Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying


The 1960s was a transitional time for Broadway musicals. In the past was the work of Rogers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma, The Sound of Music), Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot). Soon to come were musicals by Kander and Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George), and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Evita). Quite a bit of difference there. In between were some things that were very much of their time, like How Now, Dow Jones, and Promises, Promises, and this one. Hit musicals used to be pretty much guaranteed to go to the big screen sooner or later, but after some spectacular flops, that was no longer the case in the late sixties and seventies. There was a gap of six years between the Broadway and film versions of How to Succeed, from 1961 to 1967. This was even though it was huge success, running for 1417 performances, and winning seven Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. Movie musicals continued to get made, here and there (Sweet Charity), but many big hits did not. It wasn’t until the original screenplay Moulin Rouge in 2001 and the long-delayed Chicago the next year that some said a revival was under way. I’m still dubious. Mamma Mia! made good money, and so did Dreamgirls and Hairspray, but The Phantom of the Opera didn’t do that great, and The Producers flopped. Both of them monster hits on Broadway. Among the major Broadway hits that still haven’t made it to Hollywood: Cats, Miss Saigon, Wicked, Sunset Boulevard, and Les Misérables.

Okay, back to this one. Like I said, very much of its time. (For instance, look in vain for a black face in these huge offices. Don’t tell me affirmative action was a failure.) Gray flannel suits, office politics, advertising, company culture … these were the things a lot of people were thinking about in the early ‘60s … though perhaps not so much in the rest of the country as in New York City. In the story J. Pierpont Finch (Robert Morse) reads a book which tells him how to make it in the business world. There really was such a book, a satirical guide to success by Shepherd Mead. His rise is way beyond meteoric: within about a week he moves from window washer to Chairman of the Board. The story could actually be called something like How to Get to the Top by Kissing Corporate Ass, because that’s what Finch mostly does. It’s pretty sickening. That little gap-toothed leprechaun with the rapid vibrato, Robert Morse, is probably the most irritating musical star ever, with the possible exception of Tommy Steele, who also enjoyed an inexplicable vogue around the same time. Their problem, I think, is that they were like Ethel Merman, way too intense for the big screen. You probably needed a little distance to appreciate them … like the last row of the balcony. Morse seems to think he’s adorable, going so far in scene after scene as to lean his elfin little head on the person he’s trying to charm. It wears thin pretty fast.

So there are plenty of flaws … but the music is good, and there are two major dance numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse: “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” and “The Brotherhood of Man.” If you can’t stand any more Morse, you could always fast forward to them.