How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
Much has changed in American employment since this show premiered in 1961. These days, we're more likely to be working in small, entrepreneurial organizations or even be self-employed than working for a big company "where nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing." And if the "World Wide Wicket Company" actually existed and were still in business, the wickets would likely be manufactured overseas.
Yet, the big companies that remain today are bigger than ever as they've gobbled up competitors. Some people still work for such companies and even for those of us who don't, there are plenty of targets that resonate in this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical from the early "Mad Men" era. The story of J. Pierrepont Finch, whose upward mobility as a window washer of World Wide Wickets' high-rise headquarters wasn't the kind of upward mobility he wanted, has themes that include choosing duplicity and deceit over integrity and honesty, deciding between career and personal relationships, and pondering the evils of nepotism, cronyism, classism and, the dangers of groupthink.
Director Don Stephenson—a name one may recognize from The Producers, in which he played Leo Bloom on tour and for a time on Broadway—has taken a distinctly broad tone for this production that effectively places the emphasis on the satire. There's no confusion over his (or for that matter, bookwriters Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) intention to skewer these behaviors and not to find them at all charming or nostalgic. His Finch, as played by Ari Butler, is obsessed with his career goal—never showing remorse over his ability to let others hear what they want to believe or stopping to enjoy the attentions of secretary Rosemary. Even the sweet, earnest Rosemary, the secretary with her romantic sights on Finch, is a satiric target, coming off as a bit of a man-crazy gold digger in the early scenes. Stephenson has his cast maintain a manic pace and happily so, as the production clocks in at about 2:40 including intermission. In his uncompromisingly critical look, Stephenson's work here is a great example of a director taking a clear and distinctive point of view without imposing a concept.
Stephenson has the cast and creative team to carry it off. Butler is a diminutive "Road Runner"-like schemer in the Robert Morse mold, but with a strong and pleasing voice for the vocals. Jessica Naimy, looking like Mary Tyler Moore circa 1961, is a charming match for him. While the two romantic leads were brought in from New York, Stephenson has strong local talent in the remaining roles, starting with the remarkable character actor Terry Hamilton as J.B. Biggley. It's a take on the buffoonish side, entirely inappropriate for the CEO who has little shame in hiring his paramour (the goofy Hedy LaRue, played here tartly by Angela Ingersoll) and making hiring decisions based on pressure from his wife. Alex Goodrich pulls out nearly all the stops in his Bud Frump, Biggley's ambitious nephew who is a rival to Finch. Goodrich knows exactly how far to push the envelope in his portrayal of the "villain," who is really no more villainous than Finch, just more obvious and less successful in his duplicity. Felicia P. Fields—a Chicago legend and Tony Award nominee for her Sofia in The Color Purple ten years ago—is an imposing Executive Secretary Miss Jones, giving her "Brotherhood of Man" solo a bluesy rather than gospel-ly tempo. There's also strong character work from Marya Grandy as Rosemary's secretary friend Smitty, Jason Grimm as the sniveling Mr. Bratt, and Derek Hasenstab as Wally Womper and Mr. Twimble.
The production makes the most of its early 1960s vibe, with Tom Ryan's set pieces of roll-on desks and wash basins (for the "I Believe in You" scene in the executive washroom) filling the in-the-round space and adequately suggesting a midtown Manhattan of the era. Finch's window-washing platform descends from the flies and a central platform rises on occasion. Catherine Zuber's costumes from the 2011 revival starring Daniel Radcliffe provide a base of pastels enhanced by Jesse Klug's lighting. Melissa Zaremba's choreography is sensational, converting the everyday movement of a crowded office environment into sharp and stunning dances.
The strong vocal and orchestral performances here under Patti Garwood's direction make a case for Frank Loesser's score as groundbreaking in its own right. A master Hollywood tunesmith before he arrived on Broadway with Where's Charley? and Guys and Dolls, Loesser created for How to Succeed... a complex musical score that doesn't always follow the conventions of pop song structure—even as he delivers some hummable hits as "Brotherhood of Man" and "I Believe in You."
People used to talk of Broadway musicals of catering to "tired businessmen" visiting New York and looking for light entertainment after a day of meetings. How to Succeed... must have been entertaining to that crowd, but the piece was also pioneering in its contemporary satire, breaking with the tradition still present in the "Golden Age of Musicals" to focus on romance or light comedy frequently set in some distant place or time. While not by any means the first musical to tackle "important" subjects, How to Succeed... had a role in expanding the perceptions of what the genre could say, and set the stage for innovative musicals that would follow it later in the '60s and beyond. Stephenson's production is a worthy mounting that makes the case for the piece as an enduring classic.