Just like Coco Chanel's little black dress, there are certain Broadway musicals that are smart, chic and timeless.
Such is Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows's precisely tailored masterpiece, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), a revival via Theatre Under the Stars, that is so superbly altered that it comes across as brand-new apparel. How I wish my vintage '60s Yves Saint Laurent jackets could be so easily transformed.
A rich dissection of early '60s business culture, Business doesn't skewer the era of Mad Men so much as relish its conventions and then gently poke. The show's aim is solely to entertain, providing the tired businessman audience, dragged to Broadway after a long day's work, a chance to laugh at his company's pretension, nepotism, work ethic and loyal secretaries.
And, ohh, what poking Business does.
J. Pierrepont Finch (the adroitly nimble Chris Dwan) is first seen as a lowly window washer on his platform outside the World Wide Wicket Company headquarters in New York City. He studies the book How to Succeed in Business, a primer much like any self-help tome of the time, such as Dale Carnegie's magnum opus How to Win Friends and Influence People or Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. Within two weeks, he rises to Chairman of the Board!
Following the book's advice, always signaled by a comic ding from the orchestra accompanied by pinspot, he cajoles, wheedles, insinuates and glad-hands his way up through the corporate structure. He's a lovable heel, and Dwan, with the elastic physicality of Ray Bolger or a slimmer, sleeker Norbert Leo Butz, carries the show on his lanky frame with megawatt grin and breezy charm. In previous Broadway revivals, Matthew Broderick, Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, and Nick Jonas of teen boyband Jonas Brothers fame won acclaim with their display of old-fashioned song-and-dance-man moves, but Dwan, recently seen on Broadway in Finding Neverland, has immense boyish charm, rubbery physique and better belt. The role made a star out of Morse; it should do the same for Dwan.
The wonderful prick in Finch's self-help studies is that the book he's memorizing is Shepherd Mead's satiric instructional manual How to Succeed... subtitled, A Dastard's Guide to Fame and Fortune (1952). Mead, an unsuccessful novelist who had risen inside Benton and Bowles, one of NYC's most prestigious ad agencies, wrote How to… as a lark, and when the book became a best-seller, parleyed the success into a series of other How Tos such as ...Get Rich in TV, ...Succeed with Women, …Live Like A Lord, ...Stay Medium Young and ...Succeed in Tennis. He also co-authored an “intimate biography” of Tennessee Williams with Williams's “improbable little brother” Dakin, suggesting that the famous playwright was murdered and did not commit suicide.
But Mead's most famous work remains How to Succeed in Business. When the book was adapted for Loesser and Burrows's show, with added input from writers Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, Mead was, felicitously, eliminated from attribution, although most of his barbed comments remain in Finch's verbatim readings from his book. The Pulitzer committee, as well as the Tony board, dismissed Mead's contributions. He never received any prizes. The show went on to receive six Tony awards and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It made a critic's darling out of infectious mop-top Robert Morse, who won Best Actor in a Musical; won Charles Nelson Reilly a Best Supporting Actor; as well as winning Best Musical and Director. Loesser, who had previously won his first Tony for his other masterpiece, Guys and Dolls (1951), lost that year to Richard Rodgers for No Strings.
Business is all about funny business, tunefully so. It's delightfully buoyant, on its own quirky high, and constantly surprises with a wit that refuses to age or date. Look in vain for female execs, though, for all the distaff workers at World Wide Wicket work are secretaries who dream of marrying the boss and moving to comfy New Rochelle, the era's suburban '60s Eden with picket fences and grassy lawns. Mead lived there, as did Rob and Laura Petrie, you may remember, from the Dick Van Dyke Show. You've come a long way, baby.
Rosemary (a perfectly dreamy Ashley Blanchet) sets her sights on Finch the moment she runs into him (or, more precisely, when he runs into her) during the show's sprightly opening number, which nimbly introduces all the characters, the show's theme and its quixotic feel-good manner.
Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges is pretty nimble himself, for the stage is awash in bounce and color, down to Tom Sturge and David Sumner's Mondrian-like office backdrop. The show looks great. Freshly scrubbed, it practically glows as it bubbles along. The big Broadway orchestra under maestro Jeff Rizzo sounds lush and fondly recalls those days of yore when musicals didn't rely on synthesizers and souped-up electronics for their ample sound. The entire production beams; we beam.
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Surrounding Finch is a Who's Who of office politics and washroom intrigue: Jaspar B. Biggley (Stuart Marlay), president of WWW, constantly on the make; Bud Frump (Joshua Morgan, nicely channeling the original's Charles Nelson Reilly), the boss's weasley nephew; Miss Jones (Allyson Kaye Daniel, who leads the rousing faux-gospel number “Brotherhood of Man”), most capable executive secretary; and, last but not least, Hedy LaRue (Felicia Finley), office bombshell extraordinaire. As Addison DeWitt in All About Eve might say about Miss LaRue, “She's a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.” Finley comically flaunts, sashays and wriggles, a most impressive alumna.
Loesser, who made his name as one of Hollywood's most versatile composer/lyricists (he won an Oscar for “Baby, It's Cold Outside” from Esther Williams's aquafest Neptune's Darling), fills Business with a cornucopia of ballads (“I Believe in You,” sung by Finch to himself at the washroom mirror); school fight songs (“Grand old Ivy”); a '20s sentimental take-off in honor of the original Biggley, '20s superstar crooner Rudy Vallee (“Love From a Heart of Gold”); and specialty comic numbers (“Paris Original”); and odd love songs (“Rosemary”) whose affecting lilt mirrors the warmth of the funny business at hand. The show never falters, never loses steam as it leapfrogs merrily, tunefully to its happy ending.
If you're in the mood for a beguiling evening (or matinee) of musical theater at its most pleasant and diverting – admit it, who isn't? – How to Succeed is the show for you. Thanks to TUTS's effervescent revival, this is classical Broadway at its classiest. It means to leave you smiling, certainly happier than when you came in, and that's good enough for me.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Through November 6. Theatre Under the Stars, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $38.50 to $106.