How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

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.

Image courtesy of derekmclane.org

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.

Image courtesy of http://www.derekmclane.org

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.

Shamelessly Brilliant

On Sunday 1/9/11 at 10pm ET, the Warner Bros./Showtime remake of the wild, raucous and charming British show Shameless will begin.

Overseen by the prolific and talented John Wells (ER, Southland), and the show’s original creator Paul Abbott (State Of Play), the pilot episode does an extraordinary job of translating the anarchic heart of the original, transplanting it successfully from a run-down Manchester district into a raw, snow-covered, beaten-down Chicago setting.

It’s hard to overstate how much the original show meant to me when it aired seven years ago in 2004. It was unlike any other British show at the time: unflinching, inspiring, heartfelt, emotionally brutal and bloody funny – much like family life, no accident as Paul Abbott was always upfront about how shamelessly autobiographical the show was meant to be. The show centers around alcoholic patriarch Frank Gallagher, father of six kids of various ages, abandoned by their mother, and left to fend for themselves. Frank dedicated himself to getting as drunk as possible, leaving oldest child Fiona to hold it all together. Out of these dark events, Abbott created an incredibly charming, outrageous and moving comedy drama, which just happened to be hilarious, and heartwarming, with its biting, whip-smart humor and belief in the power of family.

British shows don’t always, or even often, fare well when they get remade for American TV. For every success story like The Office, there are others that miss the mark. I have to admit to a sense of trepidation with Shameless: the original was so… original, and raw. Would it be possible for an American channel, even a cable network like Showtime, to pull this off?

Hell yes.

From the very beginning, this new incarnation barrels along, sharper and harder than the original, and any doubts about the show getting softer in its transition to the US are decisively kicked aside with a razor sharp sense of abandon that is wielded with hysterical precision. The script by Wells and Abbott crackles with a new electricity: the show is invigorated with its new setting and cast. Yes, the cast. The cast of the original was one of the most charming, likeable and funny collection of rude, stick your middle finger up at authority misfits. How would this aspect of the show translate?

Again, brilliantly. The cast feel instantly at home inhabiting these characters, managing to normalize their good looks to the extent that you realize that Shameless is our Hamlet, a great play waiting to be reinvented for a new era, and these are the latest players to bring it to life. They do it with utter conviction. Three in particular have their work cut out for them: William H. Macy as Frank, Emmy Rossum as Fiona, and Justin Chatwin as chancer Steve, who in the first episode tries to win Fiona’s heart with charm, wit, and a new washer. Macy does a great job of taking over from David Threlfall’s iconic version, embodying Frank’s “to hell with the world while I have a drink” mentality, and is perfectly at ease with the many physical tics and mannerisms that seem to make up Frank’s existence. Likewise, Chatwin steps up manfully to the unenviable task of taking over from the frankly legendary James McAvoy, whose career was launched with this role: it’s great to see how easily Chatwin handles the challenge, bringing a new level of charm, wit and cheekiness to Steve.

But Emmy Rossum is the true star of this show.

In the original, Anne-Marie Duff brought a raw, fragile roughness to the character. Rossum goes one better, exposing Fiona’s delicate mix of in your face attitude, desperate vulnerability, her longing for more from life, and her overwhelming desire for things to be different. Rossum embodies and evokes all this beautifully, with a raw, real, sensual honesty. I’m not the first to say it, but an Emmy for Emmy seems assured.

The show benefits hugely from its transition to the tough, unyielding urban setting of a decaying Chicago neighborhood. It’s excellently directed by original Brit director (here a co-producer too) Mark Mylod, and perfectly shot by DP extraordinaire Jimmy Muro in a gorgeously crisp and sharp style, with outstanding location choices that enhance every exterior scene. Its use of loud, raucous songs kicks up the joyous, crazy energy. And its handling of a teen struggling with his sexuality is commendably done.

As soon as the pilot ends, you want more, lots more. You want to binge on the rest of the episodes like Frank with an open tab at the bar. It takes everything great about the original, makes it better, and adds new outrageous and heartfelt elements, while easily sidestepping sentimentality. It moves faster, hits harder: it’s even more uncompromising than before, and more brilliant for it.

Simply put, Shameless is the most thrilling, exciting TV drama debut of the 2010-11 season. Watch it.