Sunday, August 14, 2011

Working Too Hard on Broadway

Last week I received an e-mail message from with a special offer for discounted tickets to see Daniel Radcliffe in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying". I scrolled down and clicked on the link for the preview video, and was treated to a montage of choreographed scenes from the show to the tune of "Brotherhood of Man", one of the "big numbers" from the show. Intrigued I found the whole number on YouTube as presented at the Tony Awards.

It's very athletic, gymnastic, aerobic, intricate and involved... there's so much going on every moment that you can become short of breath just watching it. I have no idea what incredible shape those dancer/singers must be in to do that night after night. And after the first couple of viewings I told myself that this was a must-see; I mean if one number was that amazing...

But there was a nagging little voice in the back of my mind that was telling me that, as impressive as the number was, it wasn't quite... right, somehow.

But I posted on Facebook and linked to the video extolling the surprising performance of Daniel Radcliffe who really can sing and dance. Shortly thereafter a friend posted a comment, wondering if musical numbers have become more aerobic. He included a link from the film version (1967) featuring Robert Morse (whose casting as a shrewd and canny business man in the series "Mad Men" is a stroke of genius). The difference between the two numbers was striking.

In the film Morse's character, J. Pierpont Finch, is trying to convince the head of a large corporation not to fire his top staff. It begins slowly and builds and builds and has the added benefit of Morse's dimpled, gap-toothed appeal. I then checked out the same number from the Matthew Broderick B'way revival and noticed that, there too, the number starts out a bit slower. The chorus doesn't immediately start jumping and whirling and doing all the odd steps and moves it does in the current revival (push-ups, knee-walking, really?). The choreography is simpler and focuses on the characters! There's no conflict in the Radcliffe version. The number starts out way up at number 10 and has nowhere to go except out of control. It's like a very impressive, six-foot tall wedding cake that looks fabulous but tastes like...nothing much.

Onstage there must always be conflict. There must be something at stake, even in a classic piece of musical comedy fluff. If every character in a show agreed with each other right away, there would be no "Hamlet", no "Importance of Being Earnest", no "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", no "Oklahoma!" or "Sweeney Todd". The show would be over before it began.

And a show like "How to Succeed..." has stood the test of time. The story and music are still appealing to audiences 40 years after its debut. It doesn't need what I'd call "all that foolishness".

Check out the current version here -- then take a look at the 1995 revival. See if you don' get what I mean. (The movie version is also available on YouTube, probably closer to the original staging.

I just thought it was kind of interesting. More isn't necessarily always better.

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