Taking Stock

How to Succeed seems edgy amid today's big-biz flops

Jul 10, 2002 at 4:00 am
Here's one of the curious, inexplicable wonders of theater: Sometimes you know in the first minute -- in the first line, even -- how a production is going to play out. So it was Monday at the Muny's opening-night performance of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The moment Michael McGrath appeared onstage, opened his mouth and sang, "How to apply for a job," you knew that the evening was going to be a slam-dunk. And for the most part, it was.

Inspired by the bestselling 1952 how-to manual by former University City resident Shepherd Mead and set in the executive offices of the mythical World Wide Wickets Company, this Pulitzer Prize-winning frolic hilariously chronicles the rise of ambitious young J. Pierrepont Finch (McGrath) from window-washer to chairman of the board. Along the way, the show skewers Madison Avenue, Wall Street and even New York's garment district. Anything that can be punctured, this satire will take a shot at.

Some folks think that because How to Succeed is 41 years old, it's dated. It is not -- at least not in ways that matter. At the Muny, it's the desk computers, cell phones and references to Web sites that seem anachronistic. But the 41-year-old script is still one of the wittiest in all musical theater. On Monday night the evening's biggest laugh came in response to a line that received nary a snicker in 1961. While trying to launch a televised treasure hunt whose grand prize would be 50,000 shares in World Wide Wickets, Finch declares, "People like stock better than money."

The ironic, unintended allusion to the current Enron-WorldCom woes was not lost. In theater, timing is everything -- and this musical has never seemed timelier.

Alas, with 23 scenes and more than a dozen different sets, How to Succeed is a Muny scenic designer's nightmare. For this production, they couldn't even figure out a way to introduce Finch in the act of window washing. Instead, McGrath is required to trudge onstage as if he's lost. It's not until he opens his mouth that we know he's not lost; he's home.

But McGrath is not alone out there. As J.B. Biggley, the prissy president of World Wide Wickets, Bruce Adler restores hilarious dignity to a role that in recent years has been dismissed as a buffoon. As he trills his R's and stands arrow-straight, this Biggley is an aristocrat and all the funnier for it. Here's another surprise: Claci Miller brings sass and spunk to Rosemary, the long-suffering secretary who sets her sights on Finch. This is a tough role because the straitlaced Rosemary is so secondary to the play's barbs. But apparently no one bothered to tell Miller that she's playing a colorless part; she percolates with attitude and presence.

And let us not forget Karen Morrow as good-natured secretary Smitty. After having played umpteen roles at the Muny, Morrow understands that vast stage as few other actors do. It was so refreshing to see this large-voiced singer play a low-key role -- refreshing, that is, till the climactic scene, when some cruel role-switching forced her to have to blare out yet another song at the top of her lungs. Typecasting is bad enough, but type-recasting? It hardly seems fair.

But what's really not fair is how the Muny treats its actors. This is the fourth production of How to Succeed in Forest Park. The first, in 1966, featured Billy DeWolfe and Len Gochman; the next, in 1970, starred Broadway's original Finch, Robert Morse, and Willard Waterman; in 1981, Finch and Biggley were played by Fred Grandy and Don Ameche. And the billboards and newspaper ads for all those productions -- and for every other production, for decade upon decade, till recent years -- prominently featured the names of the actors. Some were famous; some were not. That's not the point. The point is that patrons who are being asked to pay top dollar for theater tickets deserve to know who they're going to see. And the point is that if actors are going to succeed in their business, they need exposure.

Not to be, not at the Muny. Performing there is akin to participating in a witness-protection program: Actors can be assured that no one will find them. Apart from the playbill, their names are no longer featured anywhere. They're treated like shadows but expected to perform like stars. This week, that is precisely what they're doing. The Muny should be proud of its How to Succeed, but it should be ashamed of its policy.