How to Make Your Audience Like an Unlikable Character Without Really Trying

How to Make Your Audience Like an Unlikable Character Without Really Trying

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - Performance Rights at Music Theatre InternationalOn the surface, it seems easy to dislike J.P. Finch, the main character of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. His main goal is to become rich and successful by doing as little work as possible.  He tricks fellow employees out of promotions.  He shamelessly flatters people he thinks could be of use to him. And, time and time again, he ignores sweet Rosemary's attempts to get him to notice her.  Despite all this, we as audience members find ourselves rooting for Finch, delighting in every machination.  How do the writers - composer/lyricist Frank Loesser and bookwriters Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert - get us solidly on Finch's side?  Simply by enabling us to identify with Finch, and by assuring us that Finch's slacker menality does not make him a bad guy.

Identifying with Finch makes the audience invested in him; we want him to succeed because we can see ourselves in him.  One way the writers establish this connection is by having Finch be the only character to break the fourth wall.  Periodically, particularly at a moment where Finch successfully deceives someone, Finch turns to the audience and smiles.  The stage directions describe this smile as "communications between Finch and the audience...The smile is a gentle, Mona Lisa smile...when he does it, Finch should turn his head quickly to the audience and give them the smile directly.  The staging of the other characters on stage should be arranged that they are not even aware that Finch is smiling to the audience."  These smiles are special bonding moments between Finch and the audience; something reserved only for us that the other characters aren't privy to.  Finch, by smiling at these key moments, let us in on his secret, treating us as a friend (or even partner-in-crime), and assuring us that he would never try to deceive us.

Finch's humble beginnings and simple desires also allow the audience identify with Finch.  At the start of the musical, Finch is a window washer, which he finds unfullfilling.  There are bound to be more than a few audience members at any given performance who are similary dissatisfied with their jobs, and, like Finch, long for a way out.  Finch's dream is as straightforward as it could be - to get rich quick - and that dream has been an integral part of the American psyche.  From 19th and early 20th immigrants hearing tales of American streets paved with gold to the vast amount of people who buy lottery tickets to the popularity of shows like AMERICAN IDOL, Americans have always dreamed of reaping huge rewards for very little work.  Consequently, most audience members know that if they found a book called HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, they would use it just like Finch does.

Robert Morse as Finch leads the cast in "The Brotherhood of Man" in the original production of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING

But Finch's connection to the audience would be ineffective if he were an unpleasant, power-hungry person.  Nobody wants to spend two hours watching someone they don't like step all over people on his way to the top.  Fortunately, the writers of HOW TO SUCCEED WITHOUT REALLY TRYING recognize this challenge and meet it admirably.  Finch is never outright mean.  The closest he gets to meanness is with Bud, whose job he takes. But Bud actually is the unpleasant, power-hungry person Finch easily could have been; he only works at the company because his uncle is the boss, and he exploits this fact at every opportunity.  Bud not only does very little work, but he shoves it in everyone's face.  Because Bud is a genuinely mean person who gets away with being unnecessarily nasty to his coworkers, Finch's tricks on Bud in some way serve as long overdue punishment.  Moreover, nothing Finch does to Bud - or to anyone else - comes close to what Bud does to Finch: namely, try to get him fired.

Additionally, the presence of Rosemary does a lot to vouch for Finch's personality.  It's unlikely that Rosemary would pine for Finch as much as she does throughout the show if Finch were a bad person.  Finch's realization that he's in love with Rosemary goes to his good character, as well.  Instead of finding her annoying or ignoring her in his quest to climb the corporate ladder, Finch forms a genuine connection with this woman.  When it seems as though his plan is crumbling around him, Finch tries to convince Rosemary to leave him for her own sake.  "Rosemary, you can't be the wife of a window washer," he insists.  "That's no life for a woman, sitting at home while I'm up there, never knowing if I've landed safely..."  This honest concern for Rosemary, while humourous, reveals Finch's real emotion for her - emotion he probably wouldn't feel if he were a cold, selfish opportunist.

Robert Morse and Bonnie Scott are the original Finch and Rosemary

HOW TO SUCCEED WITHOUT REALLY TRYING has a main character that doesn't seem easy for audiences to love.  But because the audience relates to Finch and because it's clear that Finch is fundamentally a good person, audiences spend the show hoping that Finch will, as the title promises, succeed without really trying.

To license HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, visit its MTI show page. Discuss this article and view production photos on HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING's MTI ShowSpace page.