Of all his musicals, none is a greater testament to the genius of Frank Loesser than "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Unlike "Guys and Dolls" and "The Most Happy Fella," which were based on material of considerable substance, "How to Succeed" is based on pretty much nothing, a slightly tongue-in-cheek 1952 book on how to get ahead in the corporate world. From bland, colorless egg whites, Loesser concocted a remarkable souffle.
Even in the rather heavyhanded revival that opened last night, "How to Succeed" is entertaining largely because of the brilliance of Loesser's score. His lyrics have a satiric zing worthy of W. S. Gilbert, and the music has an urgency that makes even the silliest moments (people writhing in agony because there's no coffee) seem dramatic.
"How to Succeed" was never as popular as his earlier scores because none of its songs lent itself to a "hit single." And yet every number is irresistible, from the pulsing title song to the mock romantic yearning of "Rosemary" to the revivalist fervor of "Brotherhood of Man."
Moreover, every song has a theatricality so intense that nothing needs to be as overdone, as overamplified, literally and metaphorically, as everything is in this production.
Nevertheless, the revival is fun because the material is so witty, so compelling. The book, which recounts the meteoric rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, through shrewdness, chicanery and luck, from window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wickets, bogs down in the second act. Its weaknesses, however, seem far more glaring than they would if the direction were less labored.
The revival's greatest assets are its performers, especially the marvelous Ronn Carroll, as the irascible head of World Wide Wickets; Megan Mullally, as the long-suffering secretary of the totally self-centered "hero," and Victoria Clark as her ally in helping Finch climb the corporate ladder.
Matthew Broderick brings his undeniable puppy-dog charm to the role of Finch, but Broderick is a lap dog, and this is a part for a terrier. Still, he has a droll, wry style with the book's understated humor.
Jeff Blumenkrantz does well in the thankless role of his nasty rival, Luba Mason is somewhat strident as a femme fatale, and Lillias White handles a cliche role ably.
As he did with "Tommy," director Des McAnuff makes heavy use of projections, in this case computer images of the New York skyline. To use cinematic effects can only make theatergoers wonder why they're getting something less visceral than a movie why make such comparisons inevitable? (I must also object to the use of an image of a California tract house to represent the more civilized suburb of New Rochelle.)
Wayne Cilento's choreography has a loopy charm and acrobatic vigor. It does seem odd that the show lasts two hours and 45 minutes despite the fact that one of my favorite songs, "Cinderella, Darling," has been omitted.
Still and all, the score has such electricity that "How to Succeed" is extremely enjoyable even if the production occasionally short-circuits.
Any rumors that "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" might appear dated in this new era of sexual harassment cases, and where women roam executive suits in executive suits were grossly exaggerated.
Indeed, as its glossily refurbished new production opening at the Richard Rodgers Theater last night amply demonstrated, they were totally unfounded.
This 30-something Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows musical - blessed with an utterly charming and quirkily dazzling star-turn from Matthew Broderick's slyly over-achieving window washer - comes across as gloriously tuneful and as extravagantly witty as ever.
Gray flannel suits, executive board rooms, commutes from suburbia and water-cooler romances change little with time while all forms of office chicanery - soft-soaping, leap-frogging, back-stabbing and other contact sports associated with ascending that corporate ladder - are as fashionable today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.
But of course, a classic is no classic if it can't be subject to a certain re-interpretation, and the director Des McAnuff and the choreographer Wayne Cilento have indeed re-interpreted.
The satiric edge of Loesser's lyrics and the book, which was primarily provided by Burrows, has been honed and sharpened, although very little has been actually changed.
That dopey song "Cinderella, Darling' (where the heroine is exhorted by her fellow secretaries to go and grab her prince) has been dropped, and Cilento's dazzling dances - while often paying affectionate tribute to the trademarked puppet gesticulations of Bob Fosse's original style - open up to suggest a choreographic subtext of women having the upper hand in sexual politics. But the main modernization is simply in presentation. Burrows' original production was '60s conventional, even though Robert Randolph's scenery seemed for its time unusual in its bold stylization.
That is nothing new to the current world, hinting at virtual reality, which McAnuff and the new designer John Arnone have created. They have taken much the same approach to "How to Succeed" that a couple of seasons back they successfully applied to "The Who's Tommy."
But here the inappropriate, if striking, visuals (video designs by Batwin & Robin Productions - cute huh?) and the mechanized sets, all held within a permanent decorative framework, don't really work.
The show not only looks unprepossessing but - apart from Susan Hilferty's delicately poised period costumes, and the use of typewriters rather than computers - it never captures the early '60s spirit it sets its sights on.
But with a happy score as thoughtfully witty as this - who but Loesser would dare suggest sudden passion with a tongue-in-cheek quotation from Grieg's Piano Concerto? - and with a satirical book good enough to deserve the Pulitzer it won, you have a recipe for How to Succeed in a Musical Without Really Trying.
Gratifyingly, McAnuff and Cilento have tried, and their results with most of the cast are terrific. The bad news first - there is a gap in the show where Rudy Vallee used to stand as J.B. Biggley, president of World Wide Wickets.
Ronn Carroll, his o'erparted successor, does a valiant best, but he's not as silly, and not, of course, as nostalgic. When the old crooner sand that ballad "Love From a Heart of Gold" it stayed sung!
And unfortunately, Vallee is still around in memory CD and movie video, precisely as is the equally legendary Robert Morse as that stealthy Horatio Alger of the '60s, J. Pierrepont Finch.
However, Broderick seems totally undaunted and unfazed - his performance glitters evasively from every hypocritical pore, while even his unctuous pose of modesty carelessly thrown over naked ambition is something to savor.
He doesn't even try to imitate the inimitable Bobby Morse - that legend's left untouched - but he manages to make an unscrupulous nerd magically beguiling. And he sings beautfifully - even scat.
McAnuff has a way with actors, while Cilento has a way to make them dance and this is a very superior cast.
Who to mention? Really everyone - even, forgetting Valle, the luck-less Carroll. But special kudos perhaps to Jeff Blumenkrantz as that deliciously odious streak of nepotism, Frump; Jonathan Freeman pompously lovable as a middle executive Bratt, and Lillias White converting "The Brotherhood of Man" finale into a revival meeting.
Finally, why does "How to Succeed" succeed? It simply has that unmistakably authentic Broadway punch that belts up, still whamming the past into the future. No, indeed, they don't write em like that nowadays. What can I tell you? Mozart's dead, too.
Call it gospel or just good news: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is as fast, funny and glitzy as it ever was. Nearly 34 years after its premiere at the 46th Street Theater, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows chef-d'oeuvre is back at the same house (since renamed the Richard Rodgers), where the pristine revival opened last night.
Times have since coarsened, public morals have become looser and political attitudes have been corrected. Yet the musical's skeptical wit and cheerfully amoral heart remain forever young. You might almost suspect that this 1961 fable of blind business ambition had been ahead of its time. Not really.
"How to Succeed" isn't about the corporate raiders, the arbitragers and the creative bookkeepers who so captivated the 1980's. Its world is enclosed entirely within the glass-and-steel tower that is the World Wide Wicket Company headquarters in Manhattan. The show's gifts and concerns are timeless. Under the classy, intelligent guidance of Des McAnuff, the director, and Wayne Cilento, whose choreography recalls Bob Fosse's original dances without imitating them, the show is a triumph of contemporary Broadway know-how.
Most important, it has the marvelous Loesser score and an unusually crafty book, at the center of which is the most endearingly flawed character ever to scheme his way from window-washer to the top of the corporate ladder. He's J. Pierrepont Finch, the role that made a star of Robert Morse and now provides the deceptively gentle-mannered Matthew Broderick with the breakout opportunity of his theatrical career. Beneath that earnest boy-next-door exterior, J. Pierrepont Finch is an epically gifted opportunist, a fellow with both eyes on the main chance when he arrives at World Wide Wicket.
Mr. Broderick sings. He dances. He comes on to strangers as if he were Tom Sawyer, although he's more like Huck Finn in a three-button suit. He deceives with such innocent, deadpan relish that he threatens the stability of the house. Mr. Broderick never suggests the gap-toothed, moon-faced mania that made Mr. Morse so funny. Instead he gives a supremely legitimate performance that also happens to be priceless.
Mr. McAnuff and his associates have had the great good sense not to update the book. This was written by Burrows (the original show's director), Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, inspired mostly by the title of Shepherd Mead's best-selling collection of tongue-in-cheek maxims for junior executives. Some of the more obvious sexist jokes and lyrics have been weeded out, but then, "How to Succeed" was never that sexist to begin with.
Even as it reflected office behavior of the 1960's, it was sending up that behavior. A case in point: Loesser's admonitory number "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," in which World Wide Wicket's most transparent lecher instructs the other executives on why they shouldn't do what he so clearly longs to.
Not only has Mr. McAnuff brought the score and book to life largely uncorrupted, but he has also recreated something of the sound, sense and tempo of the fun that all Broadway musicals were once expected to deliver, though they seldom did. This show moves. It's also loud even when it is sweet. Listen to Rosemary (Megan Mullally), the pretty, loyal secretary hopelessly in love with young Finch, who's hopelessly in love with himself and with getting ahead.
When she sings "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" or joins him in the beguiling two-part love song "Rosemary," the sentiments are pure, but the voice is of a fine, old-fashioned brassiness you don't hear much anymore. Not for a split second do you mistake her show-biz longings for real life, which is the way it should be.
My memory is still vividly haunted by three performers in the 1961 production: Mr. Morse, Rudy Vallee, who played J. B. Biggley, the president and grand boob of World Wide Wicket, and Charles Nelson Reilly, who, as Bud Frump, was Mr. Morse's hilariously arch but inept enemy and competitor. The new cast members don't wipe away thoughts of those actors; they coexist in something like harmony.
Especially good is Ronn Carroll as Biggley, who loathes his offstage wife, keeps a doxy on the side, secretly knits to calm his nerves and, by chance, has a big singing voice. One of the curiosities of this revival is that Loesser's up-front comic songs, like "Coffee Break," have aged less well than the ballads and rousing satirical numbers, including "Grand Old Ivy," a parody college anthem sung with gusto by Biggley and Finch.
Jeff Blumenkrantz's Bud Frump, tall, loose-limbed and dim of mind, is a cartoon figure made almost human by the breathtaking, last-minute ploys by which Finch out maneuvers him from the mail room to the chairmanship.
Some of the other noteworthy performers: Victoria Clark as Smitty, the secretary's secretary and everyone's best friend; Gerry Vichi, who doubles as the head of the mail room and World Wide Wicket's chairman; Lillias White as Biggley's secretary, and Luba Mason, who plays Hedy La Rue, Biggley's tall, platinum-haired protegee.
Hedy, small of brain and big of bosom, is a character who appears with some frequency in shows of this era. Yet when she and Biggley unexpectedly bare their hearts to each other in the cockeyed "Love From a Heart of Gold," you know why the character endures. She's to musicals what clowns are to Barnum & Bailey.
When the original song fails to deliver, as in "Coffee Break," Mr. Cilento's tumultuously funny choreography comes to the rescue. It also supplements the fun in numbers that need no rescuing. "The Company Way" still delights as the office wimp's instructive confession on how to keep your job without getting ahead. If the show's funniest, loveliest song, "I Believe in You," sung by Mr. Broderick in the executive washroom, hasn't its original impact, it may be because Mr. McAnuff has overdirected it. There's just too much going on in a set that includes urinals at the back.
The show's design (by John Arnone), lighting (Howell Binkley) and costumes (Susan Hilferty) recall much of the neon look and the colors of Mr. McAnuff's production of "Tommy," which happen to work well here. The elaborate video graphics, designed by Batwin & Robin Productions, give the show a contemporary kick, and on a couple of occasions they are genuinely funny.
A word, too, about the venerable Walter Cronkite, whose voice is heard as that of the how-to book that guides Finch to power and fortune. The tones are mellifluous, avuncular, bogusly authoritative. The performance may not be the capstone to a career, but it's one to cherish.
There's a lot of talent on display here, bridled with care. From its rousing overture until the evangelical "Brotherhood of Man," which brings the evening to a foot-stomping end, this "How to Succeed" is very nearly a nonstop delight.
Tethered to a window washer's platform and all but edible in a powder-blue monkey suit and bow tie, Matthew Broderick descends the brightly lit side of a sleek Manhattan office building, reading the tome that is to be his bible, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," the mother of all self-help guides. We know the author speaks with the voice of authority because the Voice of Authority himself, Walter Cronkite, is the one we hear narrating passages throughout the evening as Broderick's J. Pierrepont Finch, one of Broadway's great connivers, connives his way to the top of World Wide Wickets and gets the girl, too.
"How to Succeed" will turn this sorry, impoverished season on its ear. It'll win heaps of awards in the coming months and should be making people happy for a long time to come. It would thumb its nose at "Sunset Boulevard" if it weren't 33 1/2 years old; instead, it's going to give "Show Boat" a terrific run for its money come Tony time. And "How to Succeed" would make a musical-theater star of Broderick, as the original did for Robert Morse, if we actually had a musical theater, or a Broadway, anymore. Maybe it will anyway.
I'm happy, what can I say? "How to Succeed" is as good as it gets, which, given the combined teams behind "Tommy" and "Guys and Dolls," is very good indeed. For starters -- it's the first thing you see as you pass from the lobby into the Richard Rodgers Theater (where "How to Succeed" premiered in 1961) -- there's another great John Arnone set, in this case the brushed aluminum and pastel-paneled skin of a skyscraper that doubles beautifully as the interior and exterior of the World Wide Wicket headquarters.
Then director Des McAnuff, also responsible for "Tommy," almost completely trusts the material. His production is less self-consciously nostalgic than the current "Damn Yankees" and less broadly comic than the recent smash revival of "Guys and Dolls." Instead, McAnuff lets the satire speak for itself, and he's found only one song from the original score, "Cinderella, Darling," too dated to salvage.
Does any show boast a more muscular score than "How to Succeed"? It's a given that Frank Loesser's songs are wonderful -- three days after seeing the show, they're still popping in and out of my head -- but each has a job to do, as well; there's not an ounce of fat in the enterprise. McAnuff and his "Tommy" partner, choreographer Wayne Cilento, set the story at such an exuberant pace and with such panache that the show seems less a mere revival than a freshly minted, fractured fairy tale in which a nebbishy Narcissus sees his reflection in the polished glass of an office tower and finds that American dreams really do come true.
The lad, of course, is Finch, who flies from window washer to mailroom clerk to junior executive, head of advertising and, ultimately, the chairman's suite in what seems to be a matter of minutes, following the precepts of that sly book. (Shepherd Mead's novel was published in 1952; the author died last summer, just before this production got off the ground at the La Jolla Playhouse.) Finch is a wolf in sheepish clothing, charm and cunning in one irresistible package. It's easy to see why that sweet secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Megan Mullally) instantly falls for him -- even as her sidekick Smitty (Victoria Clark) just as quickly tags him a barracuda. He's dangerously adorable.
And Broderick owns him. Like Morse, he has a reedy tenor thatconstantly threatens to break but never does; that tenuousness is part of the appeal. So is Broderick's physical grace: Watch "Grand Old Ivy," in which Finch and company president J.B. Biggley (Ronn Car-roll) deliver a college anthem only one of them (it's not Finch) actually knows. Finch stays barely a quarter-beat behind Biggley's singing and dancing for the song's duration, one of the funniest bits I've ever seen, and Broderick makes it look as natural as breathing. There's more good news in the casting, including the inspired choice of Lillias White as Biggley's secretary (who turns the 11 o'clock number, "Brotherhood of Man," into a rafters-raising blast). Jeff Blumenkrantz, a beanpole with glasses, is terrifically smarmy as Biggley's whiny, talent-free nephew, and Luba Mason displays all the attributes necessary for the bombshell Hedy La Rue, including a police-siren voice and a figure of outstanding proportions.
In his hand-knitted golf outfit, Carroll will remind many of the Great One, and there's a lot of Jackie Gleason in his blustery performance. Mullally is perseverance personified as Rosemary, singing "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" as cartoonish images of a dreamed-for home in New Rochelle flash above her. Clark is just as winning as Smitty.
Cilento's dances -- particularly the demented "Coffee Break" and, later, "Pirate Dance"-- pay homage to Bob Fosse (who was brought in during rehearsals of the original to augment Hugh Lambert's choreography), chiefly in the way the entire company moves as a single, loose-limbed, somewhat psychedelic organism.
The colors of the production -- powder blue, mustard yellow, avocado green, St. Joseph's Aspirin for Children orange -- are wittily deployed throughout both Susan Hilferty's delightful costumes and Howell Binkley's saturation lighting. Arnone's ingenious set manages to be at once efficient and elegant.
In all, a wonderful production. And as Walter Cronkite would say, that's the way it is.