By Michelle Trauring
“Promises, Promises” — it would be the first and last Broadway musical Burt Bacharach ever wrote.
And it wasn’t for lack of talent.
The prolific songwriter simply craved control of the music — its tempo, its pitch, its interpretation — and the performers who sang it. He wanted it to be perfect, but in reality, show business is far from it.
Therein lies the beauty of theater, according to Michael Disher. The music takes on new life, the actors have unprecedented moments, and the show is never the same twice. That is where the magic lives, he said—the kind of magic that makes audiences leave the theater singing.
The director said he hopes that will be the case after mounting Bacharach’s one-off, “Mad Men”-era musical as a period piece, opening Thursday at the Southampton Cultural Center.
“‘Promises, Promises’ is a deceptively tough show. It’s hard,” he said. “The music’s complicated, the plot is very involved, the script is excellent and when you’re trying to do this in a five-week period and streamline it so it fits the requirements of a staged concert version, you have your hands full. It’s challenged my creative process. How do you convey an entire show with multiple settings when you only have six cubes, six chairs, two door units and a platform?”
For that reason, the production has sat on Mr. Disher’s shelf for “years and years and years,” he said. Every time he considers a musical, he always goes back to it, but has never quite attached himself to it.
Set against a backdrop of Bacharach hits—including “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and the title song—the musical turns its rather dark inspiration, which is the film “The Apartment,” and its tawdry subject matter into a “very funny, very pointed, very poignant” production, Mr. Disher said, with book and lyrics by Neil Simon and Hal David, respectively.
The action follows Chuck Baxter, a decent man just trying to get ahead in his insurance company, yet invisible to the powers that be. That changes when they discover he has a one-bedroom apartment on West 67th Street and, in exchange for perks within the company, Chuck turns over the key to his apartment to the executives on certain nights.
And there, they carry out their extramarital affairs.
“It’s misogynistic, of course, but the plot twist occurs when the young lady that Chuck is enamored with turns out to be the mistress of one of his bosses,” Mr. Disher said. “In essence, the object of his affection is getting laid in his apartment, but not by him. Awkward! You can see how that can get a little murky. And it does, but I’m not going to give it away.”
The 16-member cast, led by Shannon DuPuis and Darren Ottati, carry the fast-moving plot riddled with twists, and explore a lost time when divorce was not a socially accepted option for women trapped in unhealthy marriages.
“Its three female characters within the script who actually—in this sort of presentation of women who are minimized—have the strength to take control of their destinies,” Mr. Disher said. “They say no to affairs, they do divorce, there’s a great amount of feminism going on there, which I like. It showed more strength. The women come off stronger than the men.”
Ms. DuPuis, who stars as Chuck’s love interest, waitress Fran Kubelik, is a familiar face to the Southampton Cultural Center stage. But this production is challenging her in ways Mr. Disher has never seen, he said.
“With this particular show, Shannon is doing things I’ve never seen her do before,” he said. “And I had one of those moments. She was performing one of the ballots she does the other night, and she did it so well and so pitch perfect and she was in costume and she looked exactly right. And I was looking at her and eerily—very, very eerily—she reminded me so much of Sharon Tate in 1966, ’67. It was just really a gasping moment, and kind of arresting.”
It is the moments that surprise Mr. Disher that have kept both him, and his casts, mounting production after production season after season, he said.
“So much of it is perfunctory, but you always want to see your actors get to that moment when they have the ‘ah-ha’ moment, when they just go, ‘Ah, that’s what it’s about,’” he said. “They’re totally able to invest every element of themselves into something and they completely throw it all away and just forget who they are and what they are. And it doesn’t happen often. It really doesn’t. But when it does, it is something actors, singers, performers never, ever forget. It’s kind of like the little bluebird of happiness. You’re always chasing it. You know it’s there. But it’s so elusive.”
“Promises, Promises,” directed by Michael Disher, will open on Thursday, March 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Performances will continue on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through March 26. Tickets are $28, or $15 or students under age 21 with ID. For more information, call (631) 287-4377, or visit scc-arts.org.