How Not To Succeed Reviving an Anti-Corporate Broadway Classic

04/06/2011 4:00 AM |

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Rob Ashford

Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is both a giddy musical celebration of post-war affluence and a sly satire of the house-of-cards economic system on which it stood. What better a time to revive it, then, when 50 years after its premiere, capitalism has just pulled through the most serious threat to its survival since the Great Depression, and MBA-types are more popularly loathed than ambulance chasers?

But don't go to Rob Ashford's semicentennial revival expecting any knowing send-up of free-market values, any acknowledgement of the book's subversive depiction of bloated corporations full of nepotists, skirt chasers, and redundant employees in made-up departments ("Plans and Systems"). Such things bore Ashford, last on Broadway reviving Promises, Promises, another show built foremost on Mad Men-era style. He's a vapid hedonist, recreating this show as a 60s-era variety program (with a Laugh-In-style backdrop); musical numbers don't push the plot forward, but stop the show, song after song, as the director parades choruses of tap-dancing ladies in Easter egg-colored dresses or slithering masses of men in gray suits across the boards for your oohs, aahs and applause. Ashford doubles as the show's choreographer, and the dancing is inventive, if just as shallow as the spiffy fashion. The show feels as bulging with trimmable fat as the fictional corporation it's meant to lampoon.

A perfectly adequate Daniel Radcliffe stars as J. Pierrepont Finch, a window-washer who quickly climbs the corporate ladder at The World Wide Wicket Company with the help of a book that gives the show its title. (The role was originated by Robert Morse, who plays Bert Cooper on Mad Men, a delightful bit of in-joke casting.) As Finch tussles for power with the boss' nephew, Bud Frump, (Christopher J. Hanke), the show's creators set up a rivalry between European-style entitlement (Frump) and the American Dream (Finch)—aristocracy vs. democracy. But each belies the myth of meritocracy: both sides, to varying degrees of sympathy, are conniving and unethical, getting ahead by virtue of their scheming rather than their talent. In fact, Loesser and the book's writers portray the entire company as filled with such manipulators, paper-pushers deceiving their way to a paycheck and benefits.

Even Finch seems less than a hero: he's frequently neglectful and narcissistic, particularly in the way he treats his love interest, Rosemary (Rose Hemingway). Radcliffe's most successful scene in the show, however, is the song "Rosemary," Finch's declaration of love and the one fleeting moment in which he acknowledges someone other than himself. In those few minutes, Radcliffe and Hemingway sell the American musical's raison d'être: old-fashioned romance, the earth-stopping power of a single kiss, expressed with breathless, wide-eyed monomania. Ashford, with a knack for the spectacular, shows there that he has a heart. But everywhere else he proves he hasn't got a head, and a good director needs both.

<(photo: Ari Mintz)