Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sweet Charity


Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Cy Coleman, book by Neil Simon, from the film Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini. This is one of my all-time favorite musicals. It doesn’t hurt that I saw it on Broadway in the 1986 revival starring Debbie Allen, once again choreographed by Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. She was superb. The show was superb. I laughed and I cried. Fosse happens to be my favorite choreographer. I know some people don’t like his weird style, but there is something about the deliberate awkwardness of his dances that really appeals to me. The angular arrangements of limbs, the near-impossible twists and turns he has his dancers do, and the minimalist numbers that sort of re-defined what dancing was are all revolutionary. Just think about the “Mein Herr” number in the film of Cabaret. The girls are all on chairs, and they never leave them. They never get to their feet, they just adopt any possible way you can inhabit a chair and they move to the music, and there is no question that this is dance.

There are no less than five knock-out numbers in this film version. In order, they are: “Big Spender,” ‘Rich Man’s Frug,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “The Rhythm of Life,” featuring Sammy Davis Jr., and “I’m a Brass Band.” And that’s not even mentioning “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “I Love to Cry at Weddings,” featuring Stubby Kaye. I could probably write pages about all of them, but I’ll stick just to “Rich Man’s Frug,” because it is unlike anything ever before put on film. Charity has followed Vittorio Vitale in to an ultra-trendy night spot, where Edith Head’s zany costumes set the stage for what is to come. There are three separate dances, and each of them is very, very weird in a way that I really like. What stands out the most in a number that has a dozen unique things is one posture the female dancers have to take. They have one foot on the floor, and the other leg stretched out in front, then they lean backwards as far as possible without toppling over, until their bodies form a straight line with their extended leg. In fact, it looks like they are way over the toppling point. And they have to do this with totally blank expressions on their faces, and without giving any hint at all that this crazy position is at all tough to do. They must have had muscles in their legs like the Terminator to do it at all.

Shirley MacLaine shows all her dancing chops, and sings pretty good, too. There are a couple extras on the DVD, really interesting stuff like screen tests of the dancers practicing against a blank wall, and Shirley testing her costumes to see if they allow enough movement. This is all narrated by Edith Head, who won no less than eight Oscars.

It was a big production, with an overture and an intermission. Bob Fosse was so worried that the studio brass would hate it that he shot a “Hollywood ending,” where Oscar realizes his folly and goes back to Charity. That ending was on the DVD. Luckily, for once they had good taste and went with the original tragedy, with just a small ray of sunshine at the end, the tiniest smile: “And She Lived Hopefully Ever After.”

And it was a huge flop, costing twenty million and making back eight. It almost bankrupted Universal Pictures. I guess Americans were just falling out of love with musicals. The Academy gave the Best Picture Award to West Side Story in 1961, My Fair Lady in 1964, The Sound of Music in 1965, and Oliver! in 1969. There would not be another Best Picture musical for thirty-three years.