Friday, April 8, 2011

How to Succeed…Without Really Trying

By Mary Sheeran
            If someone were to write a book about how to succeed in musical theater without really trying, the first goal, I think, would be to engage the audience’s affection for a leading character. If that character is somewhat narcissistic and self-absorbed, then the objective should be to make him or her sympathetic either through plot development or through someone else’s eyes.
            Wait, I guess that would involve trying, wouldn’t it?
Well, then, you can hire an actor who has a screaming base of fans who are delighted at that actor’s being able to simply deliver a line. Rob Ashford, the director and choreographer of Broadway’s current revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, chose that path. He doesn’t bother with bringing us a fresh look at the satiric Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that opened in 1961. No, Ashford simply brings us Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame and lets him work up the sweat and bring in the cash. Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t succeed, it just gets by.
            If the actor playing J. Pierpont Finch (aka, Ponty), who climbs out of his window washing rig and in a matter of days (or is it minutes?) sinks into the seat of the Chairman of the Board at the World Wide Wicket Company, doesn’t have the charm to engage us, nothing in this play is going to work – not mediocre choreography, not ugly scenery, not unfocused acting, nothing. Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics are bouncy and often witty (“Company Way,” “Brotherhood of Man”), but they need to be brought to life.
Radcliffe, who gave Broadway a thoughtful and intelligent performance in Equus, doesn’t have the charm for Ponty, even though he really tries, and worse, he looks scared. He’s not having any fun. He looks as if he’s gearing up for another bout with Lord Voldemort.
            Obviously, Radcliffe has prodigious gifts, and in its backhanded way, How to Succeed proves this, but one would wish that, since the guy can certainly sing and dance, that for now he’d take on a role requiring more from an ensemble so that success doesn’t only depend on him. How to Succeed could have worked that way, but a director would have had to understand how to highlight Radcliffe without simply making him the focus of every single scene (“He sings! He makes us laugh! He dances!”). A strong ensemble could have helped Radcliffe shake off the intensity he’s gotten in the habit of resonating as a performer. Instead, this callous production milks Radcliffe as a cash cow presence as much as possible, making sure that he is the focus of every scene, throwing the show off balance, and shortchanging other gifted performers. That’s a shame because they, and Radcliffe, deserve much better. So do we.
            Judging only by Ashford’s production, it is astounding to consider that How to Succeed won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962 as well as seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Book, and played Broadway for 1,417 performances. Based on a 1952 best-selling satire of the same name by Shepherd Mead, the original Broadway production included the not so undistinguished talents of Frank Loesser (music and lyrics), Abe Burrows (book), and Bob Fosse (choreography, although he was credited as doing the musical staging). The concept – snide, satirical, yet affectionate ribbing of the corporate world – is certainly timeless, even if the culture of corporate life has distinctly changed.
            Those cultural changes must have been of some concern to anyone producing this show from the late 1960s on. It certainly absorbed the creative energies of those who were behind the 1967 film – the same writing team from Broadway was behind it. By 1967, many of the songs and attitudes in How to Succeed would have been heading toward anachronism (coffee break, anyone?). To refocus on the characters, the film cut the wince-inducing songs,  “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” “Coffee Break,” “Rosemary’s Philosophy,” and “Paris Original,” as well as the song between Biggley and Hedy La Rue, and really jabbed at the men in “A Secretary is not a Toy.”  The film then focused on Ponty as a real person, capitalizing on the boyish charm and energy of star Robert Morse. To add to his sympathy, “I Believe in You”  (which in the stage production Finch sings to himself in the mirror in the second act) moved to the first act, so that Rosemary, a secretary with her sights set on Ponty, could sing it to a nervous Ponty. That scene  created a more vulnerable character and also allowed us to see Ponty through Rosemary’s loving eyes. (She wasn’t just out to get married.) Consequently in the film, when Ponty reprises the song to the mirror in the Executive Washroom, it recreates the warm affection for the character.
Such reconsiderations of the material helped the film. Almost out of date when it came out, its characters and satire remained fresh, and Morse’s boyish energy was used wisely, if sometimes cloyingly.
            But in the current Broadway production, Ashford stuck to the original, didn’t rethink anything, and hardly paid attention to anyone other than Radcliffe from the looks of it. This left others on the production team to go their own way, with only Catherine Zuber’s costumes showing some imaginative whimsy. The set reminded me of the prison scene in “Chicago,” with some help from the 1960s Star Trek. Well, it’s a concept.
            John Larroquette suffers the most as Mr. Biggley. His office flies through the air in Act 1, which takes him far away from the audience so that we miss subtleties that would add some depth to this buffoonish exec. The “Old Ivy” number, which would have helped the character, too, is lost in an inane effort to put Radcliffe through a football game – missing the point of the song by one hundred yards. By the time Mr. B’s office comes down to earth, and he sings a warm duet with La Rue (Tammy Blanchard who, takes her role way too seriously), we don’t care anymore.
            Signs of real life come from Rose Hemingway (in photo with Radcliffe) in her Broadway debut as Rosemary Pilkington . She makes it gamely through that “Dinner” song, and is so warm and honest in the short “I Believe in You” reprise, you do believe her. Unfortunately, the applause she deserves is cut off by another entrance. Christopher J. Hanke does well as Bud Frumpe, although his boyish charm made me think that he and Radcliffe should have changed places in the casting line. Ellen Harvey does well in the role of Miss Jones as does Mary Faber in the thankless role of Smitty.
            Oh, and I almost forgot Anderson Cooper, the voice of the book Ponty is reading. That part should be all ham on wry, but it looks as if you don’t even have to show up to be witless in this production.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert. Based on the book by Shepherd Mead. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. Music direction and arrangements by David Chase. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. With Daniel Radcliffe, John Larroquette, Tammy Blanchard, Christopher J. Hanke, Rob Bartlett, Mary Faber, Ellen Harvey, and Michael Park. At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer. Her recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

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