Before the Sixties were the Sixties

Jaw-dropping sexism from back in the day
Vicki Madsen

The 1961 corporate world of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying no longer exists, and the musical unintentionally shows why we should be grateful for that. While it gently sends up nepotism, the work ethic, and general workplace foolishness, this Bloomington Civic Theater production also takes for granted the absolutely astonishing degree of hardcore sexism built into its worldview. By wisely opting not to apologize for its anachronisms, or to smooth them over, the company has created both an engaging and entertaining piece of theater and a sometimes-jarring look at the past beneath its smiling surfaces.

We're first presented with Finch (Joshua Larson), a window washer who may or may not be a pronounced sociopath. Finch proceeds to pursue material success based on advice from a cheap-looking paperback book. His every machination works perfectly, of course, and he slimily moves up the business ladder while stringing along lovely secretary Rosemary (Jennifer Conway), who is unaccountably smitten with him from the get-go.

There's plenty of funny stuff here. Finch's guidebook, happily enough, contains self-help for the mediocre, championing disorganization and inefficiency as ace strategies for avoiding overwork (or much of any work at all). These are fine notions, since most everyone at Worldwide Wickets—particularly boss man Biggley (Michael Fischetti) and his dimwit nephew Bud (Edward Williams, Jr.)—generally behaves as though he has recently sustained a serious blunt-force head injury.

This ambitious production (directed by John Command) features a huge cast and a 19-piece orchestra that rarely allow the pace to drag. While no single performer emerges as a standout, it's a solid ensemble that meshes pleasingly on the numbers small and large. Command also choreographs, and an elaborate scene based around an entirely insane television show propels things into the realm of the laudably surreal.

But back to the sexism. One's jaw veritably drops in the early going when Rosemary sings "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," about all the sacrifices she'll be willing to make once she lures Finch off to her projected lair in the suburbs (Ah, the Valium you'll take, one feels like singing in response). Later, in a tune called "Cinderella, Darling," all the secretaries gather round and prevent Rosemary from quitting her job over Finch's gleefully misogynistic neglect because she finally extracted a marriage proposal from the maniac and thus embodies all their fondest dreams. And we haven't even mentioned Hedy La Rue (Allison Rupp, in a terrific performance), a sexpot Varga girl whose presence in the office is owed entirely to the fact that she's doing the boss (though she'll do others, you eventually learn, when the price is right).

Jesus! I spent a good deal of this show, when I wasn't uncomplicatedly enjoying it, trying to unpack what was satire and what wasn't. We have the happy employee who has kept his job for 25 years by laying low and not making waves—at Enron they would have used his bones for soup stock in the company cafeteria. We have the crusty female secretary, Smitty (Jodi Tripp), who seems transparently doomed to spinsterhood on the basis of her down-to-earth sanity. Indolence and irreverence are fine for the men, it seems, while the women are left to dream of hitching onto their wagons. You feel like hurling radical feminist tracts onstage just to see what happens.

Then you feel silly for being so huffy. What's the use? It's a show that happily thumbs its nose at the prospect of being taken seriously, and about halfway through I realized I was having a blast—and that Command's decision to re-create the show as it was, in its time, is fortuitous. It's ultimately a picaresque, with Finch as Lucky Jim half-assing his way to the penthouse while mugging wildly at his good fortune as though it is the most logical thing in the world. (Although Larson only won me over halfway, his Finch being too Chauncey Gardener and not enough Machiavelli for my taste.) By the time it's over, even Biggley has to acknowledge that Finch will always prevail. It's Finch's world, and he obligingly responds to his final triumph by leaping onto a desk and belting out a tune about the brotherhood of man. Thus he cements his psychopathic swath of destruction across the corporate world and all it holds dear. Anarchist bastard.

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