(Laurence Maslon’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/13; via Pam Green; Photo:Burt Bacharach, at the piano, arrived in New York as rehearsals began in September 1968. He was joined by, from left, Jerry Orbach and Jill O’Hara, the stars; the director Robert Moore; the playwright Neil Simon; the producer David Merrick; and the actor Edward Winter.Credit…Bob Wands/Associated Press.)
The perfectionist composer was content with being a one-hit musical-theater wonder, calling the experience the hardest thing he had ever done.
In the late 1960s, when Broadway show tunes and popular music were veering in opposite directions, the producer David Merrick, one of the most hidebound curmudgeons on Broadway, reached out to one of the most successful American pop composers of the time: Burt Bacharach.
Bacharach (who died on Feb. 8 at age 94) already had more than a dozen international hits with his lyricist partner, Hal David, including “Walk on By,” “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “The Look of Love.” That last song was introduced in the spy parody “Casino Royale,” and, in fact, Bacharach had met Merrick at that movie’s London premiere in 1967. They agreed to work together if the right project came along.
Bacharach wasn’t exactly bedazzled by the bright lights of Broadway. “When I was getting successful with pop songs, and having hits, there wasn’t something burning inside me that said, “Boy, I need to write a Broadway show,’” he said in an interview for the 1985 book “Notes on Broadway.” “I was quite content being in the studio and making my records.”
It just so happens that when Merrick eventually wrangled the playwright Neil Simon to adapt Billy Wilder’s 1960 Academy Award-winning film “The Apartment” as a musical, it was Simon who pushed for Bacharach and David, as he wanted to update the material and incorporate a sound that might reach contemporary audiences. “Promises, Promises,” as the show would be called, centered on a well-meaning milquetoast accountant in a New York insurance firm who essentially pimps out his apartment to his superiors in exchange — so he is promised — for a series of promotions. Merrick, a master of the Show for Tired Businessmen (“Do Re Mi,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “How Now, Dow Jones”), assembled the perfect team for a show about tired businessmen.
The material was beautifully tailored for Bacharach and David’s sensibilities — urban, witty, rueful, alienated but passionate — and the songwriters were faithful to the tone of Simon’s book: a savvy mix of wisecracks, romantic heartbreak and contemporary satire.
But one early aspect of this collaboration was telling: While Simon and David crafted the text together in New York, Bacharach remained deeply involved with other studio projects in Hollywood, setting his music to David’s lyrics from afar. He would not arrive in New York until September 1968, with the first Broadway preview just two months away.