In 1950, Frank Loesser redefined how musical theater looked at New York. Oh, other composer-lyricists – notably Cole Porter— got there first. But theirs was the sophisticated, café society New York. With Guys and Dolls, Loesser and book writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows turned to the Manhattan of Damon Runyon – a city of two-bit gamblers, and the salvationists who love them. This wasn’t Park Avenue – here, the street belongs to the cop, and the janitor with the mop.
Porter’s New York musicals have, except for a few marvelous songs, disappeared into oblivion. Guys and Dolls is eternally fresh.
Just over a decade later, Loesser once again reinvented New York, this time along cleaner, leaner and considerably meaner lines. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying takes on the cutthroat corporate world of mailrooms and boardrooms, of fast ascents to power and even faster falls from grace. With J. Pierrepont Finch, a likeable but ruthlessly driven window washer looking to climb the corporate ladder, Loesser and his book writers (Burrows again, along with Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) gave us a new anti-hero for the early ‘60s.
How to Succeed was a smash hit, winning multiple Tony awards and a Pulitzer. Alas, it would be Loesser’s last show on Broadway – by the end of the decade, he was dead at 59 from lung cancer, leaving our theater an immeasurably poorer place.
He couldn’t have imagined that nearly 40 years later, a little TV show called Mad Men would once again ignite interest in the mid-century, glass-and-steel glamour of corporate New York. America went crazy for the self-invented, amoral Don Draper – but it was J. Pierrepont Finch who got there first. (To me, this is only one of several examples of Loesser’s influence. Without the inspiration of Guys and Dolls, would we have had West Side Story? Would there have been Company without How to Succeed? I wonder.)
It stands to reason that How to Succeed is ripe for the revival – on Broadway in 2011, and now here at the Walnut Street. So how does the show hold up?
For the most part, superbly. In a few places, the book creaks a little – but Loesser’s music and lyrics astonish with a brilliance that could be new-minted. Who could resist the ebullience of “A Brotherhood of Man” – or fail to notice its satiric bite? “You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,” sings Finch adoringly, in the show’s most sincere expression of love. (He’s looking in the men’s room mirror at the time.) How to Succeed has been criticized for sexism, but I think it’s quite the opposite – it’s a smart, knowing send-up about what women really want and how they’re treated. “A secretary is not a pet / Nor an Erector Set,” warns one of them, and she’s absolutely aware of the double-entendre.
Throughout, Loesser’s tone is sardonic, even surgical. At Walnut, an energetic, crowd pleasing revival has gone in a different direction – this show has the Technicolor pop and stylized characters of Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? or The Girl Can’t Help It. I love those movies, and I was often delighted with this polished production, in which everyone commits fully to big choices. It’s a cracker-jack ensemble – all those businessmen can really sing and dance! – and the whole cast scores points along the way. But sometimes I wished for a dryer, subtler delivery – Finch’s winks to the audience, skillfully done by Jeremy Morse, could be even funnier with a little more restraint. Think what Don Draper manages to convey by only slightly raising his eyebrow!
Walnut Street Theatre, through July 13th. walnutstreettheatre.org