Today we are listening to one of the most highly-anticipated cast albums of the season, featuring a bona fide Hollywood star at its center - none other than Harry Potter himself, no less - in one of the most celebrated of Golden Age musicals. I am speaking, of course, of the 2011 Broadway revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING starring Daniel Radcliffe alongside Emmy-winners Tammy Blanchard and John Larroquette, as well as Christopher J. Hanke in the role made famous in the original production by cutup comedian Charles Nelson Reilly. So, just how well does the Pulitzer Prize-winning Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows musical (with a book co-written by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) hold up on record nearly fifty years after its inception and original cast album? How does this new recording stack up next to the treasured Original Broadway Cast Recording - the flawless Sony Masterworks reissue reviewed in this very column last year included - as well as the film soundtrack and 1995 revival recording? Furthermore - and, the question on everyone's lips; or the ponderousness perched on the extremity of everyone's earlobes - is Mr. Radcliffe more or less than his stalwart predecessor in the role of J. Pierrepont Finch - MAD MEN's Robert Morse - and, how does he measure up to the Tony-winning lead of the Des McAnuff revival from the 90s, Matthew Broderick? Clearly, this HOW TO SUCCEED is its own thing. And how - and, how much! The revival recording of HOW TO SUCCEED is a more-than-filling meal with appetizers, desserts and some more-then-generous 1960s sized cocktails thrown in for good measure - more than measuring up to what has come before, over its course(s). But, how exactly do you like dinner served up? And, your drinks prepared? Many should be more than satiated with what we have here because this HOW TO SUCCEED certainly succeeds.
Hot Meal, Served Up Cool
Over the course of the thirty-two tracks on the 2011 Revival Cast Recording of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY trying, the candy-colored, Day Glo hue of the mid-60s comes blaring forth from all sides. Loesser's score is boisterous, bouncy and buoyant, always keeping things jazzy and pizzazz-y with just enough heart and soul to drive our hero home by the final moments. Few roles in musical theatre require as much charisma, charm, devotion and just plain necessitated showmanship as J. Pierrepont Finch. When an actor is known more so for his showmanship than his technical skill - particularly when it comes to the finer points of vocalizing - it can actually work in one's favor in endearing one to an audience. That is particularly the case with this role. Daniel Radcliffe - like Johnny Depp in SWEENEY TODD before him - will never rival the vocal pyrotechnics that can be offered forth with readily apparent effortlessness by any number of Broadway leading men, yet he exudes an effervescent "eager beaver" quality - to cite a line early on the recording; and, yes, this recording has a hearty dose of the witty Abe Burrows book - that proves almost instantly infectious. No, Daniel Radcliffe does not erase the memory of Robert Morse - particularly since Morse has such a high-profile presence in the similarly-themed 60s-set TV hit MAD MEN nowawadays; and, since the studiously similar film version (which oddly omits two of the most famous songs from the score: "Paris Original" and "Coffee Break", inexplicably) is readily available on DVD and Instant View - but, Radcliffe has his own bag of tricks on ample display for us to enjoy. Like FOLLIES and GYPSY before them - two case-studies of revival recordings besting their previous audio incarnations, and, in both cases, conjuring more than merely minor miracles by doing so - Rob Sher has crafted the perfect representation of a musical on record yet again. This deceptively easy-to-love, but complex score, compounded by the tricky-to-achieve tone makes for a hindersome subject to make come fully alive on record as the production does in the theatre; which is what every cast album's intention ultimately is or should be - yet, Sher succeeds across the board(s). Truly, everything comes across as effortless and natural, which is a true credit to the cool and confident atmosphere of the score, show, production, and, now, this definitive cast album.
The slinky sounds of the 60s are amply evident from the very first moments of the swingin' Overture, through to Anderson Cooper's enjoyable tongue-in-cheek narration which runs intermittently throughout the recording, just as it does in the show onstage. The airy and open soundspace of the recording creates an ambient live environment that provides the ideal stage for a frothy musical comedy such as this to truly score - and all jokes land - on apparently all levels. Speaking of the score - what a song-stack! One after another. Loesser was one of the masters - GUYS & DOLLS is oft-cited as the greatest of all Broadway scores and it would be hard to disagree with its multitude of merits - yet, when one compares Loesser's work for HOW TO SUCCEED with the rest of his work there is an assuredness and slickness to this score that sets it apart from even his best; which, surely, is among the very best to ever grace the boards on Broadway. That's just about the highest praise that can be bestowed to a Broadway score - and it is served up here in the most deliciously enticing fashion. So, so cool. Speaking of which: John Larroquette is suave and smooth-voiced and exemplifies and revels in all of the excesses of men of this high-powered businessman's ilk at that point in time in American history. In other words, he has the world by the b*lls and he knows it - and shows it. That's how it is - that's the 60s; love it or leave it. "A Secretary Is Not A Toy", indeed. And, "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm"? Why, yes - though, there is some sarcasm there, too. And, after all: you can't rewrite history, now, can you? Mild misogyny ran rampant in the business world at this time, and, given the simple fact that this show is about a young man climbing from the bottommost rung of the corporate ladder all the way up to the top, or close - well, there are bound to be an errant, inappropriately sexualized secretary. Or two. Or, a slew. So, Tammy Blanchard plays Hedy LaRue just as Rose Hemingway plays Rosemary: straight-faced - just as Blanchard played Judy Garland completely straight; perhaps the most iconic of all characters to choose to portray, no doubt, which is why I point it out - and those decisions pays off tenfold. Hemingway has a sweet, sensitive relationship with her J. Pierrepont Finch and that comes across soft and clear in their material together. While "Coffee Break" is almost entirely reliant upon the choreography, stage business (read: physical comedy) and visuals, Christopher J. Hanke makes his presence known and provides lovely vocals in the trio Act One Finale with Radcliffe and Hemingway. Blanchard and Larroquette similarly score on their duet. Undoubtedly, the show is quite perfectly cast with each character leaving an indelible mark and each performer making a memorable appearance on a recording that otherwise could seem like The Daniel Radcliffe Show, but seems far from it. Yet, it is his show - no question about it!
So, how accurately does this recording reflect the Broadway show it preserves? Rob Ashford's direction and choreography has been described by many as aggressively acrobatic and ornately busy - particularly "Brotherhood of Man", which, in an album of enviably enjoyable fidelity to the source with a fresh, bright, new sheen to it all, is unquestionably one of the many highlights, coming at the end of a string of stunners - so, surely the recording suffers? Actually: quite the opposite. After all, what happens onstage doesn't really matter to a recording. Sure, the action and vocals will reflect the onstage movement and choreography to an appreciable extent - and Ashford creates some striking stage pictures with his impossibly accomplished chorus of acrobats - but a certain leeway is necessitated by the simple fact that it is the producer's job to make the score for this production with these performers sound as good as it possibly can and reflect the author‘s original intentions. And - hallelujah - this recording does. It is a lively, stuffed-to-bursting all-American Turkey Day feast of 60s wit, satirical jokes, snappy dialogue, along with some moving musical moments and, most prominently, an overall joviality that proves infectious almost immediately - particularly on this recording. Actually, the energy that that sort of style of hyper direction accredited to Ashford here - not that it is a bad thing - affords, actually, is a cast firing on all axels all the time. And, indeed, they are. And, they do. Consistently. Again and again. Winners all. It is evident everywhere. For example: Hemingway, Blanchard and the secretaries' "Paris Original" makes even Megan Mullally & company's sardonic reading from the 1995 revival a mere distant memory now - though that revival and recording were definitely no great shakes to begin with, as far as I am concerned. Blanchard was a standout in the Sam Mendes-directed, Bernadette Peters production of GYPSY in the title role and, once again, she nearly walks away with the female side of the show even in a small role like this. But - and, a just darling "Cinderella Darling" aside - this is an all-boys show. Start to finish. Top to bottom rung. Frank Loesser is the top man at this firm and his score has never sounded quite this good - not even in the film version and its elaborate orchestrations. Hanke, Larroquette and the rest of the featured players provide exuberant contributions, but Radcliffe still manages to stay the focus and hold the heart of the show in his hands. Sure, you see him sweat - but, isn't that what the best of Broadway is about, giving it your all? Considering his athletic abilities and showmanship are his prime attributes as a performer, it is even more complimentary, then, that he comes off as well as he does here in the music department. Speaking of the music department: Doug Besterman's orchestrations are as exquisite as expected from his pen and David Chase once again proves why he is the best dance arranger in the business - particularly with revivals of hallowed scores such as this one - and he also provides spot-on vocal and music arrangements as well. This is a polished, practiced and balanced portrayal of a tricky role - made doubly difficult to make an impression with on an album given the fact that he is not physically there, watching it all, as he so often is in the stage show. Radcliffe makes his presence known not only on the album, but as a musical theatre leading man of the twenty-first century truly worthy of taking on the appropriate roles. He has earned it - both here and with the recent EQUUS. Who knows what the future might hold if Radcliffe continues to pursue his Broadway dreams - MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, maybe? An original musical? PIPPIN? It's an open book - not unlike the sardonic advice book (by Shepherd Mead) on which this bitingly satirical musical was based.
Just as Radcliffe so winningly and winsomely welcomes us and lovingly lulls us into this heartily-heightened, wonderfully wacky, slightly-satirical - OK, maybe not merely slightly - world of Loesser, Burrows and original director George Abbott (and Bob Fosse as choreographer), so, too, does the recording invite us in thanks to the clean, precise care with which it has been taken to preserve this production as best as it possibly can be recorded in this day and age. I mean, there are even bonus tracks! Yes, the 2011 Broadway Revival Recording of HOW TO SUCCEED is Loesser's hearty dinner of a Broadway score served up sizzling hot - and, with a plentiful plethora of delectable side dishes, too. It is so cool, as only a show from the 60s can really be. Indeed, HOW TO SUCCEED is already one of those packed-to-the-rafters shows that warrants - hell, it often screams for (as the characters are wont to do, too, come to think of the heightened pitch of many exchanges throughout the show, particularly the artfully chosen dialogue scenes on disc) - total, complete commitment by all involved. Message to those who take on HOW TO SUCCEED: If you can't go all-out, don't bother to even try. Everyone concerned here does - and the results are resplendent. From the hot-as-Moroccan-Gold-coffee orchestra under an expert baton to the flawless aural atmosphere, finely honed performances, general geniality of the presentation and overall supreme technical superiority - plus, those generously included bonus tracks - it is not only easy, but a pronounced privilege to recommend that you slink and shimmy back to the 1960s and this surefire showstopper that proves all-too timeless and prescient today. Over the course of this album we are virtually - or, at the very least, aurally - transported back to the 1960s and the seemingly simpler, brighter, more optimistic times of the era pour forth on our parched, thirsty throats like cool water from a fountain - or, hot coffee from a pot to a cup. A veritable pot of gold on disc - and a lovable, human-sized, but leprechaun-like, fresh, young leading man blazing the trail to Broadway glory. What a bread-winner!