Tethered to a window washer’s platform and all but edible in a powder-blue monkey suit and bow tie, Matthew Broderick descends the brightly lit side of a sleek Manhattan office building, reading the tome that is to be his bible, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the mother of all self-help guides. We know the author speaks with the voice of authority because the Voice of Authority himself, Walter Cronkite, is the one we hear narrating passages throughout the evening as Broderick’s J. Pierrepont Finch, one of Broadway’s great connivers, connives his way to the top of World Wide Wickets and gets the girl, too.
“How to Succeed” will turn this sorry, impoverished season on its ear. It’ll win heaps of awards in the coming months and should be making people happy for a long time to come. It would thumb its nose at “Sunset Boulevard” if it weren’t 33 1/2 years old; instead, it’s going to give “Show Boat” a terrific run for its money come Tony time. And “How to Succeed” would make a musical-theater star of Broderick, as the original did for Robert Morse, if we actually had a musical theater, or a Broadway, anymore. Maybe it will anyway.
I’m happy, what can I say? “How to Succeed” is as good as it gets, which, given the combined teams behind “Tommy” and “Guys and Dolls,” is very good indeed. For starters — it’s the first thing you see as you pass from the lobby into the Richard Rodgers Theater (where “How to Succeed” premiered in 1961) — there’s another great John Arnone set, in this case the brushed aluminum and pastel-paneled skin of a skyscraper that doubles beautifully as the interior and exterior of the World Wide Wicket headquarters.
Then director Des McAnuff, also responsible for “Tommy,” almost completely trusts the material. His production is less self-consciously nostalgic than the current “Damn Yankees” and less broadly comic than the recent smash revival of “Guys and Dolls.” Instead, McAnuff lets the satire speak for itself, and he’s found only one song from the original score, “Cinderella, Darling,” too dated to salvage.
Does any show boast a more muscular score than “How to Succeed”? It’s a given that Frank Loesser’s songs are wonderful — three days after seeing the show, they’re still popping in and out of my head — but each has a job to do, as well; there’s not an ounce of fat in the enterprise. McAnuff and his “Tommy” partner, choreographer Wayne Cilento, set the story at such an exuberant pace and with such panache that the show seems less a mere revival than a freshly minted, fractured fairy tale in which a nebbishy Narcissus sees his reflection in the polished glass of an office tower and finds that American dreams really do come true.
The lad, of course, is Finch, who flies from window washer to mailroom clerk to junior executive, head of advertising and, ultimately, the chairman’s suite in what seems to be a matter of minutes, following the precepts of that sly book. (Shepherd Mead’s novel was published in 1952; the author died last summer, just before this production got off the ground at the La Jolla Playhouse.) Finch is a wolf in sheepish clothing, charm and cunning in one irresistible package. It’s easy to see why that sweet secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Megan Mullally) instantly falls for him — even as her sidekick Smitty (Victoria Clark) just as quickly tags him a barracuda. He’s dangerously adorable.
And Broderick owns him. Like Morse, he has a reedy tenor thatconstantly threatens to break but never does; that tenuousness is part of the appeal. So is Broderick’s physical grace: Watch “Grand Old Ivy,” in which Finch and company president J.B. Biggley (Ronn Car-roll) deliver a college anthem only one of them (it’s not Finch) actually knows. Finch stays barely a quarter-beat behind Biggley’s singing and dancing for the song’s duration, one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen, and Broderick makes it look as natural as breathing. There’s more good news in the casting, including the inspired choice of Lillias White as Biggley’s secretary (who turns the 11 o’clock number, “Brotherhood of Man,” into a rafters-raising blast). Jeff Blumenkrantz, a beanpole with glasses, is terrifically smarmy as Biggley’s whiny, talent-free nephew, and Luba Mason displays all the attributes necessary for the bombshell Hedy La Rue, including a police-siren voice and a figure of outstanding proportions.
In his hand-knitted golf outfit, Carroll will remind many of the Great One, and there’s a lot of Jackie Gleason in his blustery performance. Mullally is perseverance personified as Rosemary, singing “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” as cartoonish images of a dreamed-for home in New Rochelle flash above her. Clark is just as winning as Smitty.
Cilento’s dances — particularly the demented “Coffee Break” and, later, “Pirate Dance”– pay homage to Bob Fosse (who was brought in during rehearsals of the original to augment Hugh Lambert’s choreography), chiefly in the way the entire company moves as a single, loose-limbed, somewhat psychedelic organism.
The colors of the production — powder blue, mustard yellow, avocado green, St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children orange — are wittily deployed throughout both Susan Hilferty’s delightful costumes and Howell Binkley’s saturation lighting. Arnone’s ingenious set manages to be at once efficient and elegant.
In all, a wonderful production. And as Walter Cronkite would say, that’s the way it is.