The Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has been immensely popular since it debuted with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe's face prominently displayed on the marquee, posters, and Playbills. After a fleeting, 3-week run with Glee vet Darren Criss headlining, The Jonas Brothers' own Nick Jonas stepped in to take on the iconic role of J. Pierrepont Finch. With such attention focusing on these young superstars, the show has reached an audience far outside the bounds of the usual Broadway crowd. And it's a good thing, too, because this phenomenon has connected a younger generation with a true musical theatre gem and has opened the door for many young people to appreciate live theatre. I recently got my chance to (finally) see the buzzworthy revival at Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
How to Succeed is cute. Since it was written and performed for the first time in the 1960s, it has an undeniable nostalgic charm that can be seen in other productions of the same era, such as the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises, which starred Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked) and Sean Hayes (TV's Will & Grace). And like Promises, Promises, the newest revival of How to Succeed was directed and choreographed by the great Rob Ashford. His energetic and complicated dance numbers (a signature part of his style) inject the show with an energy and visual interest without which might have left it stale and dated. In particular, the signature song "Brotherhood of Man," frequently seen on television appearances promoting the show, was a beautiful cap to the show both visually and thematically. The "Coffee Break" and "A Secretary is Not a Toy" sequences were amusing looks into traditional corporate life, and the football-themed "Grand Old Ivy" was a fantastic scene of precise acrobatics and the masculine counterpart to the feminine "Paris Original" sequence, which featured the ladies of the cast in a humorous wardrobe coincidence.
Because it is a product of a different time, How to Succeed does have certain anachronisms that are a bit irritating to the modern viewer, chiefly in Rosemary Pilkington's desperate quest to marry Finch. Her assertion that she is "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" is a harmless and endearing notion near the beginning, but her interactions with Finch are sometimes frustrating, especially her indulgence of his fickle affections, caused by his selfish ambitions. Also irritating is the glorification of big boss J.B. Biggley's affair with new secretary Hedy LaRue, highlighted in the number "Love From a Heart of Gold." I hope I am not the only one for whom the song's tenderness is ruined by a nagging voice saying "But he's MARRIED!" In any case, I suppose these outdated, sexist themes must be chalked up to the era from which they came.
While the plot may have a few snags, How to Succeed's songs are varied and beautiful, and the talent in this production is considerable. Stephanie Rothenberg was a conscientious and earnest Rosemary. Beau Bridges (Norma Rae, Broadway's Where's Daddy?) was charming as the oblivious, flawed, but good-hearted J.B. Biggley. Michael Urie (TV's Ugly Betty) was a perfectly sassy and conniving Bud Frump and Tammy Blanchard's (Gypsy) Tony-nominated interpretation of the air-headed Hedy LaRue was a joy to watch. Sara Jean Ford (a former Christine in Broadway's Phantom of the Opera) was a stand-out Smitty, and Ellen Harvey (The Music Man) was a delightfully stern Miss Jones (with impressive soprano skills-see "Brotherhood of Man"). And last but not least, Nick Jonas was a capable and adorable Finch. He played up the comic moments perfectly, and though the role is challenging, he rose to the occasion with determination. At the age of 19, he may not have the seasoned technique or vocal power of some other Broadway leading men, but his energy was admirable.
So it turns out that Broadway's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying does actually merit the hype; it's a fun show with striking sets and staging, considerable vocal and dancing talent, and a classic story that every Broadway fan should see. Get on down to the Al Hirschfeld theatre this spring and check it out!