To celebrate The Transport Group's June 25 concert production of Promises, Promises, Playbill looks back at our interview with composer Burt Bacharach during the show's out-of-town-tryouts.
It’s “Happy” Bacharach! What a surprise. I hadn’t connected the name though I had known him 20 years before. Teenagers we were then, learning about jazz at the same time, playing jam sessions together around Forest Hills where we both lived. And now it turns out that “Happy” from the old days is today’s Burt Bacharach, the composer of so many hit songs (“Alfie,” “Walk on By,” “Message to Michael,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”) and of the new Broadway musical Promises, Promises.
Twenty years later, my old friend “Happy” is hot—so hot, in fact, that “We need a Burt Bacharach-type tune” has become a refrain in the music business. His sound is as contemporary as the Beatles, though more restrained and traditional in form, without the electronics and freneticism of hard rock. His melodies are “pretty” but upon repetition so much more than that.
But as he relaxes in his Washington hotel suite before a tryout performance of Promises, Promises, he looks very much as I remember him—boyish despite crags in a sensitive face and a good deal of gray in his thick brown hair, which falls over his forehead. (As he talks he rubs his hair or scratches his head and during the frequent pauses between words, which do not always come easily, he lowers his eyes, which are light blue and rather shy.)
He tells me first of old friends in common—Eddie Shaughnessy, the drummer, for one. One of Burt’s first jobs was in the Catskills and Eddie played drums. The pay was $200 a week plus room and board...for the entire quintet. Business was bad that summer and the pay kept dropping. It went down to $60 a week and $32 of that went to Eddie because he was supporting his mother. But because they were young and having fun, they stayed on, until finally they were forced to leave when the hotel burned down. He laughed hard when he finished the story.
After Forest Hills High School, Burt went to McGill University in Montreal, and from there to the army. After his discharge, he played piano around New York in places like Nino’s Continental on 53rd Street and The Bayview on Fire Island. “Sometimes, especially lately, I get these fantasies,” he said. “You know….I just bought a restaurant called Dover House in Westbury, Long Island and…” Burt laughed a bit sheepishly “... and I think what I really ought to do is go there, drink with the people every night, play a tune or two on the piano. Go back to that ‘give the piano player a drink’ scene.” He laughed again, a little weary this time.
Burt studied music with composer Darius Milhaud, who once told him to “never be afraid of writing music that people can whistle.” The young student took the famous composer’s advice and nine years ago he produced his first hit, “Magic Moments,” which was sung by Perry Como. Then for five years he was Marlene Dietrich’s conductor and musical director, a job that took him all over the world. Musically, Marlene felt enormously dependant on Burt and literally wouldn’t work unless he worked with her. “She’s better about it now,” Burt said. “We got her over that. It was a necessity because, since I started this show, I’ve had no time.” Burt had been working full-blast on Promises, Promises for over two months by the time we talked—rehearsing in New York, previewing in Boston and Washington, then more rehearsing, rewriting, coaching, previewing and conferring. “How do you like doing a Broadway show?” I asked him.
“Well, it’s a very good show. The book is sensational—with Neil Simon you can’t go wrong. It’s happy, man. People feel good coming out of the theatre. But the whole process is so stretched out….I wrote some of the songs a year ago last summer. That’s a long time to retain any perspective. I get tired of them.
“It’s particularly hard when you are attuned, like I am, to fast results. When I write a tune for Dionne [Dionne Warwick] a few months later it’s already on record and released. It’s the same with movie scores.” [He’s done What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale, among others.] “But doing a Broadway show—putting everything and all the people together—it’s a long process. Awful long...stretched out.
“I don’t know about doing another Broadway show. I won’t say never but...not so soon. Whether this is a smash or not has nothing to do with it. No, no. I put in a lot of time, a lot of time away from my baby, my wife...my family. A lot of time away, lost, not watching my baby grow up.” (Burt is married to actress Angie Dickinson and their daughter Lea Nikki is two. They had visited him in Washington only the week before and there was still a highchair in the room. A chambermaid knocked, explaining she had come to remove it. “I really enjoyed your show,” she said shyly. “Thank you,” he answered just as shyly.)
“Promises,” said Burt, “is more or less in the mainstream of Broadway musicals. Hal [Hal David, his lyricist] and I haven’t tried to shift gears though, because we are writing for Broadway. I hope it just sounds like something Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote. We haven’t done anything particularly revolutionary. It’s a light, airy play with a more or less traditional structure and I don’t think revolutionary music would have worked with it….Do you?”
He looked at me for, it seemed, reassurance; as if he had thought hard about really tackling something big, had discarded the idea but was still not quite sure whether it was a cop-out.
“Some nights some songs work better than others. The human element is so large in the theatre. If you are making a record, as soon as you have it right it’s on tape—preserved. In the theatre, it’s right tonight but tomorrow is another story. The lead trumpet player’s lip may be bad, the tempos could be off, the singer may have a cold...it’s just nerve-wracking, but you have to adjust.
“For instance, the rhythm patterns on my tunes are basically controlled to begin with. They are essential and they grow right out of the tune. On Dionne’s record of 'Promises' there are three guitars and two percussion players all playing different rhythm patterns. I wouldn’t even try to do that for the theatre. That’s too intricate to be sure of every single performance.
“How about our rhythm section, though? They are really steaming, aren’t they?” Burt’s face brightened and with good reason—his rhythm section is very important to him and does steam. Bobby Thomas, the drummer, and Chuck Israels, bass, are two of the best around, and since we were all old friends I was doubly happy to find them in Washington. That night the three of us and Harold Wheeler, the conductor, drove over to Silver Springs, Maryland, where Woody Herman’s band was working. (Burt couldn’t come—a conference.)
Harold Wheeler is a young black musician, no more than 25. He has a great deal of poise for his age and a quiet, refined manner. It became obvious very soon that he thinks highly of Burt Bacharach. (I knew his respect and affection were returned for I remembered Burt’s pleased look when he told me about his new conductor. “He’s just a kid. He went to school here—to Howard….” He watched for a reaction. “Yeah! That’ll break a few barriers, huh? He’s got the guts of a lion, he was hired originally as the dance arranger and rehearsal pianist and the only conducting he’d ever done before was in college. But he has the feel for the contemporary pop scene and particularly for my music, and this is, above all, a ‘feel’ show.”)
“I really love that guy,” Harold said of Burt. “He’s so sweet and shy, it’s like he’s embarrassed about being a star. A few nights ago I took him to hear a singer I used to work with here in Washington. When we came in she started singing some of Burt’s songs. He kept looking down and although it was pretty dark in there, I think he blushed. Finally, he said something like, “I wish she’s sing somebody else’s songs. I’d rather hear something else.’
“His songs are so personal. They have a texture to them—you can almost touch them. He’s very musical and there is a reason for everything he does. For example, if he puts in a 2/4 bar in a song, you may be sure it only requires two beats at that spot.”
There was a rehearsal of Promises, Promises the following morning. Burt had been ambiguous in responding to my formal request to attend. He reminded me of David Merrick’s (Promises’ producer) attitude towards the press and said that Lillian Ross, who was researching a profile of him for The New Yorker, had been thrown out of a rehearsal in Boston. We compromised on a 12:30 appointment for lunch. I showed up an hour early; nobody threw me out.
Harold Wheeler was rehearsing a new song, “It’s Our Little Secret.” It would be performed that night for the first time. “After this change, we’ll freeze the show,” Burt told me. There were bags under his eyes and he seemed really tired. “This song is a replacement for one I supremely disliked, so that makes me feel better. I wish a couple of other things might be different but there’s no way to make them different because of the structure of the story… it takes a little time to get going, for instance. But I’m told that’s often the case with musicals.”
There was some trouble with the tempo of the new song and Burt went to the pit. Harold started from the top again as Burt paced the aisle, the collar of his black jacket turned up, his sunglasses on top of his head. He shook his head often and shrugged trying to loosen up the tension in his shoulders.
The new song was beautiful, but not so beautiful as “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which was rehearsed next. Jill O’Hara sang it alone accompanying herself on guitar. Technically speaking, the song wasn’t much and a student of Darius Milhaud could “analize” it in about two minutes; but artistic simplicity is not so simply arrived at. And as Jill sang everybody connected with this big Broadway musical—actors, dancers, musicians, stagehands, production people, writers—stopped what they were doing, hypnotized by what they were hearing. As I watched, I was reminded of something Mies Van Der Rohe once said: “I do not want to be interesting, i want to be good.”