When it comes to sheer snarkiness, you can't beat the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a script by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert).
A smash hit from 1961, the show was based on a 1952 novel of the same name. But here's the thing: That original book, written by Shepherd Mead, is both a parody of self-help books and a cold-eyed satire of America's corporate culture, based on Mead's own experiences as a captain of industry.
The musical adds a love story (of course) but leaves intact Mead's vision of a workplace fueled by greed, sloth, nepotism and venality. To succeed in business, according to the show's creators, the only skill you need is sycophancy. Our hero, J. Pierrepoint Finch, starts work as a window-cleaner and through no effort other than boot-licking and brown-nosing, ends up a top executive -- a soulless employee for a soulless company.
Finch may be the perfect fit for business, but he sure is an odd choice as leading character in a musical; he may just be the first anti-hero musical hero. What's interesting is that we are so conditioned by Broadway musicals that we find ourselves rooting for Finch (in his back-biting, talent-free way) to succeed. This jaundiced view of American capitalism and the subversion of the musical format may be among the reasons the show won a Pulitzer.
Frank Loesser wrote only five Broadway musicals, three of which could be called hits. One of those, of course, was the legendary Guys and Dolls. How to Succeed doesn't have the sheer number of stand-out tunes as Guys and Dolls -- only "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man" were hits -- but the script for How to Succeed is considerably stronger and significantly less dated than Guys and Dolls.
And fortunately, Daniel Goldstein, the director of this Carnegie Mellon production, keeps our focus on the story. With the help of an unbelievably clever set design by Kellan Andersen, Goldstein creates a laser-sharp, slick and professional How to Succeed that serves as a highly polished setting for this student company. The cast includes Tess Soltau's funny turn as Miss Jones; Nick Cosgrove's energetically evil Frump; Lora Lee Gayer's impeccably sung Rosemary; and Skye Scott using just about every trick imaginable (including boundless talent) to make Finch the heel you hate to love.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying continues through Sat., Nov. 21. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. Tickets: 412-268-2407