Getting ahead by hook or by crook

Musical is a charming retro look at modern-day business, Ron Cerabona writes

At a time when the retro advertising world of Mad Men is popular on television, the time seems ripe for a new production of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, not mounted publicly in Canberra for more than two decades.

And, says director Richard Block, he and his colleagues have taken some inspiration from the period TV show.

"The costumes and the sets are Mad Men-inspired," he says.

But Mad Men isn't quite like this. The 1961 Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), was based on Shepard Meade's 1952 book of the same name. It deals with the rise and rise of one J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Adrian Flor), a window washer who, with the aid of the strategies outlined in his trusty "How to" book (voiced by Scott Rutar), works his way up from the mailroom towards the boardroom of the World Wide Wicket Company.

Along the way he faces a rival in Bud Frump (Zack Drury), nephew of the company president, Mr Biggley (Wayne Shepherd). And he's pursued romantically by Rosemary Pilkington (Vanessa de Jager), a company secretary. But can he take his eyes off the path to success long enough to notice?

H2$ (as it is wittily abbreviated) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical and was adapted into a 1967 film.


And that film was part of what inspired Block to make his directorial debut.

"It was one of my very favourite shows as kid, as a movie," he says.

"I couldn't pass this up."

He says he brings two particular strengths. "Because I'm coming into directing from acting, I can see it from an actor's point of view." While mounting a quality show is paramount, he wants to ensure that everyone involved has a good experience as well.

"The more people enjoy themselves on stage, the more the audience enjoys the show," he says.

And, not unimportantly, given the show's subject matter, Block brings a wealth of business knowledge and experience. He was Phoenix's treasurer for four years and also runs a family publishing company.

He understands the importance of marketing to make a product, be it a wicket or a musical, stand out.

One of the things he is doing to build up interest in this production is to create multimedia features intended to be accessed on mobile devices – before the performance, at intermission and afterwards.

"They're like extras on a DVD," he says.

On the company website (phoenixplayers.com.au), there's a promotional video and there will also be such features as a glossary of terms, cast information, a facility to send messages to the actors and a competition.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm thinking of the experience of the audience and what I can do to enhance their experience of the show," Block says.

In some respects, the show is a little dated, he says; for example, the world where men do business and women are merely secretaries is no more. But many of the personality types it features among its characters – the brown-noser, the survivor, the ladies' man, the clueless boss – remain familiar, and timeless.

And then there's the score, featuring such catchy songs as The Company Way and The Brotherhood of Man.

The show was revived last year for its 50th anniversary with Daniel Radcliffe making his Broadway musical debut as Finch. Block's cast mightn't have the star wattage of the one-time Harry Potter but he's been impressed by the talent.

"One of the most extraordinary things about directing this particular show is that three of our leads are first-time leads," he says.

Drury, de Jager and Michelle Norris, who plays Biggley's mistress, Hedy LaRue, were all promoted from the chorus by Block.

"You like the idea of audiences seeing different people . . . I was hoping we could get some new faces on stage and it happened to work out that way," he says. "These guys are just sensational."

De Jager says she finds the process of auditioning "terrifying" and hates singing as herself, but loves singing in character. She did find it hard to get her head around the role of a lovestruck secretary who's willing to be ignored and downtrodden by the object of her affections.

"It was definitely a challenge," she says.

Drury, 19, says of Frump: "He's an arrogant, self-obsessed child stuck in a man's body."

Not exactly a role model, then. But it's a comedy role and in 2010 he made it through to the national finals of the Class Clowns competition and performed in the musical Urinetown the same year, so he could get into it.

"We're all learning together with experienced people like Adrian," he says.

And Flor – at 28, a seasoned performer in his "41st or 42nd show since 2002" with roles like Billy Flynn in Chicago to his credit – has his own challenges playing go-getter Finch. He doesn't think the character is genuinely sexist towards Rosemary or nasty towards anyone, just determined to succeed. But that can be hard to get across, given his monomaniacal drive.

"You want the audience to identify with him . . . but he's such a rapscallion," he says.

"It's your challenge as an actor to portray that to the audience and not make the audience hate you."

And he's giving it his best shot.

¦ How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is on at the ANU Arts Centre on May 11, 12, 16 to 19 and 23 to 26 at 8pm with 2pm matinees on May 19 and 26 and a 5pm show on May 20.

Tickets $25 to $35. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au or dinner and show packages are available from Teatro Vivaldi on 6257 2718.