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    Musically Succeeding

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    In the movie musical landscape of 1967, the most visible examples, some more successful than others, proved to be Thoroughly Modern Millie, Camelot and three for the family trade, Doctor Dolittle and Disney’s disparate duo of the animated The Jungle Book and the live-action The Happiest Millionaire. Elvis Presley fans got a threesome consisting of Easy Come, Easy Go, Double Trouble and Clambake, one each for three different studios strategically spaced across a seven-month period. September brought a Roy Orbison effort for the country crowd, The Fastest Guitar Alive. Of the preceding list, only Camelot had a Broadway pedigree, and only the first five got Academy Award® attention with a collective 21 nominations and 5 wins. But 50 years later, there’s another title that warrants reclaiming, hailed as one of the funniest and most faithful screen adaptations ever of a Broadway musical, preserving the well-honed performances of several original leads in a smooth-as-silk transition to celluloid offering filmgoers a taste of the zany energy and satiric edge that theater attendees experienced for 1,417 performances. A light-footed, sharp-witted look at button-down corporate culture and calculated ambition, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) succeeded on stage because its creators got the tone precisely right. In his autobiography Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business like Show Business?, director/co-writer Abe Burrows observed that “Time printed a squib about the libretto: ‘Instead of throwing vitriol on Big Business, Burrows painted a moustache on it.’ That pleased me because I knew that I hadn’t written the show out of hatred. If you really hate something, it’s difficult to satirize it. Max Beerbohm, the English critic who was also a devastating satirist, once said, ‘Satire should be based on a qualified love for the original.’ I’ve always had that qualified love for Big Business.” He also knew that the only fellow pro who could provide the score was his Guys and Dolls teammate Frank Loesser. But the Oscar® and Tony®-winning songsmith, who responded “How the hell can you do a musical without a love story?,” took convincing. But he won his pal over through the shrewd reasoning that Loesser, as president of his own music company Frank Music, possessed that same qualified love, and after trading stories about the behavior and personalities – coffee breaks, workplace dalliances, hierarchal jockeying – each had observed through years of office life, a Tony® and Pulitzer Prize-winning partnership was launched. After he acquired the screen rights as the next musical his namesake production company would bring to the screen after West Side Story, producer Walter Mirisch concurred that the property – and the smartly calibrated zest and tone of its stage presentation – mattered most, as opposed to outfitting it with Hollywood stars and radically reconceiving it for the movies. There surely was adaptation: by the time the final product premiered March 9 as the 1967 Radio City Music Hall Easter Show Attraction, four stage songs – Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm, Coffee Break, Cinderella Darling and Love from a Heart of Gold – were eliminated and the melody of another, Paris Original, was retained only as underscoring. But resoundingly present were Tony® winner Robert Morse as charming conniver J. Pierrepont Finch, Rudy Vallee as top man J.B. Biggley, Michele Lee as love-smitten assistant Rosemary, plus fellow Broadway veterans Sammy Smith and Ruth Kobart and Hollywood additions Anthony Teague and Maureen Arthur. Out in force was the lanky and lively musical staging, indelibly devised by Bob Fosse for the stage, and marvelously recreated on candy-colored Samuel Goldwyn Studios soundstages in West Hollywood by choreographer Dale Moreda. The dynamite Loesser songs – The Company Way, A Secretary Is Not a Toy, Been a Long Day, Grand Old Ivy, Rosemary, Brotherhood of Man and the score’s top hit I Believe in You – are spiffily served by the savvy musical supervision of Nelson Riddle (an Oscar® nominee for four musicals – Li’l Abner, Can-Can, Robin and the 7 Hoods and Paint Your Wagon – and a winner for 1974’s nonmusical The Great Gatsby, but criminally overlooked for his work here). Focusing on I Believe in You, here’s one instance of one musical infidelity to the stage source. On Broadway, the song came late in the show’s second act as a comically heartfelt pep talk to Finch by himself in the executive washroom mirror. On film, the tune arrives earlier as the straight love song originally envisioned by Loesser, sweetly and simply delivered by Rosemary to Finch, before its cheeky bathroom reprise (to its trademark kazoo orchestration simulating the buzz of electric razors) later. So maybe the movie, adapted, produced and directed by David Swift (Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, Good Neighbor Sam), falls below a certain level of strict faithfulness to the original in the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth. But now in splendid 1080p hi-def and 5.1 audio, this 50-year-old that’s been a bit overshadowed by the other musicals of its year will succeed all over again on Twilight Time Blu-ray, including new 2017 interviews with Morse and Lee. At the University of Wisconsin’s Cinematheque blog, Amanda McQueen’s June 2015 article spells out – like the instruction manual Finch employs – all the information you need about the film, thoroughly and entertainingly. (Click here: http://cinema.wisc.edu/blog/2015/06/25/fidelity-strategy-how-succeed-business-without-really-trying) Learn How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying March 14. Preorders open March 1.