Winter musical counts on ironic reading: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying explores 1960s gender roles

Gearing up to contrast gender roles in the early 1960s with those in today’s society, a cast of 34 actors is preparing to stage the comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The musical is based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 self-help book of the same title and takes a satirical angle on the age-old story of a young man who dreams of climbing the corporate ladder.

The musical follows J. Pierrepont Finch (Seamus Doyle ’21), a window washer determined to do whatever it takes to succeed in business. He follows Mead’s self-help book to try to achieve that goal, in the process meeting Rosemary (Cordiana Cozier ’19), a secretary at the World-Wide Wicket Company who is intent on marrying him. Meanwhile, Bud Frump (Max Ambris ’19), nephew of the company president, J. B. Biggley (Aurash Vatan ’19), sees Finch as a threat to his own ambitions and strives to thwart his plans. A cast of 30 other actors plays businessmen or secretaries in the company.

Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg said he chose a musical comedy to contrast with Good, the darker, more dramatic play the school staged this fall. How to Succeed provides a unique lens on 1961 values, specifically with respect to gender roles, he said, with businessmen in the company constantly objectifying their secretaries and all major female characters displaying their bodies as sexual objects.

“Because of the lack of economic possibilities [in 1961], women had very narrowly defined career opportunities,” Mr. Lindberg said. “Going into the business world as a secretary or a receptionist and finding ‘Mr. Right’ was one of the things that was important for an awful lot of women.”  

Mr. Lindberg added that he believes the play will be emotional and thought-provoking.

“I want the show to stimulate them emotionally and intellectually so that through the two hours they feel as one with the people sitting with them, the people on stage, and the people who first created the play,” he said. “One of the reasons you go to the theater is so you realize you’re not alone in the universe.”

Aspects of the musical’s sexist undertones link to a current controversy regarding the musical’s songwriter, Frank Loesser. Many radio stations recently stopped playing his holiday song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” due to its problematic lyrics. With this in mind, Cordiana said, she was intrigued by Mr. Lindberg’s choice of material.

“I think this musical was a very good choice, especially with gender rights, feminist, and equality movements prevalent now,” she said. “We’re doing a play from a time that really normalized sexism, and now we’re in a new age.”

In addition to the 34 actors, 10 are helping backstage, three are stage managing, 10 are playing in the band, and four are making costumes. Costume Designer Louise Brown said her design team will be using both original garments from the 1960s as well as garments made from scratch that evoke the time period.

The cast rehearses for an hour and a half after school every day and four hours every Saturday beginning a month prior to opening night on February 28. Mr. Lindberg said he uses the first part of rehearsals to work on group numbers and the second part to fine-tune interactions between characters.

Stage Manager Annabel Kiley ’19, who worked as Assistant Stage Manager as a freshman for the 2016 winter musical Sweet Charity and acted in Jesus Christ Superstar two years ago, said she is impressed with the production’s progress as the intensity of rehearsals increases.

“This year we seem to be farther along in rehearsals than past years, but it always comes together in the last week regardless of where we are early on,” she said. “I’m just excited to see the show in its entirety grow with costumes and props.” 

As a senior preparing this last of eight school productions and looking forward to focusing on theatrical arts in college, Max said he will miss working with Mr. Lindberg.

“Over the many plays I’ve done here, I got really comfortable with him,” Max said. “He knows how to tell me when I’m wrong, but I’ve also come to anticipate the kind of acting he wants from me.”

The witty nature of this winter’s musical is what Max said he likes best about it.

“I think the audience will find themselves laughing at times and wondering whether or not they’re allowed to laugh at other times,” Max said. “They may also wonder whether or not we’re playing certain themes seriously or ironically, and that’s all part of the fun and introspection.”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying plays at the Upper School Theater on February 28 at 3:40 p.m. and on March 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m. 

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