How to Succeed at Putting on a High School Musical Without Really Trying (Or Maybe Trying a Bit)

How to Succeed at Putting on a High School Musical Without Really Trying (Or Maybe Trying a Bit)

logo_200x200_0000431What makes a musical appealing to high school students? Which musicals do they want to perform? And which musicals are going to be a sure-fire success for performers and audiences alike?

At the Educational Theatre Associations’ Thespian Festival high school students from across the country gather to share theatrical experiences, learn and showcase musicals.


So, what is it about these three highly diverse musicals that draw students and teachers to them again and again? We’ll be taking a close look at each and exploring their appeal.

Let's start with HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, featuring music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) which is being performed by the Mary D. Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The Show...

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING is a wonderfully witty, sarcastic and deeply ironic show based on a 1952 Book of the same name, written by Shepherd Mead. The show charts the meteoric rise of lowly window washer, J Pierrepont Finch, from mailroom boy to Chairman of the Board of the World Wide Wicket Company. The secret to his success - a handy little guidebook, named after the title, which he uses to navigate the treacherous waters of the corporate world. The book offers sage advice from choosing which company to work for, “It is essential that the company be a big one. It should be a least big enough so that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing”, to choosing whom to lunch with and evaluating one’s secretary (if she’s pretty and can’t type she’s trouble).

Overall, the show is a tongue-in-cheek look at big business in America. Taking it a step further, you could even say the show evaluates the notion of the American dream: anyone, no matter their start in life, can rise to the top. How far, however, should someone go to succeed? This show certainly offers some solutions in a wickedly comical fashion. Despite the ironic tone HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING is a heart warming piece and you find yourself rooting for Finch to succeed, regardless of some of his morally dubious actions.

daniel radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe. Click on the above image to go to the full Playbill article.

The show opened to rave reviews in 1961, winning an array of Tonys including Best Musical and The Pulitzer Prize (one of only eight musicals ever to have earned this prestigious award). A film version followed in 1967 and a 1995 Broadway revival, staring Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullally, was a critical hit.It is no surprise, therefore, that the show continues to be picked by high schools across America. A Broadway revival is planned next year with Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter Fame, in the lead. We have a feeling teenage girls around the country will soon be in love with this show, if they weren’t already.

The appeal of this show, however, isn’t simply that it’s a star vehicle for a hunky actor. The themes it explores, the tone it employs, together with the colorful array of characters, fabulous melodies and lyrics, all go some way to explaining its charm.

Themes and Tone: A Satirical Look at Issues Relevant to today’s Starbucks and Self-help Generation...

The show deals with many themes that are astonishingly relevant to today’s society in a a light- hearted, satirical tone. Who can but fail to be aware of the impact that corporate business has had on today’s economy. Does the name Bernie Madoff ring a bell? So, a musical that takes an unabashed poke at big business is something that high school students can understand and even relish. Furthermore, all high school students will soon be setting about the weary task of finding jobs and building a career. And they’ll probably have a self-help book to guide them.Or, they’ll have a self-help book telling them how to get a date. Thus Finch’s reliance of his guide book will be something students can empathize with.

No doubt they’ll also completely understand the impetus behind the song “Coffee break”. Horror spreads when the employees realize the coffee has run out! The cries of “Something within me dies” and “Somehow the soul no longer tries” are surely sentiments many students and staff feel when they can’t have their daily Starbucks.

Yet, the tone of the whole show is perhaps the key to its appeal. Nearly every word spoken and every lyric sung is laden with heavy irony and humor. This is not a sentimental, sappy musical. It’s fast, clean, slick and smart. The lighthearted tone makes it assessable and fun for high school students. They will relish delivering lines such as “What’s the opposite of a sex maniac? A business man”. In addition, this show will get them thinking about issues from morality to career paths in a non threatening and enjoyable way.

Matthew Broderick as Finch (Broadway Production)
Matthew Broderick as Finch (Broadway Production)

Cast and Characters...

Although the show undeniably pivots around protagonist Finch, every role is memorable. The show is a true ensemble piece and allows for a large cast of 20 upward, plus there are great opportunities for dancers if wanted.

None of the characters are black and white. The main character, Finch, is not as straightforward as he might first appear. Is he a monster who will step on anyone who gets in his way (or send them to Venezuela)? Or is he simply charismatic and enthusiastic? The moral boundary is as blurry as it is in real life. It is refreshing, therefore, to have a protagonist who is not a beacon of all that is good in the world but is, nevertheless, totally endearing. In short, he’s a real human like you and me and every high school student dealing with the hierarchy and politics that comprises life in the schoolyard.

How To Succeed in Business without really trying
Megan Mullally as Rosemary in the 1995 Broadway Revival

Similarly, there are fabulous parts for sassy girls. Rosemary Pilkington, a secretary in love with Finch, is not quite as naive as she may seem. Her cunning and quick thinking rescue Finch from sticky situations. The song “Paris Original” will also resonate with girls nearing prom. What girl hasn’t brought a new dress to impress a certain someone?

Rosemary also provides girls the world over with a wonderful trick to get men to take them out to lunch.

Extract from Act 1 scene 4.

Rosemary: Lunch!

Finch: Huh?

Rosemary: I said lunch.

Finch: What about lunch?

Rosemary: I’d love to.

In short there are a wide spread of roles which provide ample opportunity for many to shine, even for those who only make rare appearances. Although characters such as Twimble, the head of the mail room, appear in a few scenes they are sure to steal those scenes.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING appeals to students sense of irony, humor and ambition but at the end of the day, it's simply a lot of fun. We can’t wait to see what Mary D. Bradford High School does with the show but we know no one will leave the auditorium without a smile on their face. Well, maybe they will if they happen to be a CEO of a World Wide Wicket Company…

For more information on the show, to see what other schools are doing, including pictures of productions plus links to community rentals, click here.

For licensing and additional information about any of the above shows, click here.
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