Summer Youth Theater has long been a staple of suburban culture. For the sake of transparency I must confess at the outset to being the father of a beautiful teenage girl who has been involved these past four years in our local New England productions. I would not otherwise have become a summer theatergoer, and would have missed out on many well-produced and performed musicals.
The catalogue of shows produced by my town’s summer youth theater has been a representation of all the major well-known musicals of the twentieth century. All of them offer a double time capsule experience. The storylines all take place in the past. Even when the originals were premiering on Broadway, they nearly all were set in a past age, in a time and place that seemed golden hued and sepia blurred. But the context that mattered was that which was current in the time of its original production. Thus, for many musicals, we are seeing a past as envisaged by a more recent past.
Last night How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying opened. Unlike the typical summer catalogue, this show, when it opened in 1961,did not take place in some mythic Oklahoma place and time, nor in Brigadoon, Neverland, Oz, or Camelot. No, it was purported to be a satiric look at American corporate culture. And it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in its opening year. It is one of only seven musicals to win that award. The others being: Of Thee I Sing (1932), South Pacific (1950), Fiorello! (1960), A Chorus Line (1967), Sunday In The Park With George (1985), and Rent (1996).
To read the original reviews from the opening in 1961, in the summer of 2009, on the one hundred and first day of the Obama Presidency is to see the seed, and then fast forward to its mature tree. It is to see the ACORN become the Oak!
“A sassy, gay and exhilarating evening…A bland and caustic kidding of the American success story goes on all evening, without ever losing its frosty and lunatic attitude” –Walter Kerr, Herald Tribune
The definitive musical about high life in the city… perfect musical comedy construction, swift, sharp, jam-packed with characters and incident and clear-headed as it moves unerringly through an interesting and funny story. Loesser is the perfect man for his end of the show – the songs; for he is a cynic without being tough. He has not put in a note of music or a syllable of lyric that doesn’t carry the story along.”
– John Chapman, Daily News
A brilliant musical comedy in which everything works out. In its first performance at the 46th St. Theater Saturday night, its satire, humor, book, music, lyrics, cast, staging, choreography, setting and general gaiety of spirit combined in a smooth, fast pattern of expert showmanship to make the occasion a delightful event.”
– Richard Watts, Jr., New York Post
“It stings mischievously and laughs uproariously…It belongs to the blue chips among modern musicals. Let Wall Street and Madison Avenue tremble as the rest of us rejoice. Imagine a combination of Horatio Alger and Machiavelli”
– Howard Taubman, The New York Times
The most inventive and stylized and altogether infectious new musical in recent recollection…The score by Mr. Loesser is not great by ‘pop’ standards; it is better than that. All the music has been integrated into the plot, to fit the mood as well as the momentum. His lyrics are generally superb; thoughtful, witty, and often hilarious.”
– John McClain, Journal-American
So what is there about this show that prompted such praise among the reviewers? What was America like in 1961? And why is it dizzying to watch it in 2009?
In 1961 it was still Camelot, was it not? A brief Indian summer of the Fifties before the fall of the curtain in Dallas on November 22, 1963? No, actually the tumult of the “Sixties” had already been planted. JFK’s fate in Dallas was a symptom, not a cause. In 1961, the United States Of America stood supreme in stature, prestige, wealth and healthy self-assurance. World War Two had made manifest what The First World War had merely suggested. America had emerged as the fulfillment of its promise. The long wait was over. Europeans had long worried about, or looked forward to the coming to maturity of their overseas, familiar, yet foreign family relatives. Earlier in the previous century, the despots of Old Europe had cast nervous looks over the western horizon. “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America” Otto Von Bismarck had remarked. It is also said that when asked what was the decisive factor in modern history he replied “The fact that North Americans speak English”. And there were those who saw in America a hope, either a personal hope for a better future for themselves and family and picked up and immigrated. Or, a hope that American Liberty might point the way towards a European liberty. It was the first group that took the gamble of their lives and came to the Land Of the Free. The others saw liberty become tyranny, with guillotines from Lisbon to Warsaw. The Terror and then Napoleon dashed the hopes of Liberal Europe. And then came the isms. As Europe went down the path to self-destruction by warring Dynasties, followed by warring despots and warring isms, Americans were busy building our young nation. And after the two world wars Europe lay ruined, and for the first time in five hundred years its fate laid in others hands. They could look west to America, or east to the USSR. Those few who could choose, chose the former. Yet, a half a millennium is a very long time to have reigned supreme, and Europeans resented the fact that they needed America. And coincidentally at just the right time a whole new family of sciences came into being. These “Social Sciences” are special, unlike the mere nerds who wondered about irrelevancies such as Chemistry, Physics, Biology, they studied the most important thing; Man. Stated in that noble way who could dare question the lack of experimental paradigm which is the essence of science? No, these “hard” sciences are just ways to avoid interpersonal relationships, aren’t they? And these “hard” scientists have created the Hydrogen Bomb! Bad scientist! This was a convenient way of disposing of the guilt associated with being a nuclear-armed nation. If it weren’t for those cold scientists we wouldn’t be in this fix! Europe the center of the world was now to be the boxing ring between the two heavy weight champions of the world.
There has always been I suppose a proportion of the population that needs to feel superior to others. One way to achieve this sense of superiority is to become adept at seeing “behind” superficialities. To observe “the crowd” is to elevate oneself above it. And in the post-war years as the chill of the Cold War began to be felt, there were those whose need to be considered sophisticated discovered the social “sciences”. To study something is to be able to stand apart from it and look at it in its entirety. How can a person who has studied sociology retain any sense of remaining part of his own society? Nor, can an economist participate in the economy without being conscious of the fact that there is such a thing as “The Economy”. And once aware of these revelations from social “scientists”, all our norms and cultural subconscious become conscious. In the 1960’s, America followed the Western World into the unchartered waters of cultural, economic and moral relativism. Like when an individual tries to walk by controlling each muscle one by one, or keep track of their breathing. Some things are best left on autopilot!
So the hip, the cool studied sociology, and became observers of their societies, judges not members! And what is the world’s best lens for “seeing behind things”? The answer is Marxism. Marxists have the “magic key” that unlocks all the secrets of the world. The world that had been so well understood and controlled by European elites was now their master, and here is an explanation! It is Capitalism that has allowed America the power to pronounce on European affairs! Marxism is the ultimate deconstructionist tool. It reduces all of history into a concise theory. And when one sees something from outside of it, it turns them into observer rather than participant. It must produce a sense of elitism.
And so in 1961 it was the English-speaking Republic that stood alone over a world still smoldering from World War Two. And it was in this context that How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying was so lauded and awarded!
This might have been a time of Triumphalism. For the second time in a lifetime Americans re-crossed the Atlantic to sort out their old relatives affairs and stop their ruckus!
The Second World War was perhaps the last time that Americans were allowed to be blissfully “naïve” about the “True” nature of their society. Prior to the “’60’s” there had been a majority who saw America in the context of world history, as the culmination of the age of Reason, as a free society where government is the people’s servant. But the endless scribbling of the Social Scientists was deliberately obscuring that view. With their Gnostic lens they claim to see below “the surface”. They stand outside of the everyday world and claim to see it objectively, yet they do not see themselves as a part of that world. They have absolutely no idea of how wealth is produced! And when we read the contemporary reviews of How To Succeed, we are reading the first baby steps of the New Media. (This was, as “reporters” became “Journalists”.)
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying was perhaps the first and unrecognized subversive Dramatic Musical! It portrayed Capitalism as the corrupt, conniving, greedy, enterprise that has become so common in our media that today it goes almost unnoticed. It is exactly the way ACORN, AFSCE; SEIU racketeers proclaim it to be! These thugs who hide behind the once proud union label have baby smooth hands; theirs have no calluses. It is the way Rev. Wright, and Louis Farrakhan and Rahm Emmanuel perceive it. And as horrifying as it is to have to say, the President Of The United States Of America sees dimly through those same lenses. They all claim that “Capitalism” is just another “ism”. They cannot; truly, they do not understand that it only a description of the economy that free people create when working towards their rational self-interest!
The writers, the audience and the reviewers were of the same elitist group. The ones portrayed so well by Ayn Rand through Hank Reardon’s family in Atlas Shrugged. The Old Money, inherited, not earned, scorns the nouveau riche. They have no idea of how big corporations work. Despite the fact that it was because America’s big corporations were already efficiently operating that they were easily converted into the arsenal of democracy! The “social critics” thought they knew the system better than “the system” did! Elitist arrogance!
It is also ironic that the portrait of corporate culture in this show depicts a culture of advancement through political maneuvering, with no one willing to take a risk or accept responsibility. It was a lewd wink, as if to say, these are the values you hold so high, and its “OK”, because we are all in the “Brotherhood of Mediocrity” together. It was the first step in the demonization of capitalism, but made palatable to the capitalists by being done in a “joshing”, “we’re all in this together” camaraderie. But once their Deconstructionist, Post-Modern World View was left intellectually unchallenged it became too late for the capitalist defense to make a difference. Having let the initial seed go unchallenged, any subsequent defense of capitalism being merely a description of the economy of free people, was mocked as the feeble defense of “privilege” by the “Exploitive Class”.
The irony is, that it is today, in this, the present mamzer offspring of the miscegenation between the state and big corporations, that the business world has come to resemble the slimy, shallow and prideful self-serving characters of this Musical! And this I blame on the failure to debate the Morality of capitalistic constitutional republicanism versus collectivist ideology way back then, in 1961 when the smug writers, reviewers and audiences of How To Succeed, first dared to raise it.
Now, the day after my daughter’s show of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying opened, coincidentally on the one-hundredth day of the Obama Presidency it is chillingly surreal to re-read all the reviews from that innocent world, and especially the one from the New York Times Reviewer:
Mr. Taubman, if you are still among the living, Wall St is trembling in fear. You sir, and your fellow reviewers, readers and editors were the first buds of the Acorn that has grown into this monstrous Poison Oak. Its roots ripping through the foundations of our homes, it limbs crashing through the windows and walls, and its striving heavenward grasp boring through the roof!
But the show was done marvelously well! SSTFY gets better every year!