I owe Jo Loesser an apology. A few years ago, I had the temerity to write to her in her capacity as guardian of the work of her late husband, composer/lyricist Frank Loesser. I’d been possessed by the notion that working a gender reversal on the leading roles of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying would bring that 1961 musical hilariously up-to-date. So possessed that I was prepared to try, with her permission, to rework the script myself.
Imagine that instead of brash opportunist J. Pierrepont Finch rising from the mailroom while loyal secretary Rosemary Pilkington waits for him to notice her, their corporate roles were reversed. In my version, a career-minded Rosemary would croon “I Believe in You” to a mirror in the Worldwide Wicket Co.’s executive washroom, while Finch sang swooningly that he’d be “Happy to Keep Her Dinner Warm.” Instead of male execs ogling the steno pool in “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” I imagined female bosses giving their hunky male secretaries a diet Coke-style once-over. And just think of the new spin that would be put on the CEO’s surprise when his most enterprising underling whistles his alma mater’s fight song. Grand Old Ivy, gone coed?!? The boss’s double-take would be priceless.
The unstated subtext of my letter was that three decades of feminism had left How to Succeed all but unplayable as written, that its script would seem hopelessly sexist to enlightened audiences, and that the only way to goose its comedy back to life was to perform a sex-change operation on the cast. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Jo Loesser wrote back a sweet letter, noting that the changes I was proposing had been suggested before (so much for my dreams of royalty checks), and that plans were then in the works for a big-budget Broadway revival she hoped I’d enjoy.
That revival—all $5.5-million worth—is now playing a pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center Opera House with Matthew Broderick as Finch, Megan Mullally as Rosemary…and me in the audience eating humble pie. Loesser was absolutely right. Though I have a few quibbles about the production, there’s no question that How to Succeed needs an update about as much as Newt Gingrich needs lessons in arrogance. The show was, and remains,a musical comedy gem—tuneful, winning, and uproarious enough to coax guffaws from that fabled Philistine, the tired businessman.
What I’d lost sight of, but what director Des McAnuff and a company populated by three-dimensional animated cartoons never forgets, is that the show is a satire, with tongue planted so firmly in cheek it’s easy to get the impression that even the ditziest receptionists could cite chapter and verse from every article GloriaSteinem ever wrote. There have, of course, been changes in tone—but mostly surrounding the main character. Where a frenetic Robert Morse played Finch as the craziest fruitcake in the corporate asylum, the more laid-back Broderick makes the character an island of comparative calm onstage. While things happened because of Morse, they tend to happen to Broderick, which may merely be a reflection of differing stage personalities, but pretty neatly summarizes the sea change that’s taken place in the way the public perceives the relative strength of individuals and corporations.
Regardless, McAnuff’s chief contribution hasn’t been to update How To Succeed by rethinking its ’60s take on corporate politics, but to radically reconceive its visual style. The original production was designed as a cartoon; this one’s an interactive video encased in a postmodern skyscraper. It features bright pastel panels (designed by John Arnone, who did The Who’s Tommy) that swing together to form all manner of elevators, offices, and mailrooms. The panels also light up in dozens of patterns, and frame a towering wall of flat, projection-TV screens—32 in all—that back up the performers with swirling computer-generated images (created by Tommy video-meisters Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri).
Sometimes in How to Succeed, the screens are filled with spinning corporate logos; other times, they show the view outside the building, swooping up or down and turning the whole stage into a vertigo-inducing, glass-walled elevator. During the manic “Coffee Break” number, a monstrous metallic blimp floats by, briefly obscuring the glistening Empire State Building and the moving clouds behind it. And when Rosemary starts singing about what she thinks married life might be like with Finch in New Rochelle, the wall seems to take wing, soaring through the dark canyons between office buildings, flying out to the suburbs and eventually zooming in on the front door of the ranch-style rambler of her dreams.
Note that while all this is going on, the audience completely loses sight of Rosemary herself, though she’s belting away at the top of her lungs in a spotlight at center-stage. There’s no way a mere mortal can compete with a four-story moving billboard. McAnuff knows that, and has Mullally sing the second and third verses of the song without any visual competition before he sets the camera moving again. That the performers can make any impression at all under such circumstances is a testament to McAnuff’s restraint. The set doesn’t just function as a character in this corporate saga—it’s very nearly the principal character.
Which is not to say that the movie star who gets above-the-title billing isn’t working hard and to pretty good effect. Broderick is an endearingly odd duck onstage, as those who watched him slouch goofily through Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues will remember. At rest, he tends to stand with feet splayed in what looks like a first-position ballet stance, ankles and knees together, hips thrust out as if his legs had taken a step forward and the rest of him hadn’t yet decided to follow. At the Opera House, he sometimes gives the impression of being held erect by Susan Hilferty’s angular, brightly hued suits, almost as if he’d neglected to take the hanger out of his coat before putting it on. In Finch’s more winsomely helpless moments, he rises on tiptoe while bending his knees so that his lower limbs seem to be under the control of a demented puppeteer. Ray Bolger refined similar movements into dance; Broderick seems to come by them naturally, and to be able to bend them to the service of his character.
He also has a pleasantly reedy singing voice that’s perfectly adequate in a body-miked age for rousing choruses of “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man.” (The sound design, which from my seat near the front seemed entirely directionless, is smooth enough to utterly defeat an audience’s sporting efforts to figure out who’s singing when there’s a choice of more than three people onstage, but that’s another story.) What Broderick doesn’t particularly have is that explicit, defining, nobody-else-hadever-better-try-to-do-this-like-me star quality that musical-comedy icons had when shows were still being built around them rather than around sets.
Of course, God only knows how Broderick or anyone else could develop that sort of presence these days. Apart from Chita Rivera (who’ll be here next month in Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Bernadette Peters, there aren’t any true Broadway stars who are still appearing regularly. No need for them when hydraulics are doing all the work. Which is a shame, because McAnuff establishes with this supporting company that the talent to back them up still exists. The KenCen hasn’t housed a more adept cast of rubber-limbed, addlepated comedians in ages. If I single out Jeff Blumenkrantz’s craven boss’s nephew, Victoria Clark’s big-boned, big-voiced, big-hearted executive secretary, and Jonathan Freeman’s uproariously unhinged personnel director, that’s merely because they have numbers early in the show, when I was still taking notes.
Which is a backhanded way of saying that at about the halfway point of How to Succeed, I put down my pen, stopped cataloging debits and credits, and just sat back to enjoy the ride—something no new musical has made me do in years. What could this abnegation of critical responsibility signify?…Oh, probably just that the sure-footed musicals of my youth still give me pleasures of the sort I never learned to quantify. Or maybe that they really did make ’em to last back then. No doubt I’ll come to my senses soon enough and work up some indignation over the revival-sated state of the Broadway museum. But not today. Today I can’t stop humming Frank Loesser tunes, and that’s just fine by me.