How is it possible for a revival of a musical as giddy and madcap as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to be so good that it actually pisses you off?
Imagine the parent-teacher grade school conference. “I don’t know what to say, Mr. and Mrs. Ashford. Little Robbie is so talented and so smart—but creativity comes so easily to him that sometimes he doesn’t always finish what he starts before he’s onto the next thing; and sometimes he just doesn’t know when to stop. I just know, though, that with a little discipline…”
That was pretty much my feeling as I watched the production in question. On the one hand, director choreographer Rob Ashford has managed something rare: he has re-envisioned a classic musical—in this case the Frank Loesser/Abe Burrows et al romp derived from Shepherd Mead’s bestselling “instructional manual”—with new spins on nearly all the elements—particularly casting, where he selectively shies from some very familiar pre-conceptions of the main characters in favor of choices that are off the beaten path without being off the actual path. The difference in philosophies is subtle, but it’s the difference between new adventure and misadventure. And the key is his having kept the basic thematic, symbolic and comedy spine of each character intact. One needs to look no further than the headliners:
Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t bring impishness to the table as J. Pierpont Finch, the young window washer who begins a meteoric rise to the top of the business food chain at the World Wide Wicket Company. Or at least not much of it; his interpretation is one of monolithic (but not monochrome) determination, occasionally punctuated by a moment in which you realize Finch is slyer than he lets on, even to the audience—an insight which extends to one’s feeling about Radcliffe himself. He has some of the telltale stiffness of a straight-drama newcomer to musicals, which includes a certain rhythmic rigidity as he sings; but he also has the energy and commitment of a trouper; he’s a surprisingly game, limber dancer; and his innate charm is palpable and real—as is his intelligence. If the performance is not quite inspired, it is at least infused with likability.
John Larroquette as big boss J. B. Biggly doesn’t at all mold to the specs-wearing old-timer template, fashioned around former heartthrob crooner Rudy Vallee when he created the role in 1961. He’s more of a bluffer and bumbler (an older, somewhat mellower version, perhaps of his Dan Fielding turn on the sitcom Night Court beginning nearly three decades ago). There’s an odd sweetness to his ineptitude, which seems expertly camouflaged to everyone except us. And when his Biggley gets excited over finding in Finch what he believes to be a kindred spirit, he expresses it with an irrepressible and deliriously incongruous, childlike bounciness.
Same with the musical numbers—unlike the overstated, focus-grabbing, material-distrusting direction that infused Des McAnuff’s revival of 1994 (boy it sure doesn’t seem as long as 16 years ago!), Ashford has faith in the scenes and songs to do their job, and makes it his job to facilitate them.
So what’s not to like?
(It’d take far too long to chapter-and-verse the context of each bullet-point here, but I’m going to assume most of you have at least a passing familiarity with the show, since it is a major part of the canon. Those of you who don’t, bear with me and perhaps context will make things clear enough.)
a good deal of over-choreography in a several numbers. Too much
stamping-the-mail business during “The Company Way”; distracting (and
thematically irrelevant) tap-dancing during “Cinderella Darling”; over-involved
slinky/sleuthy espionage-type moves as the executives sing the “I Gotta Stop
That Man” prelude to “I Believe in You”…none of it exactly pulls focus from the
points, each song still comes off properly…but you’re aware that someone’s
showing off and it almost exhausts your concentration. What's missing is a sense of proportion, of how to edit a good idea.
Then there’s commonsense stuff. There are all those long spaces between phrases when Finch sings “I Believe in You” to his reflection in the executive washroom mirror. They’re there for the actor to playfully fill out. Radcliffe assiduously doesn’t. He just clings (almost desperately) to his look of steely determination until the next phrase to be sung. Radcliffe may not be a natural comedian or a born musical theatre animal, in the mode of the role’s originator, Robert Morse, but he’s resourceful enough—and the only reason for him not to be using those resources in an exposed spot is because Ashford didn’t help him. (This may be a function of Asford not being what they call an “actors’ director”—yet?—but I’ve never understood how even a director whose other skills take precedence can miss something so obvious.) Then there’s the “Brotherhood of Man” sequence. The trigger for Finch starting the song off is his desire to keep Wally Womper, the Head of the Board of Directors from firing everybody—so why hasn’t Radcliffe been directed to deliver the song to Womper (at least cursorily, so we stay mindful of dramatic tension) and focus on Womper’s reaction? Plus: there’s that built-in vamp (it can also be a frozen pause) after Finch makes his case…it’s supposed to keep pulsing (or holding) until Womper finally jumps up and sings: “No kiddin’? Is there really a brotherhood of man?” But Ashford totally ignores the beat, and Womper just joins in singing, no palpable decision having been made. And it makes no sense. The whole point of Womper saying “No kiddin’?” is to announce that, YES!, after all, he’s on board with the philosophy—ennabling Finch’s final triumph. It’s not that the number doesn’t come off…the narrative is not complex, How to Succeed is musical comedy in the most extreme use of the classification, the audience assumes the transition…but they’d enjoy the moment that much more if they didn’t have to…and their instinctive faith in the inevitable happy ending doesn’t mean attention should not be paid to just these little sharp details. Such details’ existence is not predicated on nuances of interpretation; they’re built in and conspicuously part of the writing. How you may deliver them may be up for consideration. But not to deliver them at all?
How, how how can Ashford so infuse How to Succeed with vital, knowing life, garnering one of the most enthusiastic audience responses I’ve heard in a long, long time…deservedly so…and at the same time be so lazy (which is not to be confused with unindustrious)—or just randomly oblivious? It’s a question that makes me crazy, and if I try to ponder it too long, I’ll be like one of those mad, uncontrollable supercomputers in the old science fiction episodes who are finally stopped because the hero asks it a question that poses a logical contradiction, forcing it to self-destructive implosion.
In the end, all one can do is take comfort in the fact that Ashford has, overall, brought in a genuinely terrific revival. And keep remembering that that’s the main thing…