Growing up, one of my best friends was David Merrick’s daughter. If you don’t know your Broadway history, you don’t know that he was known as “the meanest man in show business.” But because I knew her, I saw 42nd Street as a child early and often was there the night that Gower Champion’s death was announced.
Which is to say, I have been to a lot of Broadway and have seen the spectacle of it for a long time from some pretty odd angles.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is, aside from a weird show, a slight show. It, like the world it is about, gets by on design and surface. The Rosemary plot isn’t awful, so much as dropped; and Finch’s final fate is unclear. The songs aren’t anything that randomly pop into anyone’s head six months, six weeks, or really even six days after they’ve seen it.
Finch is also the perfect role for stunt casting, because he’s supposed to be less than those around him. Or at least just middling. Which means Darren Criss had a lot of wiggle room for mediocrity in his performance last night and then rose entertainingly above that rather low bar.
Certainly, his comedic timing was flawless and his ridiculous facial expressions are far more suited to the stage than our televisions. His dancing was good, for what Finch has to do, and while his voice is pretty (and was thankfully not pitchy) it had little power behind it, which would matter less if the women in How to Succeed… weren’t exceptional (they are, see it for them). As it was, however, the thinness of his voice showed. At times badly (although he sounded a lot stronger in the second act). And if Criss weren’t such a joy to watch, it would have been a lot worse.
But back to my childhood. I have seen a lot of Broadway madness. I started going when people still wore tuxes (or at least suits and ties) to the theater and when standing ovations meant something other than “I want to see your beautiful face.” I saw Richard Harris on stage. Jerry Orbach. Peter O’Toole. I was there the night Gower Champion died. And for an extremely likeable, high energy, but somewhat middling performance that was more about promise than fact, I have never see the type of madness I saw last night.
And I don’t mean the fans and the posters and the swooning (and there were fans and posters and swooning and a massive crowd at the stage door on the coldest night of the season). I mean the whole audience holding its breath and rooting for this guy and his character. It was an Event. Some random three week run by some random teen idol is not an Event. And I say this as a fan, a big one (come on, you read this blog, how any times have I seen Criss gig in the last year? Please don’t answer that). But there it was.
But How to Succeed… is also hilarious as meta. Hilarious as something that was both the creation of fandom but also the creation of marketing (regarding, I must reiterate, a show about marketing and self-invention), in a way most of the audience either seemed to miss, made the choice to miss, or was at least magnamimous enough not to mention.
My dad was an ad man in New York City from the 50s – 90s. He was the son of shoemaker with little formal education and he joined the Army to get the GI Bill to pay for Cartoonists & Illustrators College; That’s right, my dad joined the army so he could draw comic books.
One of my most vivid memories of my 70s childhood was the office gossip I would hear him speaking about with my mother: tales of account executives who weren’t good at anything other than drinking and being fresh with the secretaries and stealing ideas and wearing really loud sports jackets — always plaid or houndstooth, he’d say.
And so there was a moment, somewhere in How to Succeed…, when I was being charmed and boggled by Criss as Finch where I thought, “Screw you and your charming face. And screw me for rooting for Rosemary and her desperate desire to be ignored by just the right man.”
Stunt casting How to Succeed… is really the perfect response or use of fandom ever, isn’t it? All those heteronormative tropes — tropes that I think all of us in fandom recognize from so many fanfics, except this time with girls — that even as they were skewered I wished I weren’t old enough to feel quite so keenly.
But more than that, Rosemary’s story is perhaps oddly and theoretically justifying for the fannish audience. Rosemary may get the boy in the end, but her happy ending aside, she is the collective us, clamoring for just one little moment so that she can say to the boy she thinks is adorable, “It’s not enough” instead “it’s not anything.”
In the end, How to Succeed… is a sort of weirdly perfect Broadway night, full of imperfection, story and longing. How little of that has to do with what’s explicitly on stage, however, is what makes it rise to a level of rather peculiar brilliance. It’s a surprisingly thinky joy, and if you want to see Criss in it, you best get tickets soon. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see it until the next Finch, Nick Jonas, takes the stage, something which will undoubtedly be suitably surreal in its own right.