"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (henceforth referred to in this review as "How to Succeed…") is another well presented reissue from RCAVictor. As well as the original 1961 Broadway cast recording it includes excerpts from the 1995 Broadway revival, Frank Loesser singing early versions of two of the songs and instrumental jazz renditions of two others. There are also interviews with Robert Morse and Charles Nelson Reilly, Finch and Frump respectively in the original Broadway production.
"How to Succeed…" is not a show that I am at all familiar with but luckily the booklet supplied with this reissue includes a synopsis. The show is a satire on corporate goings-on and in it J. Pierpont Finch, with the help of the book of the title, rises from a window cleaner to the head of World Wide Wickets. One of my favourite shows is Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls so I was looking forward to listening to this one, yet in the end I found "How to Succeed…" that most difficult type of show to review: the mediocre – reviews of good and bad scores almost write themselves!
One problem with the show is that the satire comes across as rather dated. One of the reasons that shows such as South Pacific, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Oliver! and Guys and Dolls - to name just a few - remain popular to this day is that they are set either in a very definite past period or a particularly timeless setting. But the world of corporate politics, while still very much with us, and for many of us part of our daily experience, has changed a great deal since the early 1960s. Much of the story revolves around the lives and loves of the secretaries, a role that has almost disappeared in many modern companies. Certainly many women now see their ambitions stretching rather further than working as a secretary for a few years and then marrying an executive and retiring!
During the first listen I was not impressed at all; there was nothing particularly memorable, nothing I found myself whistling or humming afterwards. However, I did find that it started to grow on me after another listen. It has to be said that it is a show that has stronger lyrics than tunes. Particularly good are:
"The Company Way" in which Finch learns the importance of not rocking the company boat, "A Secretary is Not a Toy" (which includes the secretaries singing 'A Secretary is not a pet, nor an erector set' which must have been difficult to get around the censorship of the time!), "Paris Original" in which Rosemary, Finch's girlfriend, buys the eponymous dress but then finds that everyone else has the same one,
"I believe in You" a hymn to personal ambition and vanity ('You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of truth') which Finch sings to himself in the washroom mirror before and important meeting, and "Brotherhood of Man", the most resolutely upbeat song in the show.
Frankly, the quality of singing here is not great. Given that Frank Loesser was supposed to have punched Isabel Bigley during rehearsals for the original production of Guys and Dolls in response to the poor quality of her singing, it is amazing that some members of the cast of "How to Succeed…" did not spend much of the rehearsal time in hospital! I admit that I exaggerate a little and in fairness some of this may be a reflection of the style of many of the songs, rather than a lack of innate singing ability. Still, it has to be said that for myself, the roughness of the singing made it difficult for me to truly enjoy the production.
Overall I found "How to Succeed..." an interesting period piece, but not one I will be returning to particularly quickly.