Last night, the “Mad-Men”-era musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opened at Gilman. John Rowell, an English instructor at the school — and the author of the story collection The Music of Your Life – directs. I talked to John about the ups and downs of producing an elaborate musical starring teenage kids. And had the gall to ask him to write a candid quickie review of the show himself. (He publishes theater criticism as well.)
Why did you opt to stage How to Succeed… this spring?
We were inspired to do the show this year after the tremendous success of the show in revival on Broadway last year with Daniel Radcliffe (now with Nick Jonas.) How to Succeed… is a brilliant piece of musical theater; a satire of corporate life and personal ambition, and what it takes to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder to get what you want, no matter what. It’s a cynical story told with charm, good humor and high spirits, and a brilliant, witty score by Frank Loesser. We have a 16-piece professional orchestra, over 100 costumes and sets that constantly move, whirl and change — including a revolving 18-foot elevator!
Who plays lead and what are his strengths?
Zane MacFarlane is a junior taking on his first major role in musical theater. He is an accomplished musician, a lacrosse player, a member of student government, and a fine singer, actor and comedian. This role is monumental — one of the largest ever written for a musical theater actor, constantly demanding in areas of acting, singing and dancing.
What is your history with this show?
It had always been a favorite of mine from having seen the very faithful movie adaptation as a kid. I completely responded to the show’s magical way of wrapping cynicism in bright, musical comedy colors and effervescent character songs. It’s a neat hat trick the authors performed with this piece, because, by and large, the characters are extremely ambitious people, ruthless and mostly without scruples. That they are so fun to watch and spend time with is, I think, kind of amazing, because if you met them in real life, I think you’d be a bit wary of them. Yet, on the stage, you love them and root for them, even as they’re pushing each other out of the way to get what they want. It’s quite an accomplishment. Especially in the current era of “Mad Men,” for which this show was surely an influence and template, How To Succeed… just seems particularly ripe for revival. The most recent Broadway production proved that. Who doesn’t love the early 60s, even if you weren’t around at the time? It was the coolest in terms of fashion, color, architecture, attitudes…and it was the heyday of Madison Avenue and advertising, which both How To Succeed… and “Mad Men” celebrate.
What’s the hardest thing about directing a musical at the high school level?
It’s always that the kids are pulled in many different directions. They have so much going on, academics, sports, clubs, social activities. Their schedules don’t easily accommodate the long and arduous rehearsal schedule that a musical demands. Yet, they are also so eager to do a good job; and it’s really fun to introduce them to material, to new acting styles, to teach them about musical comedy performing. They really do eventually get it, and it’s extremely gratifying to watch their journeys from auditions, when they know, for the most part, nothing about the show, to opening night, when they own it completely.
Pretend you’re a theater critic, brought to town from NYC to see this solid private school production…how would you sum up the event in two sentences? As a review.
Tricky question. I really do sometimes write theater criticism for publications in New York. Let’s see….
“The Gilman School’s production of the Frank Loesser chestnut How To Succeed… catches the early 60’s vibe and its satirical underpinnings with high spirits and youthful enthusiasm. These stylish and bright-eyed young thespians seem wise and seasoned beyond their years as scheming, philandering business execs, corporate climbers, and gimlet-eyed secretaries, bringing Loesser’s sly and timeless musical theater songs to life with a potent blend of playfulness, sarcasm and energy. “
Tell me more about the energy behind the scenes as the weeks raced by.
Our show motto during rehearsals was “Big Investments = Big Dividends.” We thought that sounded “business”-like, and also like something J. Pierrepont Finch would say, and repeating it like a mantra also gave us inspiration to do our best. Of course, during tech week, our motto sort of changed to “Roll with the punches!”