Everyone in the audience was laughing like crazy. I saw a man on the aisle wipe away tears. The laughter was the from-the-gut kind, and it was for a song called "A Secretary Is Not a Toy." I laughed as hard as anybody, because the experience had the same effect that Busby Berkeley wrought when he staged extravaganzas in the middle of the Great Depression. As far as the weighty issue of sexual harassment is concerned, we could sure use a little cheering up.
"A secretary is not a toy/No, my boy, not a toy/To fondle and dandle and playfully handle/In search of some puerile joy./No, a secretary is not/Definitely not/A toy."
A lot of Frank Loesser's 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying feels like a time capsule of those gorgeous Doris Day-New York days, when boys would be boys and women were girls and office romance was the last word in big-city sophistication. The funny thing is, what was considered biting enough satire to win the musical a Pulitzer Prize back then is just as hilarious now.
The show originally starred a young Robert Morse in the most famous role of his career until Tru 30 years later. How to Succeed tells the story of an ambitious window washer who gets his hands on a manual that promises a method of rising to the top of the business world. The funny gimmick keeps the show clipping along at top speed: The book describes a business dilemma, the hero J. Pierpont Finch tries out the manual's caustic but useful advice, a musical number is thrown in, and the plot moves on to the next office crisis.
A couple of decades before the show was written, the frantic climb to the top was derided in the novel What Makes Sammy Run?; by the late 1950s, many were pondering the tragic meaning of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But the suited male chorus members in this show have given up wondering why they're making widgets, or even if they care about widgets at all. They're experts at synchronized briefcase action, and two of the show's musical highlights are ensemble numbers titled "The Company Way" and "Brotherhood of Man." I suspect composer Loesser would have gotten a kick out of America's newfound preoccupation with Japanese management techniques more than 30 years after his show ran 1,417 performances on Broadway.
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The present company at Glendale's Theater Works does justice to this ingenious show, staging a good-natured revival that--despite the curse of a prerecorded score--delivers a healthy dose of musical comedy as done in the good old days. The success of How to Succeed falls weightily on the shoulders of the male lead, and actor Stephen Goodfriend is a musical comedy find. In the showstopping "I Believe in You," he gazes out into the audience through the invisible mirror of the executive washroom as if there were no place he'd rather be than onstage making us laugh.
How to Succeed, like Loesser's other popular show Guys and Dolls, features a gold mine of flamboyant supporting roles. Gil Berry as Bud Frump, nephew of the company's president and Finch's competitor, is tall, thin and elastic in contrast to Goodfriend's compact dynamism. Actor Raymond Moore played three bit parts and appeared versatile enough to play a half-dozen more. Tanya C. Dempsey as blond sex bomb and secretarial hopeful Hedy LaRue erased all doubts that sexual stereotyping is still funny. When she appeared in a poured-on red cocktail dress with a strategic heart-shaped cutout to sell the song "Love From a Heart of Gold," she had the audience laughing from beginning to end. It was hard to take one's eyes off that heart.
The only weak role in the show was that of Rosemary Pilkington, the female lead played by Kathleen Berger. Her acting was so tentative as to be almost nonexistent; when she sang, she stood immobile and her voice lacked animation. Rosemary's yearning number "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" can now certainly be played with tongue-in-cheek earnestness, but Berger managed to make the satire boring and static in an otherwise manic-level show. Actress Heather Marie Moudy as her sidekick Smitty had the thankless task of playing comic relief to a statue; after a certain point, I wanted Smitty to give Rosemary a good shake and wake her up.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying turns out to be a great musical to revive because it never took itself too seriously in the first place. The songs rely on clever lyrics rather than dated sentiment, and the big-city/big-business setting sidesteps the small-town paradise and exotic locales overused by most musicals of the time. It has remained genuinely funny through the years. Especially when it takes the time to remind us that a secretary is not a toy.
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