Thursday, October 14, 2021

This Day in Musical History (Loesser’s Saucy ‘How To Succeed In Business’ Takes Broadway)

Oct. 14, 1961—Capping a postwar era in which the executive suite became a cultural preoccupation, the satiric How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre and promptly became a smash. An adaptation of a 1952 bestseller by Madison Avenue maven Shepherd Mead, the musical went on to post 1,417 performances and win the Pulitzer Prize.

But before achieving critical and popular success, the production (hailed as a “sassy, gay, and exhilarating evening” by the Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr) had to overcome almost as many obstacles as its main character, the relentlessly ambitious window-washer J. Pierrepont (Ponty) Finch.

The irreverent show represented the last Broadway triumph of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, who had scored his big hit over a decade before with Guys and Dolls, and the first for actor Robert Morse, playing the go-getting protagonist.

The Eisenhower era burst of American prosperity led the entertainment industry to question the notion of success, on film (Executive Suite, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Apartment) and TV (Rod Serling’s Patterns). But seldom has the subject been dealt with in such a cheeky manner as How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

Ponty’s aim: Reach the top of at the World Wide Wicket Company. His method: Gain the trust of president J.B. Biggley. His obstacles: Biggley’s idiot nephew, Bud Frump (played on Broadway by Charles Nelson Reilly) and Hedy LaRue, whose employment depends less on her typing and shorthand skills than on her obvious anatomical charms.

Although Loesser had written the book for his musical-opera hybrid The Most Happy Fella (1956), he turned the job over this time to Guys and Dolls collaborator Abe Burrows. Loesser’s songs now sprang more organically from the material, a seamless web of the kind of romance found in other musical comedies with a wealth of targets from the world of business: nepotism, the junior executive, diet fads, the ad campaign, the secretarial pool, the office break, and sexism.

In the entire wonderful history of American musical comedy, the lyricists who rivaled Loesser in wit can be numbered on only one hand. 

In one number, he could send up the old-boy network that ran corporations, their sentimental collegiate ties, and the objects of their hatred as sports fans (the “chipmunks”) in “Grand Old Ivy.” 

In another, “I Believe in You,” he penned the kind of love song so often found in musicals, except this time the hero was directing the sentiments to himself as he looked in a mirror—the kind of ironic distance between words and action that Stephen Sondheim would demonstrate mastery of a decade later.

But Loesser and Burrows (who also directed) were fortunate indeed in finding a lead with the manic, zany energy to play Ponty, who assiduously applies the lessons of the kind of American self-help manual dating all the way back to Ben Franklin’s The Way to Wealth.

With his elfin build, gap-toothed smile, and irrepressible energy, Morse was a theatrical Huck Finn, somehow making likable a character with more than a few unsavory Sammy Glick aspects—and was rewarded for his efforts with a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

Even having the right lead didn’t guarantee success for the show, though. Along the way, according to a 50th anniversary retrospective Playbill article by Mervyn Rothstein, the show had to contend, before its opening, with:

*the replacement of original choreographer Hugh Lambert with Bob Fosse, who, with practically no time left for preproduction work, had to figure out the show’s numbers at night with wife-muse Gwen Verdon;

*a near-disastrous decision by producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, frustrated by an underperforming out-of-town box office, to rename the show—only to be successfully argued out of the idea by press agent Merle Debuskey; and

*Loesser’s short-lived exit from the show over co-star Rudy Vallee’s never-ending rehearsal insistence on improvements—a departure ended only when he got Feuer to agree to punch out the 1920s crooner when the production concluded (which was never acted upon).

How To Succeed has been successfully revived twice since its original production, featuring turns by Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe as Ponty. 

Morse, Vallee and Michele Lee (who took over as love interest Rosemary later in its run) repeated their roles in the 1967 movie adaptation—which, though it did not enjoy the success as on Broadway, is still regarded as a largely success transfer to the big screen.

The years after the show brought different fates for veteran Loesser and rising star Morse.

Loesser never again reached the heights he’d enjoyed with Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed. His 1965 musical, Pleasures and Palaces, closed out of town. As critic Terry Teachout notes, in a perceptive essay in Commentary Magazine, the songwriter—depressed that rock ‘n’ roll was rendering his brand of music obsolete—had given up his craft entirely before his death in 1969. 

His demise occurred before he could see revived interest in the Great American Songbook tradition in which he had played such a part through his work in theater and on film (including the saucy—and now rather controversial—Christmas song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).

Increasing alcohol abuse in the Seventies and early Eighties led Morse to the hell of the dinner-theater circuit and even unemployment. But a turn towards sobriety resulted in him winning a second Tony for his turn as author Truman Capote in the 1989 drama Tru, and since then he has worked steadily again in film and on TV.

It was through the latter medium that, now-wizened, the former boyish star achieved his most recent burst of fame, as ad agency founder Bertram Cooper in the long-running cable series Mad Men

You can bet that showrunner Matthew Weiner didn’t mind any memories viewers might have had of Morse in his earlier turn sending up the Sixties business world. Weiner even allowed Morse a sendoff unusual even for that series by having him staging his goodbye as a musical number.

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