Two Broadway Shows: Which One is More Offensive?

Saturday, April 02, 2011 - 07:15 AM

This last Wednesday I attended The Book Of Mormon, the new Broadway musical from the team who created South Park. Then on Thursday I saw the current revival of the classic musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying staring Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame. Just for fun I’d like to compare the two and make the case that How To Succeed is the more offensive of the two.

It would be easy and expected to think that Mormon would be the most offensive. Knowing anything about South Park and its creators would be your first clue. Following that would be the content of this new musical. Its has songs that poke fun at AIDS, religion, famine, circumcision, body parts and body functions, to name a few. There is no doubt that this musical pushes the envelope and that a great deal of the humor comes from challenging your sensibilities. But the fact is, this is a very traditional musical in form and style. At its heart it is a very sweet show about gosh-darn-it really sweet guys. And its message of friendship and ‘faith is in the eye of the believer,’ is surprising and touching.

Now to How To Succeed. It first opened on Broadway in 1961 and became one of only a few musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize. It has been revived on Broadway a couple of times and includes classic songs by Frank Loesser. But there is little doubt that this show is “dated” and jarringly sexist. While one song is actually called “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” women in the show are treated as such. Rosemary, the ingénue, is on a quest for her man from the moment the curtain goes up.  Her determination feels like a mix of a sad woman who really needs to work on her self-esteem and a stalker. Consider the lyrics from the adoring would-be wife:

Happy to keep his dinner warm
'Till he comes wearily home from down town.
I'll be there,
Waiting until his mind is clear,
While he looks through me.

While even in the 1950’s this might have been written a little satirically, it does make one wince. In addition to the outdated story line of getting married being the Holy Grail, and making all the execs men and all the assistants women, the married boss hires his girlfriend to work for his company. Any current HR department would have a field day with all of this.

I have to say I loved both productions. Mormon breaks new ground, is extremely funny and will run for years. And this How To Succeed is a beautiful production, Radcliffe and John Larrroquette (as the skirt chasing boss) are terrific and the show has been rethought on all sorts of levels, particularly the dance numbers.

But when it comes to the “offensive meter,” How To Succeed wins.


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Comments [8]


To anybody that enjoyed the musical, I suggest you read the real Book of Mormon. As always, the book is much better :D. Also, I LOVE How to Succeed in Business!

Apr. 20 2012 04:45 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

FRANK LOESSER was as politically cognizant as one could be and was attuned to the possibilities of how humor could help in domestic and workplace situations. He was also his own librettist. However, in films and pop music he often wrote either the words or music for the leading colleagues in the theater of his day, other composers and other lyricicists Only Irving Berlin had a larger output ouevre.
He would NEVER deprecate women. He was NOT a malicious man. Humor and dramatic verity were his goals.

May. 04 2011 11:13 PM
Michael Meltzer

Most New York listeners' contact with the Mormon community is in two parts:
1. The magnificent discography of the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel;
2. The purchase of radio station WNCN by a Mormon group and the removal of its 24/7 classical musical programming from the airwaves forever.
I'm not sure that the two balance out.

Apr. 03 2011 06:39 PM
GeneO from Manhattan

Clearly the hard fought battle over the last few decades have not altered the writer from the Upper West Side to appreciate that the rights of women along with their roles in society have been evolving. Unfortunately, the Mormons and other conservative groups would have us maintain the “status quo” of decades past as the desired way of life.

Elliott's comparison of these two different musicals speaks to how much American society is trying to change and adapt.

Is our society overly sensitive to being politically correct—perhaps but there are parts of our society that continue to cause societal issues and upheaval that affect many and on very personal levels.

I would like to believe that our evolving society can look back at our history to see the “offenses” that existed whether that is in our drama, art, movies, etc.

Thanks for the unique view of your comments Elliott.

Apr. 03 2011 04:42 PM
ruth kulerman from Upper West Side, Manhattan

I will laugh when there are sweetly and
"gosh darn-itly" similar musicals about Catholics or Muslims or Baptists. Today the Mormons are as reviled and ridiculed as any group in America. It seems that at least one educated New Yorker still snickers at the gosh darn sweet Mormons. Was it clever to compare the two musicals? Did you smile with satisfaction at your open-mindedness? Is it praiseworthy to be less offensive than something else? "Less offensive" contains the necessity of "offense." So the B of M was offensive but not as offensive as HTS? Gosh Darn, Mr. Forrest, how patronizingly sweet of you.

Apr. 03 2011 12:11 PM
Susan Yates from Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

You're right about one thing ... "How to Succeed" was satire, even in the 1950's (they understood satire even then!) ... and I'm sure the intent of the current production is to continue to look at Rosemary and her colleagues with a jaundiced, satirical eye. If they didn't succeed, it's not the fault of Frank Loesser et al.
P.S. Rosemary is far too experienced at scheming to be called an ingenue. One of the charms of the original show was that she was NOT an ingenue type.

Apr. 02 2011 11:21 PM
Jack Mendelson

The offenivness in MORMONS is in the lanquage used rather than the topics.. Fifty years ago HOW TO... was just considered funny and not offfinive. To try an compare it to today's harrasement ideas does not do the show justice. as to its originality at its first production. You must accpt the show for how it was written and not use todays standards. Think of the most important song in SOUTH PACIFIC YOU'VE GOT TO BE TAUGHT which they tried to eliminate from teh show.

Apr. 02 2011 12:09 PM
Concetta Nardone from Elmont, NY

Dear Mr. Elliott,
Nowadays there seems to be a lot of pushing the envelope and exhibiting very coarse behavior. I am not a prude and am a little salty myself, but the whole culture has been degraded.

Apr. 02 2011 11:07 AM

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