“How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” is one of those old Broadway musicals from just after the Golden Age (1961) that I always forget I like. Fun fact: I saw Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in the 2011 revival of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” (a ‘Birdman’ long title which I will from here on out refer to as H2$) TWICE. I mean I liked Harry Potter fine but I wasn’t a fangirl of Big D until this show. I really can’t believe I saw it twice lol. He was GREAT. That’s not important right now. Funner fact: When Husband learned that the venue around the corner from our flat was doing a small production of H2$, of course we went, considering it is around the corner from our flat, but I completely forgot that I knew the show and that I kind of loved it and that I had seen it enough times for me to memorize pretty much all the lyrics. I just thought, hey sounds fun, I like seeing theatre and we should support the smaller productions in London too. All I remembered really was that there was some hefty ‘60s-era misogyny that we should take with a grain of salt because of when it was written, or as I explained to my friend who came along, “It’s really sexist but in kind of a lovely way.”
So what is the actual show about? As I explained to Husband beforehand, “It’s like this guy, and he like charms his way up a company ladder, and it’s like ocean colors?” I remembered that from the 2011 set, what can I say. Also apparently I say like a lot in real life. So what is it really about now that my brain is working? J. Pierrepont Finch, a charming young man who works as a window washer, realizes ‘hey, I can’t be a window washer with this name, not that there’s anything wrong with being one, but my name was clearly made to be attached to a man of great stature at a Fortune 500 company, otherwise what a waste, also it would help matters along if I were British because who else has a name like that, but I can’t change that now, so we’ll try to get a corporate job and because I’m American I’ll just go by Ponty because Americans could never abide a first-initial-legit-ridiculous-middle-name combo on anyone but S. Epatha.’ Okay that’s my thought process not his, but the gist is there. (Oh my god I never until now wondered what the J is for. Any guesses??) Ponty wants a big time corporate job like most white men do (and how!) so he goes into the office building for the World Wide Wickets Company (hilarious made-up business that has the side effect of reminding you of the bar exam (so many widgets/wickets questions)) and just straight up starts charming people into a job and up the ladder consistently and swiftly. It’s a good lesson that it doesn’t matter what your skills are as long as people like you.
As Finch (I can’t say Ponty too much or my stomach starts to hurt), Marc Pickering played the character differently from both Radcliffe and Matthew Broderick (back when he was appealing onstage and not a wooden statue but I digress). His Finch was a smooth charmer of course, but in a much subtler way, and with a more devious, scheming vibe. Finch is always scheming, but other portrayals have had him be a little more cheerful and pleased when his scheming pays off, like in every single scene when he gets promoted over someone else or orchestrates someone else’s firing because of something he knew or did. Others’ reactions have been like ‘cheeky smile – ah ha!’ Marc was more like ‘side eye half smile- YEAH BITCH I DID THAT YOU DARE MESS??’. He was charming but also aloof. And a little scary. It all worked. He looked just like a young Pee Wee Herman who could also have been a Newsie when he was little and I don’t mean that at all in a mean way.
The show starts with Ponty weasling his way into an entry-level position by alluding to the head of HR that he knows the boss. That’s a really good real-world tip. The opening number “How To Succeed” with those weird intervals sounded a lot nicer than I remembered, so bravo. In the five seconds it takes for Finch to land this job, a secretary named Rosemary falls for him because why not/’60s and sings the song I had been singing in jest to my husband the whole week prior, “Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm”. My god I still can’t get over how funny it is that there is a song called this, literally about how a lady would be content to make her husband’s dinner and then keep it warm when he works late. It’s amazing. If you take it with a grain of salt. Hannah Grover’s Rosemary is lovely and manages to get to through the song without breaking and screaming about how we have to topple the patriarchy, as I would have done. More impressively, her mic was having a fit throughout her big song, which is such a shame (that I hope the tech people have sorted by now), but she didn’t even flinch, whereas I would have probably screamed ‘WTF IS GOING ON’ and ruined everyone’s night, so brava.
As usual, the comic song “Coffee Break” goes on way too long, as all jokey songs/jokey anythings tend to, but the choreography was pretty funny. Luckily, before I could worry, it leads into my favorite song that, again, I completely forgot was in this show, “The Company Way”. Finch, in the mailroom, gets to know the head of the mailroom (Richard Emerson, who plays all the older man parts aside from the boss and is hilarious in all of them), who describes how he has lasted this long in the company by always playing it safe and toeing the company line. It’s a delightful, catchy song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head all week, and the delivery of all Emerson’s little lines was spot on. I love this scene. We also meet our villain, as all adorable preppy blond boys are, Bud Frump, the boss JB Biggley’s nephew who uses nepotism to try to advance his career. Okay, I know you are rolling your eyes – Frump? F-ing BIGGLEY? But take a deep breath because I’m about to blow your mind. These character names were not made up for this production in response to the current ruin of America. These are the real names from the original 1961 production. I KNOW!!! I think 90% of the audience, tittering when they heard these names like I am tittering at the word tittering, thought they were added for this. See musical theatre is always relevant!
As Bud Frump, Daniel Graham is wonderfully exasperating and annoying as he is supposed to be, and it’s almost hard to hate such a cute person in such cool glasses (he looked exactly like Christopher Hanke to me, from the 2011 revival). It was extra hard to remember that the names were not changed for this production when Bud continuously whines about how he should get what he wants because his uncle is the boss and who cares if he’s qualified if he wants something. So on point. As for the other fair-haired adoraboys in the cast, I don’t even remember Mr Bratt in the H2$ Bway revival but the aforementioned Matthew Whitby f-ing SLAYED me. How he managed he make such a nothing character into the funniest performance ever boggles my mind. He did a lot of amazing side glances and had hysterical comic timing. But more than that, it was his footwork. He seemed to be in a ballet that the rest of the cast didn’t always know about, step-ball-changing and pirouetting around the stage. I was dying. We all were. When he came in to do a scene change dressed as a maid for no good reason, my god. Whose idea was this? So ridiculous and so funny. All the choreography was great, actually. There were no really big booming dance numbers, but all the movement had a clear purpose and was very effective. And so much of it was really funny. I would not be surprised if the choreographer was really a comedian.
Despite the first act being over an hour and a half long (I KNOW), it pretty much flew by with very few low points. I think the pacing could surely be improved a great deal (I do not remember any other production being this long) but there’s not much that’s noticeable. The song at the end of Act I “Rosemary” is too long for being literally just her name repeated ad infinitum, but that’s more OG problems. The scenes with Biggley (Andrew Wadsworth) and Hedy La Rue (Lizzii Hills why are there two i’s I’m genuinely curious) kind of dragged but that’s because those are two kind of thankless characters. I know everyone familiar with this show is aghast at what I just said and shouting ‘but they’re literally 2 of the like 4 main characters’ and I know but still, there’s not the ones we root for. They did a fine job of course and were enjoyable. But you spend the whole show actively rooting for Finch to trick Biggley at every turn, so it’s not like you invest in him or his own story (and the only thing that’s really his own is his affair with Hedy). And Hedy’s whole thing is that she prances about being an attractive bimbo who knows every man wants her, and so unless you are Tammy Blanchard waddling hysterically around the stage and making killer faces, it is a little thankless. Lliizzii did however manage to make us cry with laughter in her first scene, when she apologizes because “it was I whom was late”. Died. And Biggley’s big goofy number with Finch where they sing the Old Ivy fight song was hilarious too. Okay fine they were all great. The whole cast was. Geri Allen was an adorable Smitty. I always lose it when Smitty comes in during “Paris Original”, and Geri nailed how funny that moment should be. Maisey Bawden as Miss Jones was good too, although it seemed like she wasn’t miked at the end and it was hard for her big verse in “Brotherhood of Man” to be as show-stopping as I could tell up front that it could have been. And Nuwan Hugh Perera, who we last saw in the supes creepy “Side Show”, was solid all-around until the end when he was like shimmying in a corner of the stage and we were DYING. So f-ing funny. God everyone in this cast was hilarious and made this show so much fun. We were all seriously in stitches the entire time. That's so rare and awesome.
And the score! How could I have forgotten how much fun this score is? Why was the song about keeping dinner warm the only one that stuck before? I so love “The Company Way” like I said, but every song is special in its own way. “A Secretary Is Not A Toy” I mean COME ON. I wonder if they know about this song over at Fox News. Someone should send them a recording. And I love “I Believe in You”, when Finch gears himself up for his big meeting and the rest of the company men dream of taking him down. This song was staged in the men’s bathroom, which is a preposterous and amazing idea. Finch is singing to himself in the mirror and using the urinal and stuff and then the rest of the men are watching him and also using the urinals like at least 4 times and singing about how they’re gonna stop him coooold and you’re like how do you already have to pee again you should see a doctor! So good. And nothing gets you as pumped up as “Brotherhood of Man”, even if you are a woman. It’s set up nicely in the scene, with all the company men coming to a face-off about who to blame for the problems Finch has caused. Emerson was hysterical here doing a crazy heavy ‘New York’ accent as the chairman of the board who also used to be a window washer. When he said ‘window washer’ it sounded like he had cotton in his mouth and we were crying. He really sounded just like my South Philly Italian uncle. So good. Finch gets out of the jam by pointing out their shared humanity – being men – which is so dumb and perfect. “Brotherhood of Man” is a joyous, satisfyingly big number that you can’t help but smile throughout. I can’t wait to sing it to my baby nephew when I teach him the responsibility of his white male privilege and all the perks he can look forward to, as the song teaches us.
Honestly, my expectations for this production were seriously low. I knew nothing about this production and thought it was going to be some tiny nothing at the nearby jazz hall. That it was so sublime and kept all of us grinning wildly for 3 hours is something I never would have predicted and am really grateful for. SO MUCH FUN. It ends its short run Saturday so if you are in London you should absolutely see it. Compared to the West End, tickets are cheap, yet the quality of the production is so high. It’s a guaranteed good time so you should definitely go and then I dare you not to sing all the songs all day long.