Arts

Greed, lust, and laughter: Winter musical satirizes corporate sexism of the 1960s

The house lights dim, silence fills the room, and three cast members walk onstage to find their positions in the dark as one spotlight lands on lead character J. Pierpont Finch, played by Seamus Doyle ’21, ascending a ladder with an open book in hand. As he reads to himself, the voice of the book, Shepherd Mead’s 1952 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, penetrates the theater through speakers. 

“Dear Reader, this little book is designed to tell you everything you need to know about the science of getting ahead.”

So went the opening scene of the Upper School (US) winter musical—also called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying—written in 1961 by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert and set during the same time period at the fictional World Wide Wicket Company building. The ladder on which Finch stood symbolized the plot—his rise to success in business, from working as a window washer to becoming chairman of the company board. With a cast consisting mostly of businessmen and secretaries, the show illustrated not only the power of old-boy social networking but the distinct separation between the sexes during that time period. 

Written as a comedy, How To Succeed  featured sexist songs—such as “Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm” and the ironic “A Secretary Is Not A Toy”—that left the audience wondering how they should react. 

By staging How To Succeed at the US theater, Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg said he was putting forth a question: “Can we laugh and have a good time watching behavior that’s really offensive?”

“It’s a satire,” Mr. Lindberg said. “This is the way an awful lot of people were living their lives, and we better laugh at it because we have to find a way to reject it, even though we’re stuck with it. People did laugh, but there were people that were upset, and that’s OK. It should be a place where you’re uncomfortable. You should go to the theater expecting that you won’t be totally happy in that room for the next two hours.”

US English Teacher Rob Leith said the musical balanced humor and offense.

“[The musical] is extremely funny, but also kind of appalling,” he said. “One of the characters accentuated a comment about how anybody can be president [of the United States], in an ironic sort of way near the end. I think anybody watching it today would think about how far we’ve come in many respects, but also think about ways in which [sexism] persists.” 

He also said he thought the musical accurately reflected the sharp distinction between men and women’s roles in the corporate climate of the 1960s.

“When I was growing up, my father worked in a company that had this culture where all the women were just the secretarial staff, and all the men had the executive positions,” he said. “When I went into his office, that’s what I witnessed, but it was really stark to see it in the musical because there was such a clear division. It was very black and white. I thought [the musical] illustrated [sexism] in a very graphic way.”

Cordiana Cozier ’19 played Rosemary, a secretary that instantly falls in love with Finch,  who never truly reciprocates Rosemary’s commitment to their relationship.

“My character is very obviously in an abusive relationship with Finch. She thinks that maybe if she just keeps going in the relationship, or if Finch gets promoted to the top job, she will finally be a priority for him,” Cordiana said. “But obviously at the end, like the very end, that doesn’t even happen, as Rosemary’s ‘I love you’ is not enough, and Finch instead wants to be president of the United States. If it weren’t a comedy, it would be an incredibly sad reality because all she wants to do is love him, but she’s never enough for him.”

One of the show’s stage managers, Rebecca Mironko ’19, described a specific elevator scene at the end of Act 1 that she said highlighted graphic sexism. Two girls came from stage left and entered the elevator, then two boys came from stage right, and so on. 

“All the girls are saying, ‘So I told him keep your hands to yourself,’ and they say that over and over, and all the guys are saying, ‘I’m dying to see that new production chart,’ or ‘I’m going to get a promotion,’ talking about their careers,” Rebecca said. “They have the freedom to talk about that, whereas the women are just describing their sexual harassment in the workplace.”

In the show, it didn’t matter whether the women wanted to move up in business or believed their sole purpose was to find a husband; regardless, they didn’t receive the same respect at work. Abigail Rabieh ’21 said she noticed connections between this behavior and modern times and empathized with the character Hedy LaRue, a secretary played by Priya Devavaram ’21.

“I understood her situation, where she wanted to be successful but was struggling to succeed without putting in any work, and I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition to Finch’s situation, where he was able to succeed without doing any real work,” Abigail said.

History Teacher Louise Makrauer expressed similar sentiments about the musical’s relevance. 

“I’m thinking Mr. Lindberg chose [this musical] because it shows how necessary the ‘Me Too’ movement is,” she said. “I hope we are better than we were then, but there are certainly echoes.” 

Ms. Makrauer also spoke to the chemistry of everyone involved in the play. 

“The way the kids worked together, I think it was a real ensemble cast, so I was impressed with that,” she said. “There are so many people behind the scenes and in the orchestra—it’s just a huge group effort and an amazing production.” 

Thirty-four actors, four student costume designers, 10 stage crew, three stage managers, and 10 musicians worked to shape How to Succeed, which played at the US Theater on February 28 and March 1 and 2. 

Audience member Thomas Sulikowski ’19 said that among other factors, the large cast and production effort kept the musical engaging.

“I loved that although the musical was over two hours long, it kept me super entertained,” he said. “I feel like everyone put their full effort into making this musical, and it showed.”

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