How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Daniel Radcliffe is not your run-of-the-mill superstar. He may have made his name (and won the hearts of countless teenage girls -- and their big sisters and moms) in phenomenally successful Harry Potter films, but, rather than coasting in Hollywood, he has chosen to hone his craft on Broadway.
I was lucky enough to catch him in Equus, in which he gave an exceptional performance as a troubled young man. In the latest revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he further extends himself by trying out as a song-and-dance man. Radcliffe not only has the central role; he’s the fulcrum of the entire show.
It seems fairly obvious that this production was built around him, and I would like to report that he succeeds. I use the term "trying out" above for a reason: Too often, we see the strain in the voice -- which otherwise is not bad -- and the sweat in the dance steps -- which, again, he has mastered. But on Broadway, you need more than proficiency to carry a show. You need pizzazz.
Like Robert Morse, he’s short, very, very short. This is not a bad thing. It enables him to stand out from all those tall men (and women) in the chorus. And since his character, J. Pierrepont Finch, makes a career out of standing out, that’s a good thing. He’s also 21, a good age for a climber just starting out like Finch (although it must be noted that looks much, much younger).
The 1962 show is based on a how-to put-on book from a decade before. Written in the age of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the book is a satirical look at the Corporate Man, who was then ascendant in American society. Legendary book writer and lyricist Abe Burrows, aided by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, gave it a dramatic turn by having Finch use the book as a guide to climbing the greasy corporate ladder as quickly as possible. They also gave Finch a love interest (hey, it’s a musical), a comical CEO and a nemesis, the CEO’s wife’s nephew.
All this plays out in a very ’60s setting of a large New York-based corporation that makes widgets. That doesn’t much matter, since everyone in the company seems to spend their time singing and dancing. Since the music is by Frank Loesser, the singing is usually pretty and often heavenly.
Loesser wrote one of the most-beloved musicals of all time, Guys and Dolls, and my own all-time favorite score, The Most Happy Fella. If How to Succeed is lesser Loesser, well, lesser Loesser is more just about anybody else is.
Playing opposite Radcliffe is the very pretty, perky and persistent Rosemary, here played by Rose Hemingway, a relative newcomer who quickly wins the audience over, despite a wig so hideous and obvious I can only believe it was intentionally so.
John Larroquette plays the bumbling CEO, and this Night Court veteran very nearly steals the show. Taking a role made famous by crooner Rudy Vallee, he makes it distinctly his own with some nice underplaying and when-appropriate shtick. He has a good voice and knows his way around a dance number, especially the Act One spectacular, the college fight song "Grand Old Ivy" (a minor number in the original production).
This, like the big Act Two finale, "The Brotherhood of Man," are both given to the male chorus, which seems to be a specialty of director-choreographer Rob Ashford. Having just come off the (much better) revival of Promises, Promises, Ashford would seem to have an affinity for the Mad Men era of the early ’60s.
Here, he does his signature steps. Men swoop down to the ground, chin first. They roll women around their bodies. Everyone jumps on and off tables. There’s a lot of time-synched business with objects, such as packages and letters in the very nicely done mail-room number, "Company Man."
It took me a while to warm to Christopher Hanke as the conniving nephew, but Tammhy Blanchard won me over with her first hip swivel as the bimbo girlfriend of ... well, of whoever’s around. Her Hedy LaRue has always been this show’s showstopper, and, like Katie Finneran in a very similar role in Promises, Promises, she might as well make space on the mantel for that Supporting Actress Tony Award.
While there’s nothing specifically to dislike in this revival, I found myself wondering what was missing. Certainly, Ashford pulls out all the stops -- or as many as he can get from the hard-working chorus. The principals are all very good. But the show is lacking in that certain magic that distinguishes a good show from a great one.
Part of the problem is the book. I don’t really believe that great scripts become anachronisms or creaky. We live in a very different world from the ancient Greeks, but that doesn’t make their tragedies any less immediate. But the fact is, this book is creaky. What seemed so hard hitting in the early ’60s that it won the Pulitzer for drama in the ’10s comes across as sexist and twee.
The sets are also problematic. They’re clever, and those giant shining diamonds put me in mind of Bewitched; in fact, that seminal ’60s show’s aesthetic seems reflected in much of the design. But other than a lot of props and a very cool giant skyline, there’s no real scenery to speak of, which makes gives some scenes a lack of place.
From those who saw it, I’m led to believe that the problems with the book weren’t as big a deal in the 1995 revival, which starred Matthew Broderick (and a leading lady who was soon to become the real-life wife of the star, Sarah Jessica Harper). So, yes, I hesitate to say it, but since the burden of the show falls on Radcliffe, so must part of the blame.
Again, he’s not bad, but we’re looking at a potentially great Broadway star in training. So maybe if How to Succeed doesn’t entirely succeed in 2011, anyone who catches this revival will get to say "I saw him when" in 2021. Meanwhile, his legion of fans can eat up every moment of this ambitious forthright anti-hero.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Al Hirschfeld Theater
302 W. 45th St. (Times Square subway station)
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or