The new Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, Neil Simon’s 1968 musical adaptation of The Apartment (with songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), is another example of how Mad Men has had a lot of cultural impact despite its small viewership. The decision to revive the show is kind of puzzling, in the abstract. An Encores! concert revival in 1997 demonstrated that most of the score sounds very dated, and Simon’s script doesn’t add anything interesting to the original movie. The people who did the most to make the original show a hit star Jerry Orbach and choreographer Michael Bennett, are both dead. But Mad Men has made the ’60s office setting and sexual politics au courant.
The producers of the revival are so determined to copy Mad Men that they’ve changed the time period of the show from 1968 to 1962 — even though this makes very little sense, given that the sound of the score is as late ’60s as any musical except Hair. (The orchestrations, by Jonathan Tunick, were among the first to combine a traditional Broadway sound with the “canned” sound of studio recordings, including a wordless chorus of backup singers.)
It’s kind of inevitable, I guess: Mad Men has become a ’60s nostalgia piece even though it tries every second to tell us it’s not being nostalgic. I don’t think this necessarily means that viewers are taking the wrong lessons from it. But the show is about the adventures of people who live in a certain time and place, and if we like following these characters, we become fascinated by the way they dress and the social conventions they follow. So someone could get all the right lessons from Mad Men and still think its world is cool, because it entertains us.
By the way, speaking of Neil Simon, John Lahr has a long article about him in The New Yorker. It’s a well-argued piece, but doesn’t really convince me to like his plays very much. I find it interesting that he insists (and Lahr agrees) he’s not a writer of mechanical jokes that are divorced from individual characters, even though that’s definitely the way I see much of his writing. It’s a reminder that the goal of every good comedy writer is to write character comedy, and jokes that are not “jokey.” Even if the goal isn’t actually achieved.