How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying first appeared on Broadway in 1961. It won a 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was hailed by critics as “crafty,” “conniving,” “sneaky,” “cynical,” “irreverent,” “infectious,” “sly,” “malicious,” “zingy,” “amoral,” and “witty.”
Today, as the musical comes comfortably to old age, times have changed. Women are not relegated to secretarial positions; the business world at least tries to soften its former brutal image; and its earlier 1960s context is fading into the haze of time. The Center Stage version gives a broad wink instead of a leer.
Everything is not as it appears to be. Even the title, How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is contradictory. The old American Dream, that anyone can rise to the top in our society, is problematic, and J. Pierrepont Finch, a former window washer, played in all his snarky glory by Michael Detmer, is certainly trying to become a key executive in the World Wide Wicket Company. He is aided by his eventual true love, Rosemary Pilkington, played with verve by Lauren Crawford.
In the end, love and decency win the day and the WWW is transformed into what could become an enlightened workplace. Detmer and Crawford, in particular, have dynamic singing voices and are at the heart of a play which initially has no heart.
J.B. Biggley, played by John Youngblood, is a delight as the lecherous CEO, a proud alumnus of Old Ivy University. Bud Frump, nephew of the boss, is almost as conniving as Finch and is played to a despicable tee by Miller Kraps.
The women, as are the men, are all 60’s stereotypes, running the show but getting none of the credit. Miss Jones, played by Kristy Kalman; Smitty, played by Jenna Lenore Ryan; and Rosemary are particularly poignant as part of a company that they are too good for.
On the other side of the spectrum is Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s mistress, played as a worldly-wise blonde bombshell by Amanda Kyle Lahti.
In the end, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is more of a retrogade glance at corporate life in the 50’s and 60’s than anything else. It is both a look backward and a reflection of what we have become as we try to create a New American Dream.