Monday, 17 April 2017

Review How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Based upon the book by Shepherd Mead

Made In America 

In 1937 Tennessee Williams lost out in a University of Washington playwriting contest to several classmates, who were placed above him in the competition.  One of them was Edward Shepherd Mead. 

Mead, while working in advertising, went on to write the 1952 best-selling tome How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying satirizing office politics and the craze for self-help books. 

This became the source material, with the addition of the compulsory musical theatre romance, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 musical of (amazingly!) the same name - even in French!

Williams, whatever happened to him? If only he had bought and read How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying before entering that play contest! ;)

Anyway, TLT and her own transportation widget were full of curiosity to see for the first time live the full-blown musical, which we hereby shorten from now on to How To Succeed. 

This musical, in an uneven production but still wonderful vocals at Wilton's Music Hall,  turned out to be as relevant today with the internet producing off-the-peg wisdom as it was over 50 years ago with the advent of television for the masses. 

It's a shammy-cloth to chairman-of-the-board tale. J Pierrepont Finch, like fictional elevator boy Thomas Krull,  starts off on the rise - in Finch's case as a window cleaner and stays upwardly mobile using the How To manual plus an improvisational instinct.   

The firm is the World Wide Wicket Company. Along the way he inadvertently makes an implacable enemy, the boss's nephew Bud Frump (Daniel Graham),  acquires a love interest Rosemary (Hannah Grover) and negotiates the temples of conspiracy that are the coffee machine, the men's washroom and the (all-male) boardroom.  

In the first act we did have rather overpowering doubts about the design. Sure, How To Succeed is a cartoon but if we were to find a British equivalent, it would be more in line with Bristow than the colours of children's TV. 

We really weren't sure about the fluorescent hair colours, elongated mens' shoes of unlikely colours, a personnel director who favoured the look of a Texan cowboy and we felt this all rather softened the edges of a sharp satire on something recognizable. 

For us also, Pickering's dark looks rather militated against the gentle, cherubic aspect of Finch. While Finch's adversary, Daniel Graham's Bud Frump has the more open-faced, all-American boy looks.  

Shepherd's book was subtitled A Dastard's Guide to Fame and Fortune. Without having seen it, we did wonder if this production was influenced by rhe recent Broadway hit The Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder based on the same source material as the movie Kind Hearts And Coronets, also with a go-getting lead character. 

Andrew C Wadsworth plays the most consistent card as president of World Wide Wickets with the rousing Old Ivy and old-style duet Heart Of Gold with night club cigarette girl turned secretary Hedy La Rue (a statuesque Lizzii Hills).

And this  production with musical direction by Ben Ferguson and choreography by Lucie Pankhurst finally does come good but, my goodness, it takes its time.  

It redeems itself with a much smarter and better timed second act. Pickering's Finch with the love-song- duet-changed-to-solo song I Believe In You and Grover's Rosemary Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm (for the atmosphere of the time see Woman's World), amongst others, hits the spot.

It's an interesting show. Both book writer Abe Burrows, who drew on experiences working with Revlon, and Frank Loesser, himself the president of his own thriving music rights' company, Frank Music, had to be persuaded to take it on. 

Both were celebrated enough to have the leeway to build the musical around the original Broadway actors, as well as staying more or less true to the source material. The pirate treasure hunt element in the show was even built around a young choreographer's one forte while Bob Fosse did the majority of the work.

The echoes of other musical are not just there for show, we think, but a more complicated dramatic discussion about the - er - business. The song Rosemary for example guys all those songs which riff off a woman's name. 

It also comically samples Grieg's piano concerto in A, while maybe hearking back to one of the all-time greats in money-making musicals. And is there a sly glance even at West Side Story's Maria?  

And what Paris Original implied, where Rosemary buys a so-called exclusive creation to wear to impress Finch and then finds several work colleagues have bought the same, for creatives in the then era of burgeoning television hungry for material and now implies even for politicians and their spouses in the internet age - as Melania and Donald Trump found out ...  

We Brits are prone to think that we brought satire to the USA via the Cambridge Footlights. However there was healthy mockery there already in the 1960s,  also the era of MAD magazine and Tom Lehrer. Even the stage version of The Sound of Music has its psychologically satiric moments. How To Succeed comes from this tradition.
This is isn't a perfect production by any means but it has its own outstanding musical moments. A rip roaring finale of the revivalist-hymn-style The Brotherhood Of Man when Finch, JFK-style, draws the company together and also manages to save his own skin, gives us also the benefit of vocals from Miss Jones (Maisey Bawden). 

The audience, including your own president and vice-president of TLT, Inc, certainly left with smiles on their faces and we give this How To Succeed an upper level amber light. 

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