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 In addition to the outdated story line of getting married being the Holy Grail, and making all the execs men and all the assistants women, the married boss hires his girlfriend to work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.