‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ is the third of Frank Loesser’s trio of Broadway masterpieces, following ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘The Most Happy Fella’ (someone revive, please). It’s a satire of corporate culture, at a time when the pendulum of feeling was swinging away from the wholesome Americana of Rodgers and Hart. McCarthyism was dead, and no longer was it UnAmerican to suggest that all was not well in the Land of the Free (‘Li’l Abner’, ‘Bye Bye Birdie’).
The show does what it says on the packet, charting the rise of J Pierrepont Finch from window cleaner, literally looking in from the outside, to Chairman of the Board.
For anyone fed up today with interminable moans from the Voices of Capitalism that the Public Sector is bad because it is inefficient, hidebound, bureaucratic etc etc., it comes as a pleasant surprise to find a couple of highly articulate and witty creative artists (Loesser, book writer Abe Burrows) laying exactly the same faults at the door of a giant of private enterprise, the World Wide Wicket Company.
The show does what it says on the packet, charting the rise of J Pierrepont Finch from window cleaner, literally looking in from the outside, to Chairman of the Board. Guided by one of those self-help books which became so popular in post-war America, he crawls, flatters, schemes and canoodles his way to the top, aided by the equally ambitious Rosemary, his sometime fiancée, sometime secretary. “…without really trying” is somewhat ironic, in that the energy which goes into all his Machiavellian manoeuvres is probably greater than he would have had to use if he had done some real work.
The culture around him seethes with envy and encourages timid corporatism, nepotism, plots and counter-plots, all lovingly articulated by Loesser in his trademark razor-sharp lyrics and angular, off-centre score. Loesser has a unique ability to musicalise jargon of all kinds (“Suddenly I’ve gone to mimeograph”), and no-one else apart from Burt Bacharach can come up with tunes which are at once so asymmetrical and so colloquially naturalistic. Several of them nail an aspect of corporate culture: ‘A Secretary Is Not a Toy’ a savage ironic exercise in executive sexism; ‘Been a Long Day’ a catalogue of the tedium of going through meaningless paces; ‘The Company Way’ a hymn to mediocrity and caution. And with what wit and style!
“We know the company may like or lump any man,
And if they choose to the company may dump any man;
But they will never dump Frump, the company man.”
While not quite up there with ‘Guys and Dolls’ for memorability, it boasts several take-home tunes of tongue-in-cheek sentimentality, the songs are all to the dramatic point, furthering plot and developing and expressing character. Not for nothing did it win the 1962 Pullitzer Prize for Drama.
The key to the show is cartoonish, broad stereotypes with strong outlines. This is not just a performing style, it is built into the theme, because corporate culture forces everyone to play a part within the company, submissive or dominant. Director Dawn Kalani Cowle misses it by a mile, failing to stage the number as drama; nor did she succeed in pointing out the ironies and multiple layers within the show. “Happy to Keep his Dinner Warm” is on one level a song of wifely devotion to a workaholic husband; on another it is a song of connivance by a status-seeking and acquisitive broad. Cowle opts for simple devotion. Likewise ‘I Believe in You’, taken out of context, is an affirmative power ballad bordering on love song; except it is sung to a mirror, an orgy of self-love. Cowle fails to establish the mirror, and the point is lost.
Her reductive approach to the musical particularly harms central performances of Adam Pettigrew as Finch and Alyssa Nicol as Rosemary. Both are difficult parts to pull off, because they have to be repellent and self-servingly charming simultaneously. Cowle allows them the charm and little else; the result is soft and flabby. It lacks the sense of danger and panic at the prospect of being found out constantly kept at bay. Company boss JJ Bigelow is a faffing old duffer, devoid of the megalomaniac madness which Rudy Vallee brought to the film. Just as the design has little sense of the oppressive pervasiveness of corporate values, the production has no genuine sense of power: where it lies, who has it, who wants it and how badly. And if you don’t believe in the ferocious lust for power, the central premise of the show is lost.
There is however one standout performance which embodies all the qualities the show needs. Josh Wilmott as sly, worthless Boss’s nephew Bud Frump (great name!) is cartoony, borderline psychotic, and very very funny. Bearing a startling physical resemblance to Mr Burns in ‘The Simpsons’, his sense of slime is so strong that you want to wash your hands every time he’s onstage. His admirable concentration and energy levels are matched by Geraldine Allen as Smitty, Rosemary’s best friend.
The show benefits from some energetic and accurate period choreography from Brendan Matthew, and Musical Director Aaron Clingham has maintained his usual high standards in the tightness of the ensemble.
‘How to Succeed…’ is by no means up to the standard of All Star Productions’ best efforts, but the quality of the show itself, and the rarity value of the revival make it worth the trip to Walthamstow.