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How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is one of the few musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize, and for an act and a half at the Marriott Theatre, one had to question the wisdom of the prize judges. Surely there was a better choice during the 1961-62 season than this sappy, obvious farce struggling to satirize corporate America.

About halfway through the second act, the production turned on a dime. What had been silly and cartoonish suddenly is smart and clever, the two-dimensional characters taking on the heft of real people mired in a serious dilemma. The Frank Loesser score, up to this point amusing and tuneful, takes a giant leap upward with the show’s two best numbers, “I Believe in You” and “The Brotherhood of Man.” If the success of the last scenes didn’t quite elevate the show into a complete pleasure, it certainly stirred the audience into cheering in approval.

“How to Succeed” sets out to lampoon corporate culture in modern America, taking comic shots at the backbiting, brown nosing, and duplicity required to make it big in big business. J. Pierrepont Finch is an ambitious window cleaner with his eye on the main chance, the top of the corporate executive mountain specifically as represented by World Wide Wickets. Through a series of improbably lucky breaks and his own fast footwork, Finch rises, practically by the hour, until he winds up chairman of the board.

Finch’s rise repeals all laws of logic but that’s not really the show’s point. The musical attempts to paint a comical musical portrait of conniving yes men, lecherous executives, pliable secretaries, and endless political chicanery. Loyalty and honesty are the first men down in this every man for himself world. It’s a world in which a charming man on the make like Finch can thrive, at least for 2½ hours on the Broadway stage.

The musical opened late in 1961 and portrayed a much different business world than we have in the new millennium. There are no typing pools anymore and very few if any secretaries. It’s also a pre-feminist time, where the secretaries yearn to be housewives in a cozy suburb. Two songs will make modern feminists cringe, a housewife hymn called “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” and “Cinderella Darling,” in which a middle aged secretary named Smitty and her lady colleagues implore the sweet young Rosemary, the show’s leading lady, to accept her destiny as a Cinderella waiting hopefully for her Prince Charming to give her a life. One production number is built around a group of women discovering that they are all wearing dresses to a fancy social event that were supposed to be Paris originals but are all exact duplicates of each other. Ah, these silly vain females, you’ve got to love them.

Ari Butler takes the pivotal role of J. Pierrepont Finch. The character navigates his way through the corporate jungle with the guidance of a manual on “How to Succeed n Business…” but Finch’s ascent, along with astounding good fortune, is built on the young man’s chutzpa, quick thinking, and ability to fool people who should know better. Until the production’s turnaround in the second act, Butler’s Finch lacks the two-faced smarminess that makes the lad a charming if crafty knave, qualities he suddenly acquires, starting with the “I Believe in You” number.

The show pairs Finch with Rosemary, who falls for him within a few second of his first appearance at World Wide Wickets. Jessica Naimy doesn’t have much to work with in this sweetly uncomplicated girl, but she has a fine singing voice and she does bear a striking resemblance to a young Mary Tyler Moore. Naimy might tone down the comic body language early in the evening as Rosemary tries to entice Finch into a romance.

Terry Hamilton takes on the role of J. B. Biggley, the company president. Chicagoland audiences are accustomed to enjoying Hamilton in serious, stretching roles, and it’s startling to watch his antic Biggley shouting and fussing much of the time. But Hamilton is fun to watch as caricature of the Fred McMurray adulterous executive in “The Apartment.” Alex Goodrich has a fine time portraying Biggley’s over-the-top obnoxious nephew, Bud Frump. Among the females, Marya Grandy’s Smitty injects a welcome note of comic realism the action. There is also good work from Jason Grimm, Derek Hasenstab, and Neil Friedman as pompous and blustering executives. And let’s not forget Angela Ingersoll, who gives the ostentatiously buxom Hedy La Rue a funny Judy Holiday spin as a brassy blonde who isn’t as dumb as she seems.

Director Don Stephenson is content to let the show ride the farcical rails for much of the evening until those final scenes, when the silliness turns into honest-to-goodness satire. Choreographer Melissa Zaremba designed the animated dances leading up to the triumphant “I Believe in Me” and “The Brotherhood of Man” numbers.

Thomas M. Ryan designed the basic set, embellished by Mondrian-like panels of solid colors hanging above the stage. Jesse Krug designed the lighting and Robert E. Gilmartin the sound. The sexy and extravagant costumes were based on original designs by Catherine Zuber. Patti Garwood conducted the nine-piece pit band with her usual professionalism...