By today’s standards, mid-1950s Americans were living in fairy-tale land. It was a time when any young man with pluck and charm could become president of a corporation. Any young woman with good looks and charm could marry Prince Charming — often the young man who had risen to the top of the corporate ladder. It was a time when young men and women were leaving small towns and going to the big cities to find their fortunes and make a new life.
“How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” is based on a real-life story, and El Dorado Musical Theatre’s production at Three Stages this spring brings the story to life.
Shepherd Mead published the humorous book about his rise to vice president of an advertising firm in New York City in 1952. The full title was, “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying: The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune.”
Like the hero of his book, J. Pierrepont Finch, Mead started in the mailroom, the first step on the corporate ladder. Today’s mailroom may be contained in a computer server. Then it was a bustling place of office intrigue where young strivers learned the rules of the game.
The book is a double satire. It is written as a spoof of “how-to” manuals of the day. It is also a satire on Mead’s experience in corporate America. While it took Mead years to rise to vice president, young Finch’s flight from mailroom to chairman of the board is accomplished in only one week.
For young women, the secretarial pool was the entry point, and to be selected as a private secretary meant money, prestige and personal access. Rosemary Pilkington is the lovely young secretary who hangs her star on Finch’s success.
The book, nicknamed H2$, like a stock symbol, became a best seller. It was adapted as a musical and opened in New York in 1961, winning many awards.
At the time it was called a musical masterpiece. El Dorado Musical Theatre has done a masterful job of recreating the time and the characters.
Debbie Wilson, co-founder, artistic director and choreographer, has directed and choreographed more than 50 musicals since EDMT started in 2001 in El Dorado Hills. Wilson says this is the first time EDMT has presented “How to Succeed …” She calls it an old-fashioned musical. “It is book-heavy (a lot of dialogue),” she said. “The script is 146 pages. Compare that to ‘Grease,’ which has 77 pages.”
As soon as EDMT scheduled this musical, the set and costume designers went on a treasure hunt to find old telephones, typewriters, furniture and vintage clothing.
Christine Martorana, also a dance instructor, has been designing costumes at EDMT for 12 years. She has developed relationships with other theaters in the region and thrift stores. Martorana was able to come up with enough classic Fedora felt hats, suits and shoes for all the males in the company, plus suits, dresses, purses and hats for the females. At rehearsals, her costume room is a beehive of activity with volunteers busy sewing and refitting.
Wilson said she saw the 1995 Broadway production, and watched the 2011 version. Then she developed her own version, not over-the-top, but not underplayed. She hit the mark.
The actors delved into their characters, watching vintage films, and created back stories to flesh out their characters. They had to learn how to put on a hat, how to move in skirts and dresses, the social protocols, and words and phrases of that time.
The music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, who had done “Guys and Dolls,” carry the story. One of the songs, “I Believe in You,” became a popular hit.
Vocal director Jennifer Martin Wittmayer keeps the singing in sync; singers strongly and cleanly project without any huge belting.
An offstage narrator reads the instructions as Finch checks to find out his next step.
To represent the period Zach Wilson, 13, created a series of projections shown in the background throughout the play. For example, Chairman of the Board JP Biggley is seen on the front page of Time and other magazines.
EDMT will present 14 performances of “How to Succeed…” between April 19 and May 5. There are two casts, with the leads taking turns, while the supporting actors and ensemble remain the same. The leads are members of the High Voltage Tour Group, which started four years ago. They have performed together at EDMT for several years and developed a strong camaraderie. Two couples developed from the group, and play romantic leads in the show.
In the Wickets cast, Andrew Wilson, 17, home-schooled, plays J. Pierrepont Finch. Julia Adams, 17, Oak Ridge High School, is Rosemary Pilkington. Stefan Sorgea, 19, Folsom Lake College, takes the role in the Ivy Cast, with Carly Speno, 18, Oak Ridge, as Rosemary.
Alex Levy, 19, Folsom Lake College, is the Wickets chairman of the board, JP Biggley. Zackary Royal, 18, Oak Ridge, takes over in the Ivy cast.
Kaileen Teter, 21, as Hedy LaRue in the Wickets cast, finished double AA degrees at Folsom Lake College and will be studying English and Psychology. Anjie Rose Wilson, 16, home-schooled, plays Hedy in the Ivy cast. Hedy joins the firm as a former cigarette girl, selling cigarettes in nightclubs. She wastes no time in the secretarial pool, going straight for Mr. Biggley.
Dylan Gray, 18, Folsom Lake College, plays Bud Frump in both casts. A relative newcomer to EDMT, Gray plays the snide nephew-in-law to the chairman.
The actors bring their own interpretations to the lead roles, but all of them are genuine and believable. It is a great production and worthwhile to see both cast versions.
Andrew Wilson says one of the messages of the show is “not being ashamed of who you are.”
This is the last production for many of the cast members. Several are waiting to find out where they will be accepted. Alex Levy, who found his niche as a character actor, is bound for London.
Anjie Rose Wilson was accepted into the Radio City Rockette’s summer intensive program.
El Dorado Musical Theatre is a nationally recognized theatre, and the recipient of numerous awards.
For tickets visit threestages.net, or call (916) 608-6888. The ticket office is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and two hours before a performance. The Three Stages ticket office is located at 10 College Parkway, Folsom.
For more information about El Dorado Musical Theatre visit edmt.info.