How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: Slight show, chewy meta

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.

8 thoughts on “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: Slight show, chewy meta”

  1. I used to never like musicals, but you’ve really broadened my knowledge and enjoyment of theater. (I reserve the right to continue hating on Oklahoma! until the end of time however.)

    (also, finally using my wordpress account)

    1. Have you seen Hugh Jackman’s Oklahoma!? Early in his career – there is a DVD of it out there somewhere… not defending the show – but that man is talent so maybe worth a look?

      1. I haven’t. Probably because it would be hard for me to willingly seek out Oklahoma! for any reason. I find the show unbearably silly in a way that does not endear it to me.

  2. THIS. All of this.

    I saw the show opening night as well and had many of the same thoughts. (Though first things first: I adored it.) It was an interesting experience seeing it with my sister, because a) I’d seen the show already (with Daniel Radcliffe) and she hadn’t, and b) I’m involved with fandom and she’s very much not.

    There were definitely moments — the couch-jumping being the most obvious — during which I wondered which sections of the audience were laughing about it because jumping on the couch is just silly, because of the obvious Tom Cruise reference, or because of the Darren/Warbler/furniture connection.

    And as you mentioned, the whole thing was meta. I mean, a show about someone’s meteoric rise and uncertain future? Darren in a nutshell. And it’s a similarly useful play for him the way it was for Daniel Radcliffe, in that no one was really sure how he’d hold up against legit Broadway performers, and the character of Finch is perfect for someone who could potentially turn out to be just mediocre.

    My only lament is that Finch is so similar to Blaine in a number of ways (the bowties, the hair, the faces…), and I would have loved to see Darren in a different kind of role. Neither Glee nor H2$ are good showcases for dramatic acting, and that’s really what I’d like to see him do next.

    But it was certainly a terrifically fun Event, as you called it, and I’m more than happy I splurged on the tickets. Love seeing your thoughts, as always!

    1. So glad to be a) not alone and b) have someone see that this was coming from a place of real enjoyment of the evening. It was delightful and a privilege to be there, but it also was what it was.

      The minor meta moment that really killed me was the line about the bird cage cover.

      I had to explain it all to Patty later. She was like “God, did everyone just laugh at everything because it was Darren Criss?” and I was like “Not entirely? There were things that were inappropriately funny if you watch Glee but weren’t otherwise punchlines?”

      She is, thankfully, fandom. Just not this one.

  3. Yes, I laughed at the walking on the furniture and the birdcage cover. I also laughed at the image of Darren Criss singing in front of another set of men in identical blazers and ties, and having a male-bonding moment over football.
    Went by myself after plans to see it with friends fell through, and was a bad fan at not making the meetup time at the steps. Cheered when those skinny ropes brought Finch out of the orchestra pit and he lifts his gaze out of the book — funny how in my head that lines up with the .gif of his curly spotilighted head coming up in AVPM, and the one where he turns so we first see his face at “Excuse, me could I ask you a question?”
    H2$ is set in the same era as Mad Men, but still not okay with the sentiment or lyrics of Cinderella Darling or the implications of A Secretary is Not a Toy. And snickered because (as someone who worked in its downtown for 4 years) Rosemary honey, if you live in New Ro Finch is not doing that well for you.
    Enjoyed the Event of it all, as well as the frozenness of waiting for his tearful face at the stage door. Would do it all again…

  4. Just saw it this past weekend, and yes, slight, but yes, fun! And that was I was hoping for. DC was well suited for the role, though I think his vocals may have been stronger at the Sat matinee, perhaps because Beau Bridges was having an off voice day in comparison.

    Definitely agree with you about the women in the show, and I was most impressed with the ensemble! Fantastic dancers, always on and in character!

    My hope is that a few of these fans leave H2$ with the seed of theater love in their hearts.

    1. I, as you might expect, have various friends and acquaintances that have attended several times, and I’ve heard Criss’s voice has significantly improved since opening. I’m seeing it again closing weekend with out of town people, and doubt I’ll have much to say here about it, but I am looking forward to the basis for comparison.

      And yes, anything that turns people on to theater is good.

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