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"How to Succeed" brings comedy to the business world

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 5:24 p.m. CDT; updated 8:28 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Alexandra Milner and Grant Watkins rehearse a scene for the production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." The play tells the tale of J. Pierrepont, a window cleaner with dreams of success in the business world and a book that will show him how.

COLUMBIA — Set in what director Jim Miller calls “the era of the last grown-ups,” the early 1960s-era "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" is still very much about “poking fun at being grown up and serious.”

Recipient of seven Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, “How to Succeed” is part of the "Golden Age" of the Broadway musical, the period from 1943 to 1968 when many classic musicals were produced.

“How to Succeed” tells the tale of J. Pierrepont Finch, a window cleaner with dreams of success in the business world and a book that will show him how. His book’s omnipotent guidance comes in the form of a disembodied voice, leading Finch up the corporate ladder and warning him of missteps when appropriate.

Managing to get in on the ground floor of the World Wide Wicket Co., Finch encounters a slew of characters on his trip: an amorous secretary, a rival on the corporate ladder and a boss to be pandered to, among others.  Music and comedic mayhem ensue.

The show appealed to Miller because of its large cast, offering opportunities for numerous male and female lead roles and 14 speaking parts. He had never directed a show set in the iconic early '60s. That's when the business world the show satirizes was “all about kissing up, with no room for creativity,” said Stephen Kruse, playing the lead role of Finch.

An art director for an ad agency in New York City in the 1970s, Miller is familiar with the corporate and the artistic aspects of an office, and he brings this experience to bear while working with his actors and actresses.

Kruse also has a certain familiarity with the content of the show; he’s an accounting major. “I’ll be going straight into an office right out of school," he said.

Somewhere between choreographing the intricate dance numbers and designing costumes, Miller took directive control of “How to Succeed.” He admits that the process developed organically. “The show is going to be based on what the actors can do,” he said.

Luckily, Miller understands his cast members, many of whom are students enrolled in his musical theater performance course at MU.

“How to Succeed” shines as “a good old-fashioned musical comedy, emphasis on the comedy,” Miller said. He finds the most interesting aspect of directing such an over-the-top musical comedy is how the comedy must be handled — with seriousness.

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What:  MU theater department production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

When: 8 p.m. daily through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, Hitt Street and University Avenue, MU

Tickets: $10 for students and seniors; $14 for others

For information: theatre.missouri.edu or call 882-7529


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Because the show is so saturated with comedy, the delivery of jokes and the performance of physical comedy requires precision, practice and finely honed comedic timing from all of the performers. The funny lines just come naturally for Kruse.

“You’re speaking them as your character would, not knowing it’s funny," he said. "If the audience likes it, you run with it.”


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