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How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Posted in Editorials on March 17th, 2011

Last week I went to see “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City. The new production stars Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette.

I was familiar with the play having seen an amateur production a few years ago. It’s about a young man, J. Pierpont Finch, who smirks his way to the top of a corporation using a book with the same name as the show. The songs are catchy and while the play is very dated in terms of gender roles (more on that in a minute) that doesn’t make it worth skipping.

Radcliffe, at 21 is twelve years younger than Matthew Broderick was when he played the same role in a 1995 revival, and comes across as more fresh faced and earnest. He’s pitch perfect (pun intended) and an absolute delight to watch as Finch. Radcliffe’s American accent is spot on, and his comic timing is impeccable.

Advertisements for the play are reminiscent of the aesthetics of “Down With Love“, and I hoped that also meant sending up the sexual politics of the time with a wink and a nudge. It was an accurate impression. The cast was wonderful and I found a lot more humor in the play than I had appreciated before.

The way gender roles are dealt with in this play is in some ways inherent to the script, but different productions can and do make choices about how much of it to play straight and how much to poke fun at and satirize.

The character of Rosemary is Finch’s love interest and sings longingly of how she would be Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm in New Rochelle. The first time I heard this song I was very uncomfortable. I couldn’t decide if the point was that Rosemary’s supreme ambition in life was to be a housewife with no interests outside her husband or if her desires were supposed to represent what all women wanted. Perusing other productions on YouTube, another character interpretation is just that she’s just desperate for male attention. When Rose Hemingway took the stage in the current production and began to sing this song, I felt a palpable discomfort, which ceded to a few stifled giggles. Hemingway’s Rosemary is simply completely infatuated with Finch and might as well been singing about how he’s her “freshly baked love dumpling, fuzzy huggy squeezer and big old pokey bear.” It was really cute, and while faithful to how silly most of the characters in the play are at heart – much less insulting.

Heddy La Rue is a more problematic character. She’s stupid (or at least we are meant to laugh at her ignorant gaffes) and has seemingly no sexual ethics. She claims to love Bigley but makes advances on Finch and then marries Womper at the drop of a hat. It’s unclear if she’s a libertine who wants to enjoy as much of her youth and beauty as she can – like say, Clementine Johnson from “Reno 911!” or if it’s her way of accessing power and status, or if she doesn’t really understand what she is doing. The sexy secretary is an old cliche and I don’t think cheesecake (or beefcake) is in and of itself always sexist. But I really feel bad for Heddy as a character – the play dumps a lot of abuse on her and it’s not explained if she understands that almost all of the other characters don’t respect her, either because of the lust or jealousy she invokes in them.

A Secretary Is Not A Toy
This song always makes me squirm. The men of World Wide Wickets are advised not to get involved with their secretaries because they have talents other than being fondled and flirted with, and on top of it you will be fired, with a bunch of silly puns and double entendres to make it rhyme. I’m at a loss as to the original intent of the song, or why it was funny – watching the video from the movie is painfully uncomfortable – and try as I might I can tell it was meant to be humorous but… I’ve got nothin’, and I think that says a lot for how much times have changed. However, I do like what the current production did with the song. I don’t like slapstick humor, at all, but the choreography suggesting the male characters were trying to cover up their arousal (and possibly more) was brilliant and hilarious. In addition, guffaw inducing visual aides were added to the song. In total it was a lot like “Its’ Easy MMMKay” from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a spot on parody of how silly it is to say something that shouldn’t have to be said, but somehow must be said.

Paris Original
I’ve loved this song since the first time I heard it in my high school auditorium. It’s pretty much a feminist anthem about the Beauty Myth – no, really. Rosemary is ecstatic that she has found a dress that will make her beautiful enough for Finch to take notice of her. It’s like the fantasy of being thin, only using an article of clothing as the magical talisman rather than a change in weight. If I only had the perfect dress, (or car, or phone, or styling gel) I would be so attractive and and my dream guy (or lady) would fall head over heels for me. And then as quickly as the madness came on, your money is spent, the glow fades and you realize you’ve been had. The party continues on, playing out as it probably would have no matter what you (or anyone else) were wearing.

Cinderella Darling
This song opens Act 2, when Rosemary is considering quitting her job and breaking up with Finch because although he has declared his love and proposed to her, he put a (brief, week long) hold on their romantic relationship to focus on his career. The women in the cast will not stand for this rebellion. They sing to her, begging and pleading not to leave. Not because they care for her and will miss her friendship, or because Finch is a great guy and deserves a second chance, or even because she has a good job and shouldn’t let a personal relationship interfere. They tell her to stay because it’s so rare that a woman can fill the dream of marrying her boss, and if she leaves now, they will all lose hope that their bosses will ever propose to them because her actions would discourage them. Rosemary must stay and live out a fairy tale, because some of them will not get to experience one, except vicariously through her. It’s all so ludicrous I can’t decide to laugh or face|palm, but know this: Cinderella Darling is an excellent illustration of how patriarchy works. When all women are given is crumbs of respect, they will fight over and for them, and shame and ostracize anyone who dares ask for more – because she might cut off their supply of crumbs. This is not an indictment of women. It’s a thoroughly rational response.

In some ways, the drudgery of making a living as a white collar employee hasn’t changed much from How to Succeed through Dilbert and Office Space (which both will one day be just as dated) and that’s one of the reasons people still like this play. It’s actually more relevant now, more people work in those kinds of environments because there are a lot fewer jobs in manufacturing than there were in the 60’s, so more people are in on the jokes. And in spite my criticisms above, it was really cool to see Harry Potter singing about TPS reports.

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