“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying originally opened in 1961 to across the board raves, a slew of Tony Awards and a rare Pulitzer win. A satire of corporate America, the show featured a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert about an ambitious window-washer as he climbs the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket Company. The musical is based on an unlikely source: Sheperd Mead’s same-titled send-up of “How to” books published in 1952. The show was a mammoth success, running 1417 performances at the 46th Street Theatre and made Robert Morse a star. The musical also featured the last score from veteran composer Frank Loesser. The show is vibrant and funny, a clever send-up of social and gender mores of the Eisenhower era with an endearingly spry and morally unscrupulous hero. While the men connive and scheme their way to the top, the women connive and scheme to land a well-to-do husband – with all tongues firmly planted in cheek. The show is back on Broadway, this time at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in a highly entertaining revival that is destined to make it a hit show once again.

When it was announced that Daniel Radcliffe would be starring in a 50th anniversary revival, I think most people were curious whether Harry Potter can sing and dance. And I am sure there are some who wondered if the young actor, who had never done either before could carry a show. And carry it he does with considerable energy and likability. The young star makes an instant connection with the audience and sings with a pleasant, if light, tenor. I’ve noticed some criticism about his singing but I have to counter that Finch was never written to be a singer’s role. Morse (original Broadway and film), Warren Berlinger (original London) and Matthew Broderick (1995 revival) were never noted for great singing either. It’s the character and how he’s played that counts especially with this show and Mr. Radcliffe is superb (and his American accent is exceptionally good). Oh, and he is also one hell of a dancer.

Co-starring with Radcliffe is five time Emmy winner John Larroquette making a smashing Broadway debut as J.B. Biggley. His singing is more of a bluster, but his comic creation works exceptionally well. Christopher J. Hanke was a more low-key nemesis than usual as Bud Frump, but not without some humorous moments (giving him the last cup of coffee in “Coffee Break” was inspired) but his singing voice sounded quite ragged. Robert Bartlett scores big in double duty roles as Mr. Twimble and Wally Womper. Michael Park offered stolid support as Mr. Bratt, who leads “A Secretary is Not a Toy” which contains one of my favorite theatre lyrics: “Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in.” CNN journalist Anderson Cooper makes a Broadway debut of sorts, voicing the unseen narrator (Walter Cronkite did the honor in 1995) but it doesn’t land as well as it could or should.

As for the ladies, Rose Hemingway makes her Broadway debut as Rosemary Pilkington, Finch’s love interest. Ms. Hemingway is pleasant but lacks that something extra special that sets Rosemary apart from the rest of the secretarial pool. Tammy Blanchard is an absolute riot – I think I laughed at every single line she delivered – stealing every one of her scenes as bombshell cigarette girl turned secretary Hedy LaRue. Mary Faber’s Smitty made for a charming sidekick. The fabulous Ellen Harvey as the no-nonsense, takes-no-guff Miss Jones skyrockets into the operatic stratosphere on the “Brotherhood of Man” counterpoint. I’d never heard of Ms. Harvey before last night’s performance, but now I’ll never forget her.

Director-choreographer Rob Ashford has created some memorable moments, particularly his new take on “Coffee Break” and the mammoth showstopper “Brotherhood of Man” (one of the most fool proof eleven o’clock numbers). He cleverly inverted the elevator-based “Been a Long Day” to amusing effect. An added football divertissement after “Grand Old Ivy” was amusing, but entirely superfluous. (Every time I’ve seen the show, this spoof of college fight songs has always proven a crowd favorite – it doesn’t really need help). I was at first worried, because he’s overdone the choreography for the opening number: too busy, too frenetic and unnecessary. But things improved almost immediately. As for tone, the satiric element was there but could have been taken up a notch. This is especially evident with the female characters and their act two opener ‘Cinderella, Darling” which director Des MacAnuff cut from the 1995 revival.

At intermission while waiting on what must have been the longest men’s room line in the history of the amenity, I noticed a great number of the other theater-goers were children. I saw teens and pre-teens almost every place I looked, no doubt brought in by Mr. Radcliffe’s affiliation with the Harry Potter films. (Then again, I can see How to Succeed as a better selling point than Equus). Much to my surprise and elation I noticed how much these kids were enjoying the production – and also how dapper they were all dressed – putting most of the adults in the house to stylistic shame. My slight reservations about the production aside, these kids are in for a real treat: a big old Broadway show executed with style and charm.


“How to Succeed” on Broadway

The team behind the upcoming 50th anniversary revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying has just unveiled the show’s first TV commercial. The production will star Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame and John Larroquette, who’s been making me laugh since his four-time Emmy winning turn on Night Court. Further casting has yet to be announced.

I have to admit it, I just love this show. Period. It’s got a funny libretto; an incisive, episodic satire of mid 20th century big business. Frank Loesser’s score is a delight (his lyrics are especially sharp). I keep both Broadway cast albums on my ipod at all times. The original production was a huge success, running 1417 performances and winning the Best Musical Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ever rare for a musical. The show was directed by co-librettist Abe Burrows and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Robert Morse, headlining as window-washer turned executive J. Pierrepont Finch, won a Tony and later recreated his role in the enjoyable if less edgy 1967 film adaptation. Charles Nelson Reilly also went home with a Tony as Finch’s nemesis Bud Frump. Rudy Vallee was the boss, Ruth Kobart his stern yet operatic secretary. The 1995 revival starred Matthew Broderick, who also won a Tony, and Megan Mullaly, running 548 performances with voice over narration by Walter Cronkite. Both productions played at the Richard Rodgers (née 46th Street) Theatre.

A few years back, another revival happening within this relatively short time period might have seemed unthinkable, but 15 years seems like eons when compared with Gypsy, La Cage Aux Folles and Ragtime. I’m really hoping the show does exceedingly well, but I do wonder if the recent revival of Promises Promises might have a curbing effect on How to Succeed. Both shows, while vastly different in tone and style, have a many parallels about 1960s corporate ambition and gender roles in the workplace. There’s no question in my mind that H2$ is a far superior show, a tongue-in-cheek satire whose book remains quite funny. Promises, Promises doesn’t have as strong a score, in spite of its Bacharach-David hits and Neil Simon’s book has been much criticized this time around.

I compare the two shows for two reasons. First, they are landing on Broadway within a year of each other.  Second, both productions share similar producers and more importantly, the same director/choreographer. Comparisons will be inevitable, especially since Promises, Promises was moved from its specific setting of 1968 into 1962, which puts it within the era of How to Succeed, in terms of visual look and period context. The critical reception of Promises was about as exciting as a root canal. While negative reviews haven’t curbed the box appeal (thanks to stars Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth), it does make me a little nervous what will happen with H2$. (Word of advice to Ashford – trust the material, don’t interpolate and remain true to the show’s time period. It isn’t broke. Don’t fix it).

Radcliffe may be a little younger than the usual Finch, but I think he and Larroquette are excellent choices for their respective parts. I’ve enjoyed seeing and hearing Radcliffe talk about the desire to theatre, as well as his enthusiasm at seeing the revival of Sunday in the Park with George. It seems that unlike most child stars, he’s quite intelligent, well spoken and interested in challenging himself and seems en route to a long career on both stage and screen.

The show starts previews on February 27 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Opening night is set for March 27.


The Most Happy Fella

Seth Rudetsky reports that there are plans for a Broadway revival of the 1956 Frank Loesser musical The Most Happy Fella. The musical, a hybrid of opera and musical comedy was a big success, though it probably would have fared better had it not opened six weeks after the juggernaut My Fair Lady). Loesser took on the chores of both book and score, adapting Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize winning play They Knew What They Wanted by dropping the sociopolitical elements and heightening the romance with impressive results. The basic story line is about a waitress who strikes up a correspondence with an elderly Italian vineyard owner Tony in Napa. When she asks for a picture, he sends a snapshot of his handsome foreman fearing she will reject him due to his age. The night she arrives to meet him, he is nearly killed in a car accident. In spite of her humiliation regarding the mixup, she marries Tony before he goes under anesthetic and ends up in the arms of the foreman. And this is only the first of three acts!

The show starred the operatic baritone Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan (later Loesser), Art Lund and that belter extraordinaire Susan Johnson. The show won no Tony awards, ran 676 performances and was never made into a film (unfortunately). There have been several revivals including one in 1979 that aired on PBS and a Lincoln Center produced import of a scaled-down, 2-piano revival originated at the Goodspeed Opera House. Most recently, the show was part of the City Opera lineup though that particular production was not well-received by critics or audiences.

I have a particular fondness for the score, combining the best of both worlds with soaring ballads and arias as well as memorable comedy and production numbers. The original cast album was produced for Columbia Records by Goddard Lieberson. Instead of releasing the usual one-LP record that was the norm for theatre music, Lieberson insisted on recording the entire show. It marked the first original cast album to be released on three LPs in a boxed set with the show’s souvenir program. (A highlights LP was concurrently put out as well; I have both). With the exception of a small scene, a few lines of dialogue and a bowlderized lyric here or there (they weren’t allowed to say “son of a bitch” on the record), the recording is the practically the entire musical making for a satisfying account of the original definitive performances.

Trivia for TV lovers: This musical was featured prominently on one of the final episodes of I Love Lucy in which the foursome comes into town for dinner and a show only to discover that Lucy has mistakenly ordered tickets for the earlier matinee performance. Shenanigans ensue at the Imperial Theatre (not the real one, obviously). The episode even presented a few snippets from the cast album during audience scenes. (The way they present the show it seems as though Desilu had some stake in the stage show).

Here are those leads appearing on Ed Sullivan in 1956: