The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

March 9, 1967   United Artists   121 minutes
I have no idea if my grade school best friend knew of my obsession with his mother's record collection. We were usually outdoors, riding bikes, shooting hoops, horsing around--not listening to music. All the Real Housewives of Canoga Park played records I loved, OCRs, Sinatra, Garland, Belafonte, Satchmo, Ella; adult pop with a latin beat, or the sort of experimental kitsch that later came to be labeled as Lounge. But more than Dodo, or Gloria, or Joyce, Eric's mom, Esther, was mad for Bway musicals and seemed to always have one spinning. And of all the musicals I heard at her house, none stands out more--and defines her as well--as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In her Laura Petrie capris and Jackie Kennedy bouffant, Esther was Rosemary, the show's heroine, in real life--living in a SoCal version of New Rochelle, tending house & husband, and tho he wasn't in business (but an English teacher, like Albert in Bye Bye Birdie), happy to keep his dinner warm. Esther cast a suburban-glamour sheen on Frank Loesser's modernist satire that forever elevated my affection for this show. It was at once the most New York of New York musicals, and along with Birdie, the most contemp-oraneous to my life in those pre-teen years. Among the most vivid memories of my youth, is a Friday in September 1963, when Esther--to my deepest envy--was going to see the show at the Philharmonic over the hill in LA (the first national company). I don't know if she or I was the more excited. Standing on Woodlake Avenue that sunset, watching the distant twinkling lights on Woodland Hills--the direction of Hollywood--I can still feel my visceral longing for Broadway Nights, while unconsciously basking in the crepuscular beauty of Southern California. A memory now so elegiac as to trump the fantasy later come true.

Contemporary musicals become period pieces over time--leading, in  a sense, a  double  life. What once was the very model of a modern musical comedy, How to Succeed is now a virtual time capsule of the Mad Men era--1962 under glass. Prosperous and expansive as the Eisenhower years were, American culture was so quickly repaved in the tenure of JFK--a turning point in history's evolution still not fully recognized today. The regime's abrupt and tragic conclusion lent facile comparisons to King Arthur and Lerner & Loewe's Camelot (said to be a favorite disc of Jack's) and was quickly embraced and woven into the mythology of Kennedy lore. But if any show reflects the mood and feel of America during those years, it is How to Succeed--the hit even Jack & Jackie came to Bway to see. The show was based on a pocketbook satire by Shepard Mead (who wrote such mock-instructional manuals on various subjects: How to... Get Rich in TV; Succeed with Women; Live Like a Lord; Succeed in Business Spying, and one from 1974 with the intriguing title: How to Get to the Future Before It Gets to You). Published in 1952; it was long in development first as a play by Willie Gilbert & Jack Weinstock, which never got off the ground. It later found its way to producers Feuer & Martin, who saw it as a musical and recruited their past team from Guys & Dolls, Abe Burrows (who split credit with Gilbert & Weinstock, but essentially wrote the libretto himself) and Frank Loesser. They weren't taking any chances after Whoop Up, Feuer & Martin's previous show, (written by secondary talent) and their first flop, after five straight hits (all of which, incredibly, wound up on screen). Burrows was coming off his own flop, a musical Pride & Prejudice; called First Impressions.  Loesser, too, had just taken his first Bway pratfall, Greenwillow. They all returned to form with a vengeance. The show won awards from the Drama Critics Circle, 7 Tonys (but not for Loesser); and the Pulitzer Prize--only the 4th musical to be so honored. It was the biggest hit by a mile, since My Fair Lady and until Hello, Dolly! roared in; playing 112 weeks at capacity (by comparison: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum sold out just 21). Star Robert Morse never played to an empty seat in the two years of his contract. The musical comedy was never more confident, more popular, more secure.

As I don't revere Guys & Dolls the way most do in the musical comedy universe, I find How to Succeed is easily my favorite Frank Loesser score--sharp and witty, both in lyrics & music, it seems inconceivable that any one else could have written as perfect a score for this show. Still, I confess I don't love all the songs. "Cinderella Darling," and "Love from a Heart of Gold," sound like first drafts that needed discarding, and "Coffee Break," as great a number as it is, intentionally drags, musically. Still it's the first taste of the ensemble and suffers unseen for Bob Fosse's staging. The show's semi-soft opening has Finch studying up on "How to..." followed by the heroine's wanting song; but "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," takes the era's gender-defining tropes (ie: "I Enjoy Being a Girl") to another level: "To bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect." It's a brilliant song, but one that falls on the ear uncertainly--with notes that work like banana peels. The first taste of oldtime show-tune Loesser comes in "The Company Way," a catchy jingle-ish song, like "Guys and Dolls"--a hummable show-defining theme: the Rules of Business here taking precedence over the coupling of sexes. Romance, as depicted in Succeed, is ulterior to self-promotion. (The show's hit ballad is sung by Finch to himself). The stretch of brilliant numbers come one after another: "A Secretary is Not a Toy," is a corporate memo on sexual harrassment as an office march; syncopated with typewriter keys and carriage bells--and brought to life in Fosse's hip bones connected to his funny bone. "Been a Long Day," is a short story sung in thought balloons; punctuated with Loesser's unique instrumental curlicues between sung lines (it's astounding how often he uses these thru-out his score.) Whether by Loesser's intention or Fosse's invention, this number has one of the single most rewarding musical comedy moments in all creation: sung at the elevator lobby, the song concludes with the trio belting, "Well, it's been a long, been a long, been a long, been-a-long day," as the elevator doors snap open and two full cabs of passengers encore the sentiment. Pure Rahadlakum. "Grand Old Ivy" is a rousing college anthem, reminder of the Where's Charley Loesser. Strangely, "Paris Original," has always been my favorite song from the show; I just love its minor key descending line, to say nothing of lyrics like, "Some irresponsible dress manufacturer just didn't play fair/I'm one of a pair. . .Thirty-nine bucks I hand out/For something to make me stand out/And suddenly I've gone into mimeograph." And the operatic sweep of "Rosemary," makes a rousing first act finish. It takes most of the second act to reach prime Loesser again, but "I Believe in You," the show's sole pop hit, stands up to both comic and sincere interpretations. And then there's the eleven o'clock production number, "Brotherhood of Man," which turns a boardroom into a Baptist choir--letting starched president's secretary, Miss Jones break loose in the show's final minutes. This was the kind of Bway I worshipped most in my youth. The sheer ridiculous glee of an all-out production number. Can't we all just get along? Loesser's score, tho appreciated, wasn't embraced the way R&H or Lerner & Loewe, or even his own Guys & Dolls scores were. Maybe not as dismissed as Sondheim's Forum was; at least Loesser got a Tony nomination--but lost to Richard Rodgers' No Strings. Perhaps too clever for its own good, Loesser's Succeed is a better score.

Feuer & Martin (who made a star of Gwen Verdon, brought Julie Andrews over from England, and Don Ameche east from Hlwd) cast the show well, and yet it seems the distaff side might've soared a bit with more familiar faces. I can't help but imagine what Carol Burnett would've done for Rosemary opposite Morse. And while we're fantasy-casting: wouldn't Susan Johnson, Loesser's big find, Cleo from Most Happy Fella, have been a perfect Smitty? She was the star of Feuer & Martin's late gigantic flop: Whoop Up--could they have held that against her? And why not Stubby Kaye for the dual role of Twimble and Charmain of the Board, to bring down the house with "Brotherhood of Man," much like he did with a similar rallying cry in Guys & Dolls. But it's hard to imagine anyone better than Robert Morse for Finch. He was a rising player, with a trio of previous Bway appearances, in supporting roles: as Barnaby Tucker to Arthur Hill's Cornelius Hackl in The Matchmaker with Ruth Gordon; as a thinly-disguised Hal Prince in the making-of-Pajama-Game demi-musical, Say Darling (whose director, Burrows, saw him as a future Finch); and lastly as the lovestruck Richard Miller in Take Me Along, matching Jackie Gleason for critical notice. (Yet can anyone explain how Morse got a Tony nomination in the Leading Actor category--along with co-stars Gleason and Walter Pidgeon--while that same year, Tom Bosley, the Star and omnipresence of Fiorello! only qualified for "Featured Actor" because he wasn't listed above the title? Here's the thing: neither was Morse, and whatsmore his part was clearly a supporting not starring role.) With his gap-toothed overbite and boyish bangs, Bobby had a fresh, comic diffidence that perfectly suited the character of J. Pierpont Finch, infusing a thoroughly unscrupulous personality with charm and appeal--tho more boyish than sexual. A role he was born to play (and win the Tony for) it was Morse's ticket to Hlwd--at least for a few years, before the stage brought him back in retreat. He later won another Tony for prancing about as Tru(man Capote), in a toothless monologue, neutered for the ladies matinee crowd. And tho he initiated roles out of town in Wicked, and Harold Prince's lavish Show Boat, he declined continuing to Bway. Nor has he been tempted to move up to playing boss Biggley in How to Succeed--which might have added some gravitas to the underpowered '95 revival. His present-day casting in Mad Men is a fitting bookend to his career as a Company Man--but how disappointing that Matthew Weiner didn't use How to Succeed--clearly the hottest and most relevant (to advertising) show of its era--even in passing mention (instead, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum is referenced twice as the show of the moment.) Bringing Rudy Vallee out of mothballs was an inspired idea, tho reportedly he wanted to sing his old hits as well in the show. His blank-eyed bumbling recalls the silliness of the early Kern shows--and for much of the audience (tho surely not me) reminder that this once humble bandleader had been a 1920s Superstar, mobbed by women; the first crooner--adapting a style suited to the new electronic mircophones. All this unknowable to one introduced to Vallee in his 60s; which gives me some idea how I must appear now to anyone under 30. Charles Nelson Reilly, as Finch's nemesis, gave Bud Frump a restrained hysteric spin that has never been equalled--winning him a Tony as well. A flaming zany, Reilly auditioned when he was appearing in the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie, occasionally subbing for Dick Van Dyke, and regularly stepping into Paul Lynde's shoes on Thursdays, when Lynde had a contract with the Perry Como show. The audition was at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater then housing The Sound of Music. Reilly performed "Put On a Happy Face," improvising a static break each time he veered too close to Music's scenery: "Doe, a dear, a female dear..." His manic display sold Burrows & Loesser on the spot. Even more than Paul Lynde, he was truly one of a kind--which makes his absence from the movie baffling.

The show did shockingly lackluster business in Philadelphia tryout (where, ironically, Noel Coward's Sail Away was concurrently SRO)--but was an immediate smash on Bway--one of five new musicals to open during the single month of October '61--the clear winner among the season's 14 new tuners. Four nights after Succeed's success, Hlwd's West Side Story pic took the town by storm. Come spring one would dominate the Tonys, the other the Oscars. The stage show would still be running three years later when Robert Wise's pic of The Sound of Music hit town. The Mirsch Bros. (who produced the films of West Side Story and Irma La Douce) bought the screen rights to How to Succeed. Walter Mirsch's commercial instincts were spot on most of the time, so it's quite the headscratcher to figure how he came to hand the reigns to David Swift. David who?--you may well ask. A TV writer thru the '50s, he made his film debut as both writer & director on Disney's Pollyanna, followed by The Parent Trap--both absurdly long family films, that minted money for the MouseHaus. A few more minor Hlwd comedies (Love is a Ball, Good Neighbor Sam, Under the Yum Yum Tree) would hardly signal Swift as the man for the job on a major film musical. Short of going for real top talent as Mirisch did previously with Robert Wise and Billy Wilder, he might as well have chosen Frank Tashlin, who at least had a track record of broad American satire, in luscious, lurid Technicolor (The Girl Can't Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) But no use in Swift-boating David now--he never made another picture after this one, retreating to TV for the duration.

The movie opened at Radio City Music Hall on March 9, 1967, where combined with the Easter show, it pulled in the hordes for seven weeks; and on March 23rd at Grauman's Chinese in Hlwd--sans floorshow--to much softer business. By June it came over the hill in wide release, where I saw it at the Topanga Theater, across from our newest Acropolis of Shopping, California's first all-indoor mall: Topanga Plaza (since 1964)--which housed my favorite store: Wallach's Music City where I'd pick up cutouts of recent Bway flops (Bajour, I Had a Ball) and place special orders from the yellow Schwann catalog, under the category, OCR: Original Cast Recordings--impatient thru the week or two it took to get shipped from NY. I had long listened to, and imagined How to Succeed in my mind, which made this the first newly filmed Bway musical I came to armed with knowledge of the show & score. And hence, the inevitable letdown.

Untypically, I find a large measure of my disappointment with the film (then & now) lies with the art direction. The candy colored office decor looks both cheesy and off the mark. It lacks the true mid-century modern aesthetic; and goes over the top only in fakery, not honest opulence. The film starts off unpromisingly, with crude stock footage of Manhattan--looking more from the age of Bells Are Ringing than the moderism ushered in by West Side Story. It improves with actual footage of Finch among the masses scurrying for work along Park Avenue, before panning up a glass skyscraper, where from the roof he begins his descent as a window-washer. It's highly unlikely that large panes of glass open at that height, but never mind, it's cute how he arrives at the 30th floor lobby of World Wide Wickets (so named to suggest nothing, tho wickets are actual things: wire hoops that serve as goalposts in croquet; or, in other words: nothing.) He's picked up the title paperback (with the Bway show's logo) at a newsstand, and when he consults it, the action around him freezes--a hoary stage-bound device that Swift uses sporadically to no advantage. Once Finch runs into Biggley, setting the plot in motion, Rosemary appears out of nowhere all dreamy smiles. Even in a narrative of quicksilver shifts, this feels unearned, and as we're deprived of her ambition explained (in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm"), her ardor feels forced and annoying. Michele Lee is that rare Bway longrun replacement who overtakes her predecessor's claim on the role. She was only 20 when she took over for Bonnie Scott (who?--you see) a year into the run; coming off a summertime flop, Bravo, Giovanni! garnering kudos for her leading role. She has an undying friendliness and a lovely contralto belt, but not the zany cartoonishness that other characters embody in the show. Her cronies are Kay Reynolds as a thoroughly colorless Smitty (Miss Smith); and Carol Worthington as Lucille Krumholtz--a chorus standout for her height and flat delivery--who seems much better suited for Smitty. There's a Jonesy, too (Miss Jones) played, as on Bway, by the formidable Ruth Kobart (who scored roles in both smash hits of the '61-'62 season, leaving Succeed after but mere months to assume the domineering Domina in A Funny Thing Happened...) Frump is played by Anthony "Scooter" Teague, aping the spastic outrage of Charles Nelson Reilly, but coming up with a bad Jerry Lewis vibe. Reilly's number, "Coffee Break" (with Smitty and the chorus) was a twisted "charm" song,  mostly needed to give Finch time offstage. 
Yet its excision here--it was filmed by left on the cutting room floor--feels perverse. Swift compensates with his own cinematic "ballet," a montage of secretaries tending entirely to sartorial matters in lieu of work--set to a symphonic instrumental of a barely recognizable "Coffee Break." With so much already going off the rails, the picture feels like a letdown up to the entrance of Biggley's paramour: Hedy LaRue. Now, of course, I realize the name is a slip on Hedy Lamarr--but what did I know about Lamarr in the '60s? To a 14 year old boy, or at least this 14 year old boy, the very name Hedy LaRue was hilarious; let alone this caricatured sexpot, like a full-color Playboy magazine cartoon made flesh. It took a show as merciless and unscrupulous as this to give us a broad so mercenary & unrefined--tho there's a direct genealogical line from the creators' own Miss Adelaide. I loved Hedy in the way I loved Marilyn. They tickled my brain, not my libido--playing gender as if it were the character itself. In retrospect I don't know how much I knew about Hedy from the OCR, where she wails only on "Love from a Heart of Gold," (albeit in Virginia Martin's comic rasp); the Biggley-Hedy-Frump reprise of "Been a Long Day," sadly missing from the OCR. Which means Maureen Arthur was my first, and teenage template for LaRue. She was a road company Hedy, who convinced someone she was the definitive one for celluloid. 
She doesn't lay down the thick New Yawkese accent most LaRue's I've heard emulate, but sounds more like she's picked up Carol Channing's unique cadence and vocal modulation--albeit in a higher register. I can't tell if she's good, or just weirdly off-kilter. Her arrival sets off the musical's brilliant treatise, "A Secretary is Not a Toy," with Bob Fosse's original staging adapted by Dale Moreda--a much needed perk in the movie, but not nearly as well done as it should be. Happily, "Been a Long Day" survives, as does the twisted reprise; tho the first one misses the mark; the elevator doors lacking the snap of the sudden chorus on the final line. "Grand Old Ivy" is featured in close-up, giving us Morse & Vallee unadulterated--but as the recent Bway revival showed, the number could be raised to another level. Given my affection for "Paris Original," the shock of its exclusion was beyond redemption. The tune periodically pops up in Nelson Riddle's underscoring, mostly in scenes with Hedy, including a tasty cha-cha variation. The rhapsodic "Rosemary" survives, but not complete thru its reprise and act closer. There is no act divide here, "Rosemary" clocking in closer to the three-quarter mark.

The screenplay (also by Swift--tho mostly with scissors, not pen) eliminates "Cinderella Darling" and "Love from a Heart of Gold"--to no surprise. The final quarter is consumed by Finch's adventures in advertising; a tacky giveaway TV gameshow pilot; and the show's two biggest musical numbers. But the movie introduces "I Believe in You," earlier, first as a ballad sung by Michele Lee, which makes the later famed washroom serenade a reprise--to much less effect. Lee gets a nice vocal from her moment, but the romance is really so tangential that the script has to invent the flimsiest reasons for Rosemary to break with Finch, not once but twice, only to have her simply return without need of an explanation. I was baffled by the inclusion of a thoroughly extraneous scene where she hesitates by the elevator--until I learned the lift-operator, whose single, unnecessary, line, "Are you coming, or not, Rosemary?" is director David Swift. It seems no one has ever made Hedy's launch as the Treasure Hunt Girl into a decent musical number (I do think it possible), and Swift scarcely makes an attempt. But if there's anything to say against "Brotherhood of Man," it's in protest of the art direction. Absurd (and awful) as Biggley's scarlet chamber reads, Finch's final office looks like a Danish modern cathedral--at once, instantly dated and horribly inappropriate. The movie takes its final joke, the suggestion of Finch moving on to Presidential ambition, to a visual gag: him window-washing the oval office, coming face to face with LBJ--tho the feel of the show's zeitgeist, is as gone as the Kennedy era. With this we also come to Loesser's last mark on screen. By then his final produced musical, Pleasures and Palaces, tho directed by Bob Fosse, had crashed and burned in its Detroit tryout in March of '65, which meant How to Succeed was his final Bway show as well. He worked sporadically on new projects until his death in July '69 from--inevitably (as he was seldom without a cigarette)--from lung cancer at age 59. With just five Bway musicals (and one Hlwd original), the size of Loesser's imprint in the Bway canon is remarkable. He was a true original, more a student of the Gershwin than Berlin school; a master of the delicate balance between grace and schlock, dissonance and melody. He was a soppy romantic at heart, but excelled best in smart ass sentiments. His talent never overrated.

I've no idea why I missed the musical when it played (with Vallee, no less) our local Valley Music Theater in January of '66--still a year before the movie's release. The first time I saw it on stage was Des McAnuf's '95 Bway-bound revival, in LaJolla, with a tepid Matthew Broderick, and the not-yet-famous Megan Mullally & Victoria Clark as Rosemary & Smitty. McAnuf's technologically tarted-up vision ("H2$" was the logo) had me scurrying back to the movie. Rob Ashford's hyper 2011 revival was better, but still too "reimagined," too tarted-up, as if trying to compensate for inadequate material, instead of embracing its clockwork artistry. As was the case with Matthew Broderick, Daniel Radcliffe and his successors put in stark relief the brilliance of Robert Morse--who makes the role look so effortless, when it's anything but. Perhaps the most honest, enjoyable version I've seen was a community theater production, which modestly played the original show without embellishment.

Hard to believe, but reputable sources claim the movie's notices were unanimous raves. Despite the prevailing trend, United Artists didn't think a Roadshow release appropriate (and this would be the last Bway musical until 1970 to reject that route). The Big Street was full of Roadshows at the time: The Bible, Grand Prix, Hawaii, A Man for All Seasons, The Sand Pebbles, with Thoroughly Modern Millie joining them at the end of March. Film-going was turning into the formal approach of theater: reserved seats, advance dates, higher prices. Whether a quick, wide release was Succeed's downfall, or the show--once so minty modern--was on the verge of the Summer of Love, looking a little tired; the film wound up with a tepid $2,900,000 in film rentals--one of the lowest grossing musicals from Bway at this time. (By contrast, Millie made a whopping $8,500,000, coming in as the #5 movie of 1967--of course it also had Julie Andrews.) March of '67 was significant to me for bringing Bway another step closer, with the first national telecast of the Tony Awards. Watching it now (don't you love how technology offers up its detritus so effortlessly?) is a shocking reminder how much award shows have changed. It's a breathless affair, moving thru awards with the briefest of acceptance speeches and a parade of Bway stars--when they were still known far beyond Bway--from hosts Mary Martin & Robert Preston (then starring in and performing from I Do! I Do! as well), to Lauren Bacall, Lee Remick, Harry Belafonte, Carol Burnett, Zero Mostel, Angela Lansbury--with newbie Lynn Redgrave there just to hand out the trophies. And to cap the night off, Barbra Steisand presenting the Best Musical award to Cabaret--then but five months old--and opening the telecast with Joel Grey leading "Wilkommen," as exciting an opening number as they come. All four nominated musicals got lengthy performance segments, including the priceless recording of Barbara Harris's (Tony winning) chimney sweep turning into movie star, Passionella, from The Apple Tree. This show was also where I first laid eyes on The Abominable Showman himself, David Merrick--my idol at 14 years old. Didn't everyone want to be a Bway producer? Up to then my knowledge and awareness of Bway was dependent on reference books and the radio, where Bway musicals were played, in toto, on a nightly program. This was the year I caught up to not only what was present, but a first awareness of what was coming down the pike. Over this summer, when the world and my peers were swept into the wonder that was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was, indeed, just a Bway Baby.

Next Up: Camelot

Report Card:  How to Succeed in Business
                              Without Really Trying
Overall Film:  B-
Bway Fidelity:  B 
Songs from Bway:  8
Songs cut from Bway:  5  
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers: "Brotherhood of Man"
        "A Secretary is Not a Toy"
Worst Omissions: “Paris Original” "Coffee
       Break" "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm"
Casting:  OK leads, slipshod supporting
Standout Cast: Robert Morse, Rudy Vallee
Sorethumb Cast:  Anthony Teague
Cast from Bway:  Morse, Vallee,
     Ruth Kobart, Sammy Smith
     Bway replacements: Michele Lee,
     Maureen Arthur
Direction:  Not so Swift
Choreography: 2nd generation Fosse
"Ballet:"  D:  "Secretary's Morning"
Scenic Design: Office by Mattel
Costumes: Ready for stadium visibility
Titles:  An overture over generic city views
Standout Sets: None
Oscar Nominations: None
Camp Hall of Fame:  "Secretary's Morning

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