Misunderstood Musicals: Nick & Nora

Joel Fenster

Up until the arrival of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the show with the longest, most publicized and torturous preview period in Broadway history was Nick and Nora. Seventy-one previews took place in the nine weeks following October 8, 1991, with the show finally opening on December 8, 1991. It then closed on December 15, 1991, after only nine performances.

Based on the popular The Thin Man series of films from the 40’s, which were based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, the story focuses on Nick and Nora Charles, a crime-solving husband and wife team that set the stage for countless copycats, rip-offs and tributes for decades to come. A musical featuring the pair isn’t the worst idea in the world, but this show, in spite of some great music and some amazing talent on stage, is a mess story-wise.

The story in Hammett’s novel centers around former detective Nick Charles who reluctantly takes on a case that involving a missing scientist. By his side, offering witty banter and martinis, is his faithful wife, Nora.  Together, they work their way through a bevy of grotesque suspects to solve the mystery. The book was quickly turned into a relatively faithful film, that was shot in twelve days and released four months after the novel was published. This film, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, was so successful that it spawned a series of five other films. Ten years after the last film installment, a TV series was created, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk in the roles of Nick and Nora.

One of the things that made the series so popular was the sharp, booze-filled repartee between Nick and Nora. Flippant remarks, snarky replies and humorous, but loving jabs were a mainstay whenever they were together - and they were almost always together.   In the musical, however, a good chunk of the story separates the two characters.  Why?

The musical’s book gives Nora a plotline that involves taking on a murder case to help an old school friend with a problem. Nick becomes her sidekick, but eventually wants to take over the case because he doesn’t think Nora can handle it. Set in Hollywood during the 30s, the stage show features a variety of suspects that come from all walks of the glamorous life -directors, actresses, showgirls, producers and gaffers - and take the spotlight off of Nick and Nora’s “competition”. Eventually, it all ends happily, if not confusingly. As far as Hollywood-based musical mysteries go, there was a much better one in City of Angels, still playing just around the corner when this opened.

With a cast featuring Barry Bostwick (Nick), Joanna Gleason (Nora), Christine Baranski, Chris Sarandon, Debra Monk and Faith Prince, there was definitely some star power to draw an audience. The big names continue with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., and a book by Arthur Laurents, who also took the reigns as director, yet all of this talent couldn’t seem to make it work. While it might be easy to lay all the blame at Mr. Laurents’ feet, since it seems like a difficult undertaking to direct one’s own material with an objective eye, this time things are a bit more complicated. The story was a clear mess, which probably contributed to the longer-than-normal preview process, but, in this case, the show didn’t preview out of town, but right there in New York.  After nine weeks of previews, the theatre critics got antsy, and began complaining that it was unfair to be charging full price admission to audience members for something that was still a work in progress…one that didn’t get finalized until opening night.

If ever there was a show that deserves a second chance, it may be this one. Listening to the cast album, there is some really great material, musically. Although the album may contain one of the worst songs ever written for a Broadway musical in “Boom, Chicka, Boom”, a pointless 11th hour tune featuring a conga line, it captures all of the best aspects of the show while not confusing anyone with the actual plodding plot. Perhaps a major rewrite would help, but that would most likely lose some of the best songs in the process. Sometimes I think shows like this deserve to have a second life as concert versions where one can experience the music, with the story boiled down to simple narration and stage direction.

While not the worst musical to ever hit Broadway, Nick & Nora was an absolute misfire.  I do find that to be a shame, since I believe it contains just enough of the good stuff to offset the bad. Its greatest downfall, I believe was born of bad-blood among patrons who paid top Broadway ticket prices during the long preview process, simply to see a show that was, essentially, still in development.  The people grew tired of that, and so the lights went down on Nick and Nora. 

Next up: There were how many musicals about Charlie Chaplin?

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