Right now much of Broadway is a Museum of the American Musical staffed by busy curator-directors eager to put their stamp on every show they mount.
Their handiwork includes the "revisal," as in the brand-new "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"; treatments of pre-existing musical texts, as in "Tommy" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe"; arduous restorations, like "Show Boat," and meticulous concert versions like "Call Me Madam."Museums today are afraid of losing their audiences. And so these musical exhibits must be crowd pleasers as well as genuine attempts to do justice to a great American form - one that has dwindled and diminished in recent years.
Harold Prince's "Show Boat" is a closely supervised, lavish restoration, involving research, scholarship and all the resources of present-day stagecraft. Actually, it is a curious amalgam of several versions - the first one, in 1927, the 1936 film and the 1946 Broadway revival, among them - made to look like a dream vision of the original.
The aim is to seal up all the cracks in this gorgeous, awkward, daring, sickly sweet, eager-to-challenge yet eager-to-please musical: to buff and polish it till it looks like new. But to my mind, antiques that look too new lose some of their character.
The "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert" series takes a very different approach. They almost completely discard the frippery of sets and costumes and pare the work down to its basic structure of words and music.
"Encores!" did a terrific job with Irving Berlin's 1950 "Call Me Madam" last month. They will have done Cole Porter's "Out of This World" by the time you read this, and next month they will be doing Rodgers and Hart's "Pal Joey." The shows run for just three days at City Center and wouldn't look amiss in a small, pretty Broadway house. If they are all as good as "Call Me Madam," I'd like them to play for months.
Revues take a simpler, more improvised approach to their material.
No plot is required. All the story we need is in the songs and the styles they recall.
The songs in "Smokey Joe's Cafe," songs like "There Goes My Baby," "Stand by Me," "Young Blood," "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "Hound Dog" and, yes, "On Broadway" (hail to the Drifters, Ben E. King, the Coasters, Wilbert Harrison, Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley), come across as good clean fun. But after all, this is still supposed to be rock-and-roll. A little less goodness and a little less ingratiating cleanliness would be a lot more fun.
The most ambitious approach to classic musical theater texts can be seen in the plush, showy revisal of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" that's playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater. A revisal is part revision, part revival and part reappraisal. A revisal's director (in this case Des McAnuff, who also directed the plush, showy "Tommy") acts as a kind of anthropologist and social psychologist.
Our dear ancestors, he seems to say of those who wrote the work he is staging: How vital and gifted you were, how much you gave us. But you were backward in certain ways too, a prisoner of your times. It is up to me to free you now, to enhance your virtues and to minimize, chastise or eradicate your faults.
"How to Succeed," which opened in 1961, was Frank Loesser's last musical. (It succeeded "Where's Charley?" "Guys and Dolls," "The Most Happy Fella" and "Greenwillow" in his canon.)
Following one J. Pierrepont "Ponty" Finch from his job as a window washer to his position as chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Co. in New York City, it manages to be both a satire and a fairy tale.
It is satiric because it mocks American how-to-better-yourself instruction manuals stretching from Benjamin Franklin to Dale Carnegie and because it mocks the chicanery, nepotism and mediocrity that keep big business humming. It is a fairy tale because all those how-to-better-yourself dreams come true and because chicanery, nepotism and mediocrity are put to the service of a happy ending for all.
The score and the story are a perfect fit: in fact, the lyrics are so smart and so well served by the music that together they nearly carry the story and render the book (by Abe Burrows, Jack Wein-stock and Willie Gilbert) superfluous.
Loesser could submerge himself in a song the way certain actors can submerge themselves in their character. He had so many musical tricks and manners; he could write arias, anthems, ballads, hymns, swing songs and patter songs, and he could write them straight or as parodies.
The characters in "How to Succeed" are meant to be played straight and for parody. They get to have it both ways, and so do we. Finch, played by Matthew Bro-de-rick, is a boy ingenue and a shameless schemer. Rosemary Pilkington (Megan Mullally) is the secretary who loves him: a girl ingenue with a heart of brass. He has his eye on a company presidency; she has her eye on him and on a home in New Rochelle.
For now, the company president is J.B. Biggley, an officious executive with a trifling nephew he keeps promoting and a big, gold-digging blond girlfriend he keeps finding jobs for. There is a male chorus of greedy executives and a female chorus of cynically vivacious secretaries.
"How to Succeed" is that rare thing in the annals of musical comedy, a man's show, for the perfectly good reason that the business world of 1961 was a man's world. The men's roles are bigger, better and easier to play well.
Rudy Vallee played Biggley in the original, and he was both pompous and unctuous.
This time around, Ronn Carroll is louder, coarser, more unsure of himself and more bullying, which is fine. Charles Nelson Reilly turned Biggley's nephew Bud Frump into a smug, portly dweeb. To equally good effect, Jeff Blumenkrantz makes him a skinny, nervous and slightly foppish nerd, beset as much by ambition as by incompetence.
Robert Morse's inimitable Finch was a merry prankster, a kind of amoral Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to make himself rich. Matthew Broderick is a shyer, slyer actor: his Finch manipulates with a clear conscience and a pure heart.
The choreographer Wayne Cilento plays this up cleverly. Whenever Ponty is about to launch a new scheme, he breaks into eccentric dance movements, as if he were entering his own dream ballet.
Cilento tries to do the same thing for Megan Mullally's Rosemary. This 1990s revisal wants us to believe that Rosemary is mistress of her fate and future. She may sing like a doe-eyed ingenue, but that's just to soften us up; when she dances, she dances like a svelte Cyd Charisse. But this is a concept, not a characterization.
The concept dictates that Rosemary and all of the secretaries at the World Wide Wicket Co. be in command: though they may appear vulnerable, superficial or merely coquettish, they are really superb sexual tacticians with a feminist agenda.
But the year is 1961, and however smart they may be, secretaries are still babes in corporate toyland. "How to Succeed" depends on sexual hierarchies along with the social and economic ones. These working girls can no more triumph as feminists than the men they work for can turn into enlightened public servants.
Nothing makes the situation clearer than a song that the director of "How to Succeed" chose to drop. The song is "Cinderella, Darling," and the secretaries sing it to Rosemary at the moment she is about to resign from her position as Ponty's fiancee.
"How often does it happen
That a secretary's boss
Wants to marry 'er?
How often does the dream come true
Without a sign of conflict
Smitty, the sharp-tongued leader of the typing pack intones.
"How often can you fly
From this land of carbon paper
To the land of flower'd chintz?
How often does a Cinderella
Get a crack at the prince?"
And then the girls chime in:
"Don't, don't, don't,
Don't turn down the prince!"
. . . and unfurl a vision of Bergdorf Goodman, Elizabeth Arden and the New Rochelle PTA.
"Why spoil our enjoyment;
You're the fable,
Of glorified unemployment!" they chant.
With Victoria Clark's Smitty in charge, this song would have worked. It is a shrewd capsule portrait of pink-collar femininity circa 1961, more accurate and therefore more biting than what Des Mc-Anuff substitutes: a girl-group reprise of Ponty's "How to Succeed" anthem, in which they plot to marry tycoons and take over companies.
Trust the tale, not the teller, said D.H. Lawrence. Trust the audience too, one might add. McAnuff's revisal is a good-looking, fast-moving show. But if he had trusted the tale he would not have had to patronize the audience. "How to Succeed" could have been tough-minded then, instead of mealy-mouthed.