Quite rightly, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (for brevity and sanity, we will call it ‘How To Succeed’ from here on) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. It is a beautifully constructed piece of musical theatre, boasts a tuneful and melodic score from Frank Loesser, and features a gag-filled, satirical book from Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. It is an almost perfect example of a book musical.
Like most perfect things, it requires careful handling. The concert version of How To Succeed, presented last evening as the first of a series of three musicals-in-concert performances this year (the next is Of Thee I Sing on July 30th; the third, yet to be announced) at the Royal Festival Hall did not have consistent careful handling. This was a pity, because it was so close to being the best concert performance of a musical seen in London since the Donmar’s concert version of Merrily We Roll Along in 2010.
There were significant problems with the orchestra. The balance between singer(s) and orchestra was not right too often, and frequently the tempi established by Musical Director and Conductor, Mike Dixon, was too slow for both the energy and style of Loesser’s music and the dramatic needs of the text. For instance, the start of Brotherhood of Man was so slow as to render that which is inherently exciting, quite quite dull. It’s not that there was bad playing by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra; it’s that what and how they were asked to play was self-defeating.
No clue is given as to who orchestrated the music for this concert, but it did not seem to be the orchestrations from any of the three Broadway outings of How To Succeed. Occasionally, the orchestration seemed more like that you might encounter in a Frank Sinatra or Ricky Martin concert – pleasant enough, but not the correct energy for what is happening in the narrative.
The other area in which the Concert disappointed was in that third key ingredient to good old fashioned Broadway musicals – choreography. There was basically no dancing here, which deprives the piece of one of its key joys. Some of the songs in this show simply don’t work nearly as well as they might without proper choreography: Coffee Break, A Secretary Is Not A Toy, Company Way, Stand Old Ivy, Rosemary and Brotherhood of Man. Dancing is part of the DNA of delivery of those numbers, and its absence was mystifying.
Indeed, occasionally the performers, particularly Jonathan Groff, indulged in small snatches of self-devised choreography and when they did, everything lifted, became instantly more delicious. Groff’s frantic balletic nonsense in the Grieg break in Rosemary, for instance, was wonderfully welcome.
Finally, although there was some amusing interplay with lighting, and carefully planned movement from fixed old-fashioned radio microphone to fixed old-fashioned radio microphone occasionally sparkled, the concert never really knew what it was. There were some costumes to give a general sense of what was visually occurring in the narrative (Paris Original suffered particularly) but this was not a semi-staged concert version of How To Succeed; it was a stand and deliver concert with occasional flashes of colour and movement. It might have worked better with everyone in Black Tie and judicious props. The half half-way position adopted, though, simply led the audience to have expectations which director Jonathan Butterell never fulfilled.
This all makes it appear like the concert was a near disaster – but that is not the case at all. It was closer to perfection than disaster. And it was that reality, more than anything else, the realisation of how good this performance could have been with some simple calibrations and changes, that makes one wish that the Royal Festival Hall gave the creatives more time and more resources. On the strength of this first, tentative outing, concerts like this could come to rival those staged in the Encores! series in New York or by the Production Company in Australia.
So, to the truly excellent things here… starting with the three leading women.
London is truly blessed with female performers of astonishing talent, range and skill. As regular readers will know, it continually mystifies me why producers cast women (usually television or film actresses) who cannot sing or properly sell a song in productions of musicals, no matter how famous those women are, when there is a plethora of talent around and willing and wanting to work. Not only that, but casting directors tend to compartmentalise people and not give credit to the possibility that established performers can do a range of things. This How To Succeed concert should be a salutary lesson in both departments.
Cynthia Erivo was nothing short of fantastic as Rosemary, the secretary with a clear vision for her future. This is a role that can often be thrown away or reduced to a Donna Reed sensibility. But not in Erivo’s hands. Beautiful in every way, with a glorious, warm and utterly enchanting voice that, like quality honey, is sweet, elegant and full of depth and colour, Erivo ploughed energy, grace and real spirit into Rosemary. So convincing and appealing was her Rosemary, that when Finch burst into his elated effusive song of that name, it made complete sense. She was genuinely funny too, finding laughs where few have found them before. A total star turn.
Amy Ellen Richardson, a remarkably versatile, gifted actress and singer, was, as Smitty, the perfect partner in crime and foil for Erivo’s Rosemary. Hiding her natural beauty behind funny glasses and a cute period costume, Richardson played the role for all it was worth: wry, giggly, secretive, shocked, pert, amused, dirty, frenzied, silly – every nook and cranny where the glory of Smitty could be found, Richardson went there and shone her special light. Especially enjoyable was her work in Coffee Break and Been A Long Day – just the right level of outrageous cynicism and hope. Sheer delight.
I doubt there would be a producer or casting director in London who would even consider Hannah Waddingham for the role of Hedy La Rue in a full scale production of How to Succeed. As Waddingham demonstrated so effortlessly last night, such people have limited imagination. Her turn as the sensuous, shapely man-eater, with a heart of gold and a body that could break the resolve of any man, was a glittering, comic triumph. Every line landed to an eruption of laughter; timing and delivery, a character voice/accent to die for, and then stunning vocal work – there was no part of Waddingham’s dynamic turn that was anything other than perfect.
The most impressive part of Waddingham’s Hedy was that she managed to pulse like a nuclear reactor despite the fact that Clarke Peters’ J.B. Biggley was so ill-prepared and pedestrian. When she got to spend time with Jonathan Groff’s Finch, the stage trembled with undisguised talent and skill. If she had been blessed with an actor who understood how to play Biggley and how to give Waddingham something to play off, her Hedy would have been one for the record books. As it was, it was just the canniest, smartest, and most skilled performance of the evening. Which, as consolation prizes go, is not too shabby.
Groff is too cool, too pretty, and too sweet to be ideal for the role of Finch, but he certainly found a way to make the part his. He is unarguably charming on stage and he exudes a warmth and comic intelligence which makes him impossible not to watch. He crooned more often than he sang, which seemed odd, given that when he did sing, it was spectacularly good. One suspects that the Musical Direction may have dictated style in some numbers – particularly, I Believe In You. Groff’s clear, clean and agile tenor voice is perfect for Finch’s music; he should have been allowed to revel in the vocal work more. Rosemary was especially good, as was Grand Old Ivy and Brotherhood of Man (when both got going).
Groff had excellent support from Erivo. By playing Rosemary tougher and wiser, Erivo presented Groff’s Finch with the perfect complementary partner. Finch is a calculating, devious, but affable and cute, ladder climber. Groff is not that naturally (or at least does not appear so on stage) and, for whatever reason, was not willing to play it that way. He emphasised his own natural features and charms and could get away with that more easily because Erivo was so strong. Equally, Waddingham, and Clive Rowe as Wally Womper, provided Groff with great opportunities for moments of comic uncertainty. The result was that Groff was truly terrific – and one was left wanting to see him headline a full scale production of this show, one with dancing on the agenda and with Erivo and Waddingham (and Richardson) by his side.
Of course, the parts that usually provide the most scope for good rapport with the actor playing Finch are Bud Frump and J.B. Biggley. Groff lucked out in both cases here. As Frump, Ashley Robinson was in a musical all of his own, possibly Carrie. Overcooked, over-loud and fatally narcissistic, Robinson’s excess removed any possibility of Frump being a viable threat to Finch and undermined the comic and dramatic tension which underpins the narrative. Vulgarity and shouting does not a character make. Peters, on the other hand, was so underplaying his role as to be almost in the Phantom Zone. He was there, but left no impression. The pure, perfect comic scene that leads to Grand Old Ivy was all but lost, with only Groff scoring touchdowns.
Rowe was uninteresting as the 25 year Company Man, Mr Twimble; he forgot some lyrics but Groff carried on seamlessly. Nicholas Colicos was a superb Mr Bratt, funny and with a rich bass-baritone of great power; his Voice of the Book was delightfully judged. Anna-Jane Casey was excellent in the scene work as Miss Jones (she too worked perfectly with Groff’s Finch, eschewing the usual old dragon approach for something subtler), but her singing was not powerful enough to be truly the show-stopping top line of Brotherhood of Man. This may have been a Sound issue, but it was very difficult not to wish that there had been a way for Waddingham to belt out those top soprano notes.
The ensemble were uniformly terrific, all totally engaged, in character and in fabulous voice. The encore of Brotherhood of Man, when everyone in the cast sang along, was thrilling in a spine-tingling kind of way.
For Royal Festival Hall, this was a new concept. As a first go, this was a remarkable success. With better casting and cannier direction, especially in relation to the singing, this could have been the night of the year. As it was, it was glorious to see Groff, Erivo, Richardson and the peerless Waddingham breathe life into one of the greatest musicals of all time.