Singing & dancing up the corporate ladder in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Frank Keller in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Photo credit Nanc Price Photography.

Frank Keller as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Photo credit Nanc Price Photography.

What’s more fun than effortlessly climbing the corporate ladder?

Doing it while singing and dancing, of course!

And that’s precisely what happens when a young man with ambition but not a lot of work ethic stumbles across the manual How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in the musical of the same name that Foote in the Door Productions is performing November 11 – 19 at Campus St. Jean.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is Frank Loesser‘s musical interpretation of Shepherd Mead‘s book of the same name – a satirical instruction manual about how to climb the corporate ladder of an organization, based on Mead’s own experience of advancing from a mailroom clerk to the vice-president of advertising agency Benton & Bowles.

In the case of the musical, the corporate ladder-climber is J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Frank Keller), who starts as a mailroom clerk at the World Wide Wicket Company in the 60s and climbs the corporate ladder to become an executive, all with the help of his handbook, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying“.

Something for everyone

Although the play centres around Finch, Adam Kuss, who directs the musical, says one could watch How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying many different ways if they were to follow the story arcs of all the characters in the show, thanks to the complexity with which the musical is written. “Everyone can find someone they completely identify with and see their track. And from sheer entertainment value alone, people love it. If you haven’t seen a musical, you should come see this one. It’s not campy, it’s not cheesy. It’s honest and real. It’s not overly sappy and it’s incredibly self-aware of its own position on things.”

“We have the blue-collar everyman who wants to find his way up the corporate ladder and he’s not mean or vindictive  but he thinks there’s a way to do that because other people seem to be able to do it. We have several beautiful love stories in the piece that are all very different… We have JB Biggley who is the classic boss – married man, kind of has a cigar in his hand and his fist on the desk, that kind of archetype, but the characters are not two dimensional. We have the foil to Finch, Bud Frump  – JB Biggley’s lazy nephew, who expects his family connections to carry him… Then we toss in all of the women. [The 60s] is an interesting time for women. They were allowed to work but what positions were they allowed to hold? How important were they in the female circle vs. the company? Sex still sells but it doesn’t get you everything anymore. We’re still stuck a little with our toe in the 50s. This is another time period where we were dealing with the redefinition of what roles are. Currently, our redefinitions may be more related to identity, gender, age, but at this time the world was going through a very strong redefinition of what roles were and who was allowed to do what and when, or what they were allowed to say.”

On the subject of women, one of the things that stood out to me as problematic when I was reading about the musical, was the way the female characters looks and motivations were described. However, Adam explains he has been very careful with this production to make choices that undermine the misogyny written into the show. “Misogyny is written into the show and the story, but it’s not written into the production. I very consciously have separated what are we telling a story about and who are we telling the story about. There are times when the women’s roles are dictated to be more subservient, for example, the secretary is the description of the character, but that isn’t who the character is. There are many times in this production where I kept the women in scenes they are not necessarily written into, so they see more, they know more, they are more informed. The women drive a lot of what’s going on in this production and it’s not necessarily what’s written into the script all the time.”

The company man vs. the climber

Frank Keller (who plays J. Pierrepont Finch), says this musical is a great comedy-filled night out for anyone who’s ever worked in an office. Frank says, “It’s fun and upbeat and fast-paced and I’ve always thought the humour was smart humour… Finch starts off as just a regular Joe working a boring 9 – 5 job that he wants to get out of and then he stumbles upon the book as a way to get out of that and becomes something much more without really having to do a lot of work. I think that’s what everyone wants.”

“The difference between the ‘company man’ and how Finch does everything is that the company man has to be there for x number of years before he can possibly hope to do something. There’s a person who’s been in the mailroom for most of his life and Finch comes in and is there for maybe a matter of weeks before getting his first promotion out of the mailroom, and then he gets to be high up in the company and it takes no time at all. The fact that he can do that is amazing because he cheats in the nicest way possible, without stepping on anyone.”

The music

Adam says the writing of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying leans towards the style of musical theatre where the emotions of the characters lift the play out of dialogue and into song and dance. “The music is extremely accessible but dramatically furthers the story… There’s a lot of music in this show, from big, upbeat songs to small, intimate songs. The solos are incredibly personal – they’re extremely personal moments for the characters that are almost designed for that character to express something either about whoever else is on stage or about themselves to the audience.”

Although it’s difficult for Adam and Frank to identify their favourite songs of the show – there are so many! – both agree that it’s the intimate soliloquies that end up on the top of their lists.

“Brotherhood of Man”

Frank says, “this was one of the first songs I was introduced to in the show – it’s one of the last songs in the show and it’s the hook.”

Adam adds, “It’s got 85% of the cast in it – all of the men and one of the women. It’s this riotous, jubilant number that starts at a very specific, cover-your-butt kind of place and turns into as close to a frat party as you can get on stage without drinking. It’s a giant free-for-all. There are lifts, wailing overtones across the top, take-to-church moments  – it’s a giant number. It happens so late in the show and you don’t know what’s going to happen until this number finishes, which I think is a really good tell of strong writing. We get where we’re going, but we have no idea where the final destination is until after that song.”

“I Believe in You”

Adam says, “I didn’t know what to do with it at first because it’s a whole group of people pitted against one. It’s not quite “The Rumble” at the gym in West Side Story – it’s not that flashy – but musically it’s written to be very opposing. What’s going on for Finch is different from what’s going on from everybody else.”

For Frank, the connection to “I Believe in You” is more personal – relating to his experiences as an actor. “You have to go into every audition or rehearsal believing that you can do this and you’re wonderful, but you have to get there.”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying plays at the auditorium at Campus St. Jean November 11 – 19. Tickets are $21 – $25 through Tix on the Square.

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