Every now and then a perfect cultural storm rolls into the complex intersection between TV, film, stage, music, pop culture and even the economy, drawing on all of them simultaneously to create a truly unique moment. One such occurrence is happening now on Broadway, with a shiny new 50th anniversary revival of Frank Loesser’s 1961 hit How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, starring erstwhile boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe, TV star John Laroquette, and the droll, non-giggling tones of Anderson Cooper in a culture-blending mash-up that draws from Star Trek and Mad Men as much as it does from Broadway history.
Following on from his critically acclaimed performance in Equus, Radcliffe has returned to NYC for his second Broadway starring role. Where Equus was a dark psychological analysis of a disturbed youth, How To Succeed is a brightly colored, infectiously energetic and hugely charming confectionary that belts out its song and dance numbers amidst ever-moving, coolly glowing TARDIS-like sets, and elevates the material in a raucous, entertaining manner through to its triumphant finale. Radcliffe has no problem shifting gears from one to the other, giving the impression that he was born and raised on the Broadway stage, American accent and dance moves comfortably in place. And he can belt out a tune with the best of them.
While we’re still in the immediate, globe-spanning, culture-changing aftermath of the theatrical release of the final Harry Potter movie, the potentially disconcerting contrast of seeing the Boy Who Lived leaping around in a lively Mad Men-esque musical actually creates a unique & powerfully charged atmosphere in the theatre. Naturally, Radcliffe’s first appearance in the play is greeted with a massive roar from the crowd, and the energy in the room only goes up from there.
The play follows Radcliffe’s character, J. Pierrepoint Finch, as he reads from the self-help book (dryly voice-overed by Anderson Cooper) that gives the play its title, and attempts to carry out its lessons in how to make it in the tough world of Wall Street. It’s a funny, smart play, with the lyrics by Loesser and the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert full of sly one-liners, quick banter, and still-sharp observations. It marries the whip-smart back and forth of old Hollywood movies to huge-chorused Broadway numbers, and it does it with a frankly excessive amount of charm to which it’s impossible not to succumb.
The dialogue, songs, actors and sets are constantly on the move in this highly kinetic production that never slows down, building to a finale in which Radcliffe runs, flips, dances and hurls himself throughout a number that keeps increasing its momentum, and causes the crowd to cheer and applaud numerous times before it all finally comes to a close.
The original 1961 production was itself an adaptation of Shepherd Mead’s 1952 novel. Although the novel was already a comic work, the stage adaptation, produced by the team behind Guys And Dolls, upped the satirical and romantic angles, and brought in the legendary Bob Fosse to choreograph the dance sequences. The play has been revived many times since, recently in 1995 with Matthew Broderick in the starring role, and even in 1996 with former Karate Kid Ralph Macchio taking the lead. However, from a cultural perspective, director and choreographer Rob Ashford’s current revival may be the most fascinating of all. It has an edge over all other versions in that it comes after Matthew Weiner’s era-defining TV drama Mad Men changed the way we look at the New York office life in the 50s and 60s. It also exists in a post-Office Space/The Office world. All this adds extra layers of meaning and resonance. The current revival takes this proto-Mad Men world and fuses it with Derek McLane’s coolly-lit, elegantly retro-futuristic set designs, which come across as though Apple designed the interiors of the USS Enterprise of the original Star Trek series. The choreogaphy is wild and energetic as the actors hurtle around McLane’s beautiful-looking, imaginative multi-leveled sets, and the dance numbers are huge and deceptively complex. Added to that are the venerable, twinkling presence of John Laroquette as big boss J.B. Biggley, and the undeniable star wattage of Radcliffe, their easy and occasionally improvised camaraderie ably supported by an excellent, charismatic cast of Broadway and TV regulars.
With this new production, Ashford has curated a heady, unique mix of past and future, of Hollywood and stage, which has an extraordinary energy as the cultural influences interact and become something far more than the sum of their parts. It’s both thoroughly entertaining, and, with this cast, it’s also an utterly unique cultural moment in time.