth has one of the best — and most versatile — instruments in musical theater and she nails the beautiful “Knowing When to Leave” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
The creators of the show also did a very smart thing by adding two Bacharach-David tunes to the score — “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” — to give Chenoweth more to sing. The songs are from the same period in the duo’s career and fit into the show perfectly.
Tunick returned to tweak the orchestrations — pumping up the late 1960s sound of Bacharach and David a notch or two — and the result is a treat that can be enjoyed by those who have seen the revival and those who simply want to savor an excellent recording of one of the most underrated scores in musical comedy history.