Sporting Satire

The UA produces an enjoyable, if youthful, 'How to Succeed in Business'

Ah, to be a business executive in 1961. It was so much simpler then.

Sure, outgoing President Eisenhower had recently warned the nation about the potential evils of the military-industrial complex, but businessmen in general had not yet developed the reputation for pure venality they now carry. Oh, the man in the gray flannel suit had widely recognized faults, but they were personal. He was a conformist, a company man. He haunted cocktail parties in the suburbs to distract himself from his chronic burnout. He was excessively ambitious, but tended to get ahead less through true achievement than by sucking up to the boss.

Hardly anybody yet believed he was out to rape America, but the business executive was still an easy target for novelists and satirists. In the early 1950s, a frustrated adman named Shepherd Mead wrote a spoof of the self-help books so popular in middlebrow America: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It sold so well that Mead quit his advertising job and went on to spread his How to ... Without Really Trying franchise to other fields. But it was the original business version that made Mead a success, without his having really tried.

In 1961, the sages of Broadway turned this unlikely source into a musical. (Don't scoff; some Germans have just mounted a theatrical version of Marx's Das Kapital. This gives me hope for the play I intend to write based on the inspection tags in my pants.) Robert Morse was recruited to play a young man who rises from window washer to corporate executive by following the advice in Mead's book. Charles Nelson Reilly, before his camp-queen days, was cast as the bratty nepotist nemesis. Somebody even got Rudy Vallee out of mothballs to play the boss. Broadway veteran Frank Loesser, who'd made a splash with Guys and Dolls, did the music and lyrics.

Such a diversity of talent might have separated and pooled like salad-dressing stains on a junior executive's tie, but somehow, everything turned out for the best. Tonys were had all around, and a movie followed a few years later. A Matthew Broderick revival brought the show back to Broadway about a decade ago, and somewhere in America, in every season, somebody is producing How to Succeed in Business.

Right now, that place in America is the University of Arizona, whose Arizona Repertory Theatre has a fun version up and running. It's lively as a typist's fingers, polished as the CEO's shoes.

Now, before you start to complain that UA drama students ought to be addressing contemporary material that they might identify with more easily, keep in mind that How to Succeed is a satire. It's full of short, slick hair and dark suits and secretaries who dream of moving up in the world by becoming housewives, but every character and every single societal attitude here is an object of sport. If you try to deconstruct How to Succeed in Business as a reification of women who are subjugated by the semiotic signifying modality of the male gaze and the patriarchal binary of helpmeet/whore, you obviously have no idea what this show is about.

Anyway, because it's satire, it has held up remarkably well these 45 long years. If the UA's cast can't help looking a bit more youthful than is ideal, it brings terrific energy and commitment to the show.

Kyle Harris plays our hero, J. Pierrepont Finch, a young man who has adopted as his Bible How to Succeed in Business, a book in which Horatio Alger seems to meet Dale Carnegie with the intention of turning its reader into the next Andrew Carnegie. Harris' "Ponty" is a sweet con artist, so single-minded in his ascent that he's as oblivious to sexy women as he is to the niceties of ethics. Harris gives us a Ponty who is neither a fool who bumbles his way to the top nor a dastardly climber. To his credit, Ponty doesn't try to trample people on his way up; he merely slips by them.

Taylor Coghill portrays Rosemary, a secretary with ambitions of her own--to marry an executive--but Coghill makes it clear that Rosemary is sincere in her attraction to Ponty, and she plays the character with great pluck. "Plucky" doesn't even begin to describe Stephanie Eargle's approach to Smitty, one of those go-get-'em secretaries who could easily run the place if all the bosses suddenly drowned in the executive washroom. Scott Reynolds has all the requisite bluster as the CEO, and Kate FitzGibbons ought to register herself as a lethal weapon in her role as a dumb blonde sexpot with a voice like a staple stuck in a paper shredder.

Best of all--and there are quite a lot more good people in the cast and chorus--is Jeremy Trigsted as the boss' bad-boy nephew, a preening Machiavelli manqué who can sing and dance with the best of them. On the subject of song and dance, Loesser's music won't make anybody's stock rise, but Mickey Nugent's choreography is a character itself, wittily tied to every line of the lyrics.

Let's not forget scenic designer Clare P. Rowe, whose exterior backdrop is a faux de Chirico streetscape, and whose interiors echo the orange- and gold-shaded outfits Kyle Schellinger has provided the girls in the secretarial pool. All in all, this is a show you can easily enjoy, without really trying.

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