How to Succeed in Satire Without Really Offending

A director defends his production

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A response to The Tab’s review of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, by the director and the female lead, Rachel-Marie Weiss.

After working with the script of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for many weeks, we recognise that parts of the musical are dated. There are pop-culture references that just aren’t understood, jokes that rely on an in-depth knowledge of the history of American universities, and enough vintage language to necessitate the printing of a tongue-in-cheek glossary of terms in the show’s programme.

But one of the elements of the show that  remains relevant in today’s society is its social satire. Women in the show are limited in their goals, objectified to make money, and routinely sexually harassed. Men, meanwhile, can rise to the top through a combination of sweet-talking and dumb luck, and are permitted to take advantage of the women around them on the way.

At one point, it is even implied that a businessman with no real experience or skill (who has condoned a culture that mistreats women) is going to become President of the United States. The show was written in 1961, but some of the points it makes have proven awfully prescient.

The show’s take on gender is first introduced to the audience in the song “Happy to Keep his Dinner Warm,” in which the female protagonist, Rosemary, dreams of being completely devoted to a rich man who will ignore her (“Waiting until his mind is clear/ While he looks through me/ Right through me”). The song is a clear parody of the female “I want” songs that were common at the time, think “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music, and it highlights the ridiculousness of the goals women were encouraged to aspire to.

The cast of How to Succeed… Credit: Oscar Yang

This musical also puts a spotlight on a dark truth about corporate culture. Essentially, like any good satire, this musical presents something problematic with the goal of making its audience think critically about it. We’re glad the production made reviewers and audience members think about gender in a way that made them uncomfortable, because that’s exactly what the show is meant to do.

Of course, it cannot be denied that How to Succeed… is a product of its time, and our production has attempted to respect it in its original form. It does not represent the height of perfect intersectional feminism, and it is, in some ways, meant to be a show about men, with the struggles of women occasionally relegated to a B-plot.

We believe that it’s important to keep these problems intact when performing this show, as to do otherwise would be missing the point. When you watch Tom & Jerry on Amazon Prime, a disclaimer comes up on the screen before every episode explaining why the various uses of blackface or racial stereotypes haven’t been cut for a present day audience, stating ‘these shorts are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.’

Our production of How to Succeed… is exactly the same. To make the show less male-dominated, or to change lines that hint at sexual assault, the lechery of men and the objectification of women, would be to rewrite history for an audience. This is particularly important in the context of this show specifically, as a satire can only be effective when it heightens, and not diminishes, the ugly aspects of the culture it is commenting upon. To make the show kind to women would be to remove its teeth and render it a cookie-cutter example of the fun, brightly-coloured, and ultimately insignificant musicals of its time.

Smitty (Heather Conder) and Rosemary (Rachel-Marie Weiss). Credit: Oscar Yang

This would be a shame, as one of the reasons we were so passionate about putting this show on was its historical significance. It is somewhat revolutionary, as it has all of the brassy fun of standard mid-century American musical theatre, but with dark undertones and biting commentary, much of which is pointed directly at the wealthy businessmen who made up quite a high proportion of the show’s 1962 Broadway audience.

The show is one of very few musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and this is specifically because it was brave, subversive, and culturally important. That’s why we wanted to put it on; it may not have the wide recognition of something like West Side Story, but it has a similarly important message.

Throughout the process, everyone in the production was given a say in what goes on stage, and special care has been taken to ensure the many talented women in this production are comfortable with the final product. We understand how the message of the show can be misinterpreted in a way that makes it appear to “demean a woman’s place in the world of work,” but we think it is clear that the show is, in fact, making fun of the world of work for demeaning women.

If you want a night of high-energy dance numbers and fast-paced comedic dialogue performed by a very dedicated and talented cast and crew, we provide that.

If you want a night of frank depictions of difficult topics that will make you think about the history and future of women in the workplace, we provide that too.