As I watched the world premiere of “The Secret of My Success” at Aurora’s majestic Paramount Theatre, I was certain that its producers, Paramount Theatre in association with the Universal Theatrical Group, had great hopes that they would bring it successfully to Broadway.
It was beautifully staged, wonderfully cast and well-written. Yet, I would be surprised if it makes it to Broadway any time soon.
According to Playbill, 82% of Broadway musicals are based on an adaptation of a book, movie or catalog of songs, all of which, on average, run 50% longer than the original shows. These producers based this show on a 1987 film starring Michael J. Fox.
The likable star of “Back to the Future” portrayed a young, ambitious job seeker, starting out in the mailroom of a large New York corporation, who is mistaken for a new executive.
He then assumes the identity of a junior executive on paternity leave to further his business career and pursue a romance with his female manager before, inevitably, being discovered.
In this production, Billy Harrigan Tighe, an athletic, singing and dancing veteran of several national Broadway tours, has been imported from New York to take on the lead role of Brantley Foster, the role Fox played in the film.
The lovely Sydney Morton, another import, plays the object of his affections. Jeremy Peter Johnson is the tyrannical, philandering boss and Ian Michael Stuart as an hilarious supervisor of the “temps” are both out of towners.
The balance of the talented energetic cast consists of a collection of some of Chicago’s best musical theater performers including Barbara E. Robertson as Brantley’s doting mother, Heidi Kettenring as the boss’ wife and chairman of the board and Brandon Dahlquist as the substituted executive.
The experienced composing team of Alan Schmuckler and Michael Mahler, who previously collaborated on “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?” were selected to do the music and lyrics for the 21 numbers in the show, including a humorous “You’re a D-Bag, Brantley Foster,” an insightful “When You Feel Feelings” and a bombastic “I Got This,” sung by the entire cast at the opening of the second act.
With book by Steve Rosen and Gordon Greenberg, who also directed, along with choreography by Amber Mak and a 12-piece orchestra conducted by Tom Vendafreddo, this production, which runs through March 29, seemed to have all the ingredients to make it to Broadway and beyond.
But then I thought of the recent production of “Tootsie,” also an adaptation of a comedy film. That show had an initial capitalization of $20 million but despite receiving positive reviews after opening on Broadway last April, receiving two Tony Awards, including one for its lead Santino Fontana, with a nominated score by previous Tony Award winner, David Yazbek, it closed on Jan. 5 with the dire prediction of being certain to be in the red.
But there is a bright side. Even as “Tootsie’ was closing in New York, plans were being made for stagings in London, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan, for that’s where investors can recoup their investments, in the larger venues providing greater grosses on the road.
The main obstacle is getting onto Broadway in the first place. Can “The Secret of My Success” make it? A lot of bigger ones did not. Stephen King’s horrific “Carrie” did not. A fabulous movie “Urban Cowboy” had only 60 performances. “Lennon” a juke box musical only 49, “Dr. Zhivago” closed after 23.
Even the legendary Stephen Sondheim did not have an immediate hit with “Anyone Can Whistle” and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg who did fantastically with “Les Miserable,” failed miserably with “The Pirate Queen” which closed after only 85 performances and a loss of at least $16 million.
So what makes for a successful musical on Broadway? A recent article by Jim Miller, a respected member of the show biz community, listed four basic elements that a show must excel at to even consider being produced. Does Paramount’s production make the cut?
The first element is “connection” — does the show connect with audience, involve them in what is happening and caring for the characters? Not here.
Unfortunately the production lacks heart, there is no chemistry between the major players and no empathy for the handsome lead who can sing and dance. But, there are no skills to bring the viewers into his ridiculous situation like a nerdy Bobby Morse or the inept but cutely, appealing Michael J. Fox.
The second is “transporting” — does the show take the audience on an escape from their daily grind to an unusual situation or different place such as the streets of London or the ghettos of Anatevka? This show takes them to the same old, same old Wall Street business world.
The third is “a compelling story” — here the creative team made a poor choice, with a plot where a geeky kid tries to make it in New York so much like the 1961 show “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” would be laughable even if it’s not so funny. Even film critic Roger Ebert in his review of the 1987 movie commented that it felt like the screenplay “had been in a drawer since the 1950s.”
The fourth element is of course, “the music” — having said what I did pertaining to the first three elements, I certainly cannot fault Mahler and Schmuckler for doing an admirable job under the circumstances though not coming up with a score that everyone would hum on the way out the door.
But take heart, even the writers of “Les Miserables” took their lumps for “The Pirate Queen” with reviews of “all plot and no heart” and “no emotional connection with the audience.”
This was a great production but could use a rewrite of the script and new casting with some well-known stars to give it some oomph and a little pizzazz.
Or better yet, taking a hint from new “Company” production coming to Broadway, which is casting the original male part of Bobby with a female bachelorette, this Paramount one should cast a woman as the ambitious Brantley and a man in the role of her manager. Maybe a little #MeToo sequence could shakes things up.
- Final verdict: Three gavels