Bacharach on Broadway

By Bill Rudman

There were so many written tributes paid to Burt Bacharach, who left us February 8 at the age of 95, that I would feel no need to add my own words now were it not for the paucity of space given to one of his finest projects: his only Broadway score, Promises, Promises (1968), with lyrics, as usual, by the agile and underrated Hal David.

Bacharach came out of Tin Pan Alley in the 1950s, then quickly rose to household-name status over the next 10 years with one pop hit after another — so many of them introduced or covered gorgeously by Dionne Warwick. His writing became increasingly, memorably, miraculously idiosyncratic, with complex meters, bold harmonies and tunes that remain living ear worms all these years later. Will anyone ever forget the quirky front phrase of “What’s New, Pussycat?” Doubtful. 

And though Bacharach never sounded like Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers or the rest of that gang, I contend that he somehow belongs in their company, his inspired craftsmanship filling a chapter of the Great American Songbook — the tradition of songwriting that paid equal, risk-taking attention to melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics. 

But I digress: Bacharach’s score for Promises, Promises was just as important as Hair in bringing a new sound to Broadway. Why? Because it was truly sophisticated. The show was revived in 2010 in a production starring Sean Hayes, but it’s conceivable that in the wake of the MeToo movement we’ll never see the musical on stage again: Neil Simon’s script, based on Billy Wilder’s film comedy The Apartment, is sexist at its core. But if you don’t have the CD, the one you want — and you must have it — is with the original Broadway cast starring Jerry Orbach and Jill O’Hara, both of whom make the Bacharach-David songs sizzle.

I visited my archives to refresh my memory of how Bacharach’s work was perceived by Martin Gottfried, the best musical theater critic of that era. A week before the show opened, he wrote: “Audiences love that Broadway show sound so much they have stopped listening….Now they will be faced with a real musician. This is a chance with a composer, and he must be heard.” And from his review: “Not only has orchestrator Jonathan Tunick [who would begin working on Sondheim’s musicals the next year] been faithful to Bacharach rather than the show-tune cliche; the whole archaic system of show biz has been shattered by the use of an amplified orchestra and electric instruments (organ, bass fiddle, guitar)…and an honest-to-god recording engineer is in the house….This is something very special.”

In the early 1970s Bacharach and David wrote the score for a Hollywood musical, Lost Horizon; the movie — not the songs — was a disaster, and he never again ventured into musical theater territory, which was a great loss for the art form. I saw him in concert about 15 years ago, and he and his band were sensational, even though he had not been a “cool” element in our popular culture for decades. 

But no matter: We must be grateful for his discography including that one terrific Broadway musical.