Filichia Features: How To Succeed Still Does

Filichia Features: How To Succeed Still Does

“The Mad Men Musical.”

That’s a good way to advertise your upcoming production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

No, the 1961-62 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical isn’t a true adaptation of the acclaimed AMC series that entertained us for eight seasons. But there are similarities; both properties are set in the ‘60s, deal with big business and have a decided emphasis on the world of advertising.

There’s also a thematic link between the stage musical and the TV series. Robert Morse was the first to play the ambitious and yet not necessarily ruthless J. Pierrepont Finch in H2$, as it’s become chummily known. Forty-six years later, Morse was appearing in Mad Men as Bertram Cooper, the senior partner at Sterling Cooper, and stayed around for 74 of the show’s 92 episodes.


In the next 12 months, 38 professional and amateur productions of How To Succeed will be staged from sea (Children’s Theatre Workshop, Wilmington, Massachusetts) to shining sea (Village Theatre Kidstage, Everett, Washington). While I haven’t interviewed any of the three dozen or so men and women who’ll direct the work, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were influenced by Mad Men’s popularity as a reason to stage How To Succeed.

Ilyse Robbins’ recent fine production at Stoneham Theatre in suburban Massachusetts – fewer than 25 miles from where Morse grew up in Newton -- got Terry Byrne of The Boston Globe to specifically call H2$ “Mad Men without the sly self-awareness.” Although Rich Fahey in On Boston Stages waited until paragraph seven to mention the parallel with the hit series, Jennifer Bubriski of EdgeMediaNetwork made “Mad Men” the second and third words of her review.


And to think that not that long ago, people were saying that How To Succeed was “dated.” Ah, but give a once-topical musical enough time and it’ll become a beloved period piece.

In Stoneham, memories lit the corners of the minds of those who’d worked in offices back then. The sound of manual typewriters clicking away and adding machines belching out l-o-n-g rolls of paper got the crowd to nostalgically chuckle. It was a time when steno pads hadn’t yet yielded the floor to the Dictaphone. Carbon paper and the blue fingerprints over everything it caused were being scrutinized in cost effectiveness with that new-fangled Xerox machine

Other How To Succeed remembrances of things past include a time when Vassar was eight years away from going coeducational and Stouffer’s was still in the restaurant business. Rotary-dial phones abounded and a secretary named Smitty (the grounded and excellent Ceit Zweil) demanded of her friend “Phone us!” Office workers today would say “Text us!” Now in 2015, we see other things going (U.S. Savings Bonds), going (F.A.O. Schwarz’s fancy flagship Fifth Avenue store), gone (a Newsweek print edition).

Truth to tell, How To Succeed does bring us back to a less enlightened era when all executives were male and virtually all assistants were female. That division of labor, happily enough, is long gone. The nefarious Bud Frump – Finch’s arch-enemy -- thinks nothing of calling curvaceous secretary Hedy La Rue “Honey.” Try that today, and the company’s next severance check will have your name on it.

No longer does an executive feel free, as many do in H2$, to ogle an attractive woman worker, react with an eyes-bulging-out-of-head take and then blatantly announcing aloud his estimates of the width of her breasts, waist and hips. Frankly, I’d like to think that How To Succeed’s composer-lyricist Frank Loesser’s insistence that “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” helped in consciousness-raising. “Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in” was good advice, as well as a state-of-the-art lyric in 1961.



One How To Succeed moment is certainly not dated and in fact turned out to be prescient. Bud Frump needs to leave the office to phone his mother – the president’s wife’s sister – to whine that he isn’t getting promoted fast enough. “I’m going out for a smoke!” he claims. In those days, lighting up at your desk was what butt-fiends matter-of-factly did and non-smokers didn’t think much of it. Only as the 20th century progressed did leaving the office and heading for the sidewalk become standard smoking procedure.

Nicotine is not the only addictive property in How To Succeed. There’s caffeine, too, as is evidenced by “Coffee Break.” Robbins had her cast all line up in the way that Bob Fosse had originally staged the number, but she upped the ante to make her office workers look so down and out that they almost resembled members of a chain gang.

The most important aspect of How To Succeed will never date. As you sit here reading, ambitious young men and women are planning to leapfrog over you, go as far as they can go, make as much money as they can and achieve as much power as possible.

J. Pierrepont Finch has all those goals, which could have made him unpalatable to audiences. So when the show was oringinally aiming for Broadway, Loesser, bookwriter-director Abe Burrows and producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin had Morse in mind because he was – how else can we put it? -- cute and adorable. Morse then forged the template for Matthew Broderick in the 1995 Broadway revival and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2011 edition. Here in Stoneham, Tyler Bradley Indyck followed in the great tradition and won over the crowd.

Finch is so single-minded about rising to the top that he seldom gives any thought to sex or romance. This, too, would be a thorny issue, given that many musicals culminate with the lucky guy getting the girl -- if not in marriage, at least in a serious relationship. Lest Finch appear devoid of passion, Loesser had the lad look at Rosemary, the office worker who’s been pursuing him mightily, and admit “There could be quite a thing between us.” And Finch and Rosemary do get together, but at the end of the first act and not the second. We need all of Act Two to chart Finch’s rise to fortune and power.



It’s threatened at the last moment -- and through of no fault of his own. J.B. Biggley, the company president, made an enormous mistake, but can finesse it so that Finch will take the fall. That Finch is staunchly willing to assume the blame – blame that he doesn’t deserve -- makes us like him. Our feelings of admiration grow when he’s offered a chance to escape and doesn’t take it.

Of course, you know musical comedy; not only does it all work out for him, but it’s going to lead to what I consider The Greatest Eleven O’Clock Number of All Time: “Brotherhood of Man.” It’s also one of the few musical comedy numbers where bald, overweight and middle-aged men get the chance to be on stage and sing and dance with wild abandon.

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying got its name from Shepherd Mead’s 1952 best-seller. It was a mock-manual that jokingly – well, half-jokingly – told the reader how he could do what the title indicated.

But how to make that into a musical? Adapting any property is quite difficult, of course, but musicalizing a film (Smiles of a Summer Night -- A Little Night Music) or a play (The Fourposter --  I Do! I Do!) is a bit easier because of the structure, featuring lines of dialogue, some of which are just aching to morph into songs.


Making a musical from a novel is harder, but achievable, as anyone who’s seen Les Miserables, Wicked and Damn Yankees can tell you. Biographies (EVITA) at least give you a character that can be followed from womb to tomb. Original musicals, such as Avenue Q, are the toughest, but something as amorphous as an instructional manual that has a tongue touching the inside of a cheek would seem to be nearly as impossible.

So how did it happen? It’s a long story, and one we’ll tackle next Friday.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at, Tuesday at and Friday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at