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Don't Let Him Be Such a Hero: Daniel Radcliffe as J. Pierrepont Finch
By Shari Perkins

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
By Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Al Hirschfeld Theater
302 W. 45th St.
Box office: 212-239-6200


More than three-quarters of the way through How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, J. Pierrepont Finch is in trouble--and he knows it. Ensconced in the executive washroom, the ambitious young go-getter sings a pep song to himself, praising his "cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth" and his "up-turned mouth with its grin of impetuous youth" as he gets ready to walk into a meeting for which he is almost completely unprepared. In past productions, this number has been performed as a comic love song--a celebration of Finch's narcissism and self-confidence despite all odds. But the Finch of Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the current Broadway revival, is not so sure of himself. He performs "I Believe in You" with a charming--but rather disorienting to those who have seen or heard earlier productions--anxiety, which suggests that this J. Pierrepont Finch knows that he's in over his head, but he is going to walk into that boardroom anyway. If the winds blow just right, he might walk out again alive.

In this context, the words of the chorus are strangely ironic. "Don't let him be such a hero," his threatened fellow executives sing plaintively about a youth--hardly yet a man--who is walking to his doom. The lines become even more loaded when one recalls that, for most of the lives of a large percentage of the audience, Daniel Radcliffe has embodied their generation's greatest fictional hero, Harry Potter. Moreover, in just a few weeks--during the run of How to Succeed--the eighth and final Harry Potter film will open worldwide. When that happens, Radcliffe's Harry will be taking another long walk into almost certain doom, this time to face death at the hand of his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort.

In The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, Marvin Carlson asserts that the reappearance of familiar, already-seen elements on the stage form an important part of the audience's reception of theatrical works. The interplay of memories form an intertextual "tissue of quotations" which shape the work's meanings by playing on the viewers' "horizon of expectations," a process which Carlson calls ghosting. [1] An actor brings with him or her a collection of associations--either with his past roles or, in the case of a celebrity like Radcliffe, with himself--which cannot help but color the way he or she is perceived when performing. The audience's interest in the performer's past is not limited to the professional sphere: in "Celebrity and the Semiotics of Acting," Michael Quinn notes that spectators tend to seek information about the private life of celebrity performers, forming a body of knowledge which creates an intertext, or "an accretion, based on similar art/life connections in earlier roles, and also on the connections the celebrity provides between the roles themselves." [2] This body of knowledge affects audience reception as well. In addition, roles can themselves carry similar cultural baggage, accumulating associations over time which become the basis for future interpretations that must either build on or break down what has come before in a complex, ongoing process of reinvention. [3]

This article is a consideration of the intertextual web that surrounds Radcliffe's performance of Finch in the 2011 Broadway revival of How to Succeed. In it, I will consider how the concept of this musical has bled into publicity materials and critical assessments of Radcliffe's performance, how his physical presence and personal characteristics have reshaped the interpretation of the role of Finch, and how Radcliffe and director Rob Ashford have taken advantage of the audience's investment in and curiosity about Radcliffe and his abilities in order to shape the production as a whole.

Much of the interest this How to Succeed revolves around questions concerning Radcliffe's professional coming of age, his personal commitment to challenging himself, and his viability as a Broadway star. Press surrounding his musical theater debut has focused on the not-quite-former-child-star's attempts to forge an acting career after his ten-year sojourn as "the boy who lived," a role that has kept him in the public eye since the age of eleven. The theme of many articles has been Radcliffe's strategic attempt to continue his career beyond Harry--a theme that dovetails nicely with Finch's calculated climb up the corporate ladder in How to Succeed. For example, in her USA Today piece "Daniel Radcliffe Takes Steps to 'Succeed' after 'Harry Potter,'" Elysa Gardner announces that the star is determined neither to become typecast as Potter nor to fail to "age gracefully."

It was, perhaps, his quest for adult legitimacy and distance from the franchise that made him famous that impelled Radcliffe to take on the role of Alan Strang in Equus (London, 2008; Broadway, 2009). The role of a deeply disturbed youth, featuring a scene of full-frontal nudity, was a sharp break from his child-friendly image. Gardner points out that Radcliffe is once again playing against type in the role of the Machiavellian Finch. This time, however, instead of nudity and madness, Radcliffe must prove that he can sing, dance, and carry a Broadway musical, despite being previously unknown for those skills.

Feeding into this speculation--which was certainly purposefully cultivated in order to draw curious audiences to witness Radcliffe's risky endeavor--are a number of articles highlighting the young actor's relative lack of preparation for headlining in a musical. According to a New York Times article by Dave Itzkoff, "Now Just a Muggle, With Song and Dance," Radcliffe was approached by How to Succeed's producers after they learned that he was singing Sweeney Todd backstage at Equus; Radcliffe recalls responding to the invitation to star in a musical by saying, "O.K., yeah, I'll do dance lessons, fine. But you are swimming against the tide here, Mr. Ashford." The title of the article, which references Harry Potter and implies that now Radcliffe must succeed without the aid of magical powers, frames his performance in How to Succeed as the actor's real-life battle for professional survival.

In another article, Radcliffe admits to Gardner that having to dance "scared me. A lot. Because I had absolutely no aptitude for it." In a third article, in Gotham Magazine, subtitled "Beyond Harry Potter," he admits that he is "terrified"--but this article also notes that Radcliffe spent two years training as a singer and dancer in preparation for the role in the hope that Ashford would not "feel like he has to censor himself for me" and so that the director could "treat me as much like a dancer as he can." [4] All of these articles evoke the mythology of the Harry Potter series, which frame the eponymous hero as "the boy who lived" against all odds, and who must meet a challenge much larger than himself--a challenge for which he is inevitably underprepared.

Unsurprisingly, after opening night a large number of the reviews centered on the question of whether Radcliffe had "succeeded" in meeting this seemingly insurmountable challenge. New York Magazine's Scott Brown voted "yes" in "How Daniel Radcliffe Succeeds on Broadway," while Bill Stevenson concurrred, stating that "like Finch, he succeeds." Tom Geier for Entertainment Weekly also conflated the professional performances of star and character, writing that Radcliffe was a "coiled spring of energy who manages to embody the ethos of corporate-ladder-climbing opportunist J. Pierpont [sic] Finch with a winning combination of youth, talent, and sheer will power"--nevermind the fact that the musical's book states that talent is totally unnecessary for Finch's rapid rise. On the negative side, Charles McNulty gave Radcliffe "an A for effort" but declared that he did not have the "theatrical stature" to pull off the role or carry such an outdated show. In a vigorous pan entitled "Wizard of Corporate Climbing," Ben Brantley noted that Radcliffe was "the only reason to see the show, and contrary to what the title suggests, [he] really, really tries." Overall, however, the reviews skewed positive, suggesting that How to Succeed's public relations team has successfully revised audience expectations to focus on effort and charm--instead of judging Radcliffe according to the standards used for, say, Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes) or Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel), who both rose to fame as unknowns based on their prodigious talent and polished, charismatic performances.

Radcliffe's performance as Finch is not only ghosted by his personal work ethic and his image as Harry Potter, a boy who overcomes overwhelming odds to become a hero. It is also haunted by the memory of performers who have taken on the role in the past. At twenty-one, Radcliffe is by far the youngest actor to portray Finch on Broadway; both Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick were in their early to mid thirties. Moreover, Morse and Broderick's personae are completely unlike Radcliffe's, and their interpretations of Finch were correspondingly different. In the 1967 film, for example, Robert Morse exhibits an almost demonic quality during the number "I Believe in You," mugging to his reflection, flashing his eyes with glee, and juggling his bar of soap with consummate unconcern for his fate. He has absolutely no doubt of his ability to overcome the greatest of odds: a high-stakes pitch for an advertising campaign for which he is woefully unprepared. In the 1995 Broadway revival, Matthew Broderick, despite what McNulty described as a rather passive performance, also could not fail to overcome any obstacle in his path. After all, he was (and remains) recognizable to audiences as the Machiavellian trickster Ferris Bueller, all grown up. The two characters--Bueller and Finch--complement and reinforce each other.

Radcliffe does not receive this beneficial reinforcement from his previous roles. If anything, the earnest integrity and intense personal loyalty of Harry Potter is in direct conflict with the calculating, manipulative, and emotionally neglectful Finch. The star's extreme youth also differentiates his Finch from Morse and Broderick, an effect that Ashford and Radcliffe have consciously evoked. Indeed, Finch is not a particularly likeable character. Instead of winning us over through hard work (like Radcliffe), he garners the audience's support in the same way that Richard III does--through his awe-inspiring ability to topple all obstacles to his ascent. In this time of recession, Finch could easily become a villain: his flagrant disregard for the well-being of the company and the financial devastation he brings down on it are a little too familiar after the recent economic crisis, which was brought on by similar machinations.

Radcliffe's youth and his alter-ego Harry Potter's biography combine to mitigate this effect. According to Ashford, who was paraphrased by Itzkoff, "a Finch in his late 20s or early 30s might come off as a corporate dead-ender scheming to dig himself out of a career rut . . . [but] audiences would forgive someone at Mr Radcliffe's age, who simply doesn't know any better." [5] Indeed, rather than a brilliant and devious schemer, Radcliffe's Finch comes across as clever, extremely lucky, and willing to let others make false assumptions if it is to his benefit. In the same vein, his youth makes Finch's utter neglect of and simultaneous willingness to use the talents of his love interest, Rosemary, seem the consequence of inexperience rather than self-absorption. At the end of this How to Succeed, one believes that Finch could learn his lesson and grow into a decent husband, although such hopes would be wasted on a thirty-something schemer in the mold of Broderick or Morse.

Ashford and Radcliffe cleverly manipulate the audience's curiosity about Radcliffe's fitness for the part. Critic Terry Teachout amiably winks to curious readers in the Wall Street Journal: "of course you'll be wanting to know all about Mr. Radcliffe, and the answer is that he's a pretty good singer and an unexpectedly good dancer." The dogged attention to points like these in the show's journalistic coverage suggests that audiences coming to it have three major questions, plus one minor one: Can Radcliffe sing? Can he dance? Can he do an American accent? And lastly, is he really that short? Because Finch sings from almost the first moment, there is little that the director could do with Radcliffe to play with this question. The critics--and I--can only respond that yes, Radcliffe can sing well enough for the part, even if he does not have the caliber voice of many less-famous performers onstage with him. But the other three questions offer more room for play.

Having grown up in the spotlight, Radcliffe has drawn commentary in recent years due to his height. Although Harry Potter is supposed to have grown tall by the end of his years at Hogwarts, Radcliffe has remained quite visibly diminutive, a trait particularly notable at premieres and public events when he is surrounded by his female costars, who tower over him in their high heels. Radcliffe mentions his height in several articles related to How to Succeed, noting that his height gives him increased anonymity in New York ("Its quite good being this short; you just put up your hood and no one gives you a second glance really"). [6] Probably a part of this benefit hails from the disjunction between Radcliffe's perceived stature (via Hollywood) and his actual physical build.

Daniel Radcliffe with John Larroquette behind him rehearsing "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying," 2011. Photo: Ari MintzAshford has clearly taken advantage of Radcliffe's surprising shortness: the male chorus members and featured actors in How to Succeed are uniformly tall. In the eleven-o'clock number, "Brotherhood of Man," Radcliffe takes the center position in the chorus and is clearly half a foot shorter than his castmates. In "Grad Ol' Ivy," he is once again surrounded by oversized men--this time in football gear and padding--during a fantasy sequence that shows Finch going for a touchdown. Both of these moments strengthen the impression of youth and innocence discussed above. In addition, Ashford and Radcliffe use height for humorous ends: in the role of J. P. Biggley, the president of World Wide Wickets, Ashford cast John Laroquette, who is 6'5". The contrast between the two performers is comical. In the above-mentioned football sequence, the 5'5" Radcliffe athletically vaults over his bent-over costar, whereas Laroquette is able to step over Radcliffe by lazily lifting one leg.

The ghost of Radcliffe's Britishness plays less of a role in the show; his accent is convincing, and the audience easily accepts him as an American. However, at one point in the show his personal biography intrudes on the production. In the big board meeting, when Finch, Biggley, and the other executives brainstorm possible "Treasure Girls" for their proposed television show, one of the executives suggests trying to get Queen Elizabeth for the part. A beat passes, and Finch emphatically responds, "Uhhh . . . this is an American show." The confluence of Finch's dismissive attitude and Radcliffe's known nationality transformed this rather hum-drum line into a howler. Another brief yet effective intrusion of Radcliffe's Britishness came during the fund-raising bid after the curtain call. Raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the leading men gave a curtain speech. Or rather, Radcliffe did, using his natural accent. At the end of Radcliffe's talk, Laroquette did a double-take, demanding incredulously, "You're British!?!" to the audience's delight.

But the most artful manipulation of the audience's expectations of Radcliffe's performance skills was Ashford's careful revelation of his dancing skills. In the first song of the show, Radcliffe is surrounded by dancing chorus members. His Finch seems out of step with the bustling of the crack, corporate dancers. Radcliffe slouches, wanders, shifts his weight back and forth, and observes the technical skill of his castmates with awe. In this scene, Radcliffe is not graceful, and one could easily imagine that he is not up to the challenge of dancing a Broadway musical.

Bit by bit, however, Ashford reveals the fruits of his star's two years of labor: in "Company Way," Radcliffe displays a command of rhythm in manipulating all kinds of mail, while the chorus boys handle the bulk of the dancing. In "Grand Ol' Ivy," near the end of the first act, Radcliffe begins to show his athleticism, performing a dance routine composed of leaps, push-ups, prancing, and tumbling. Although he stays mostly in the back row, Radcliffe allows himself to be lifted, carried around, passed from hand to hand, and flipped upside down. The climax comes, appropriately enough, in the finale, "Brotherhood of Man," when Radcliffe finally breaks into full-out, Broadway-style choreography. He dances front and center, tiny before his over-sized castmates, though his character is triumphant. At that moment, carefully prepared by the entire production, Radcliffe's enthusiasm and accomplishment are suitably showcased. It is no wonder that the audience cheers, for in that moment--right as the fast-talking Finch rescues himself from termination and disgrace--Radcliffe, against all odds, emerges as a triple-threat Broadway star. If his long walk down Broadway to certain defeat failed to charm some of Broadway's notorious Lord Voldemorts--Ben Brantley, for instance--he has once again revealed himself as the Boy Who Lived.



1. Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: U Mich P, 2003), 4-5.
2. Michael Quinn, "Celebrity and the Semiotics of Acting," New Theatre Quarterly 6:22 (1990), 154, 158.
3. Carlson, 78-9.
4. Bill Keith, "Daniel Radcliffe: Beyond Harry Potter," Gotham Magazine,
5. Dave Itzkoff, "Now Just a Muggle, with a Song and Dance," New York Times, Mar. 2, 2011.
6. Keith, "Daniel Radcliffe."


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