How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: Ambition and the desire to disappear

Since I had a friend in town this weekend (and that was sort of chaotic, since he wasn’t staying with me and I got sucked into bad work stuff and the amount of time we got to hang out outside of shows we went to see was super minimal), I wound up seeing How to Succeed… again. Yes, that’s an excuse. I would have done it anyway. But that’s also not the point.

The point is that since the show remains slight and still drags in the middle and all the other things I tend to think are wrong with it structurally, I had to stretch a little to find something to hold my attention for the two and a half hours in question (Darren Criss: cute, but not that cute).

On the surface How to Succeed… is a show about ambition: Finch wants to climb the corporate ladder; Rosemary wants to escape the life of a secretary and marry a rich executive; Heddy wants to be a star at whatever she does. Even Bud Frump wants to be important, and the head of the mail room is proud of his promotion to shipping.

There’s just one problem. How to Succeed… might actually be a show about people who want to disappear: If Finch has a self, not only does the audience arguably never see it, but Finch probably hasn’t seen it in a long, long time either; Rosemary fantasizes about having the perfect man who will look right through her as she wears the “wifely uniform”; Heddy drinks and plays the bimbo with little goal-oriented intent, while Bud Frump’s ambition doesn’t involve distinguishing himself in the slightest; meanwhile, the head of the mail room’s entire strategy for success is never being noticed. Through a certain lens, what all these people are striving for seems to be an absence.

Of course, all of this is creepiest with Finch, who generally gets played as innocent and lucky, or charmingly (and mostly, but not entirely, non-maliciously) conniving. But if I really start thinking about Finch, I frankly start getting entirely creeped out.

I noticed it a little bit the first time I saw the show, in that I just couldn’t get a handle on what was going on with Finch’s sexuality. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in Rosemary, only realizing he’s in love with her to avoid another woman’s advances. Then he installs her as his secretary so that they can’t have a personal relationship until they marry, when, based on the songs Rosemary sings, they stop interacting again except for the occasional entertaining the neighbors and enough obligatory sex to produce a child. But all of that nonsense is in keeping with the public face of the period, especially in satire, and I sort of blew it off as another oddity of an odd show.

But then I saw it again. And Criss’s performance was a lot weirder and a little darker.

So I started asking myself, who is Finch when he’s at home? What does he do? Does he have hobbies? Friends? Does he ever pop into the local bar? What does he fantasize about? Is he crazily breaking into libraries to research the Old Ivy fight song in the middle of the night? Or is he sitting on his couch, staring at a blank wall and being empty until it’s time to go into work and find the next executive to push off a metaphorical cliff?

Between that thought process (and I do think Finch sits in his miserable little apartment and stares blankly at a wall practicing his self-erasure) and a performance that seemed to deliver a Finch who is terrified of female sexuality and only marginally more comfortable with male sexuality yet seemingly equally uninterested in it, I was suddenly a lot more engaged with this odder than I had previously realized show.

By the time Finch sang, “I Believe in You,” the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, because whenever I tried to picture what Finch was seeing in that mirror, the only thing I was sure of was that it wasn’t his own face. I wondered if the moment was for him any different than the moment when the show starts and he’s peering in at the world he wants to conquer through window glass. Whoever and wherever Finch is, there doesn’t seem to be any there, there. Ever. And the creepiest part is that he seems to be aware of this only about half the time.

How to Succeed… remains an uneven show burdened with workplace culture history that’s too recent for us to really distance ourselves from no matter who is in it. But I don’t regret braving it more than once now, if only because my restless brain was apparently impelled to turn it into a horror narrative.

Certainly, I’ll now be chewing over the idea that ambition is an act of wishing to disappear rather than wishing to be seen for a long time to come.

6 thoughts on “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: Ambition and the desire to disappear”

  1. Almost every time I read one of your entries, I find myself writing fairly lengthy responses, then scrapping them entirely. (I think too much, and often say even more. My Tumblr is very good evidence for this fact.) This time, I’ve only deleted most of it:

    Not having seen the show, I’m afraid I can’t contribute much of any specificity. What I can say now is that, having read this, I have a very uncomfortable feeling that if I’d seen the same show you did, I may have found myself reflected back to an uncomfortable degree. I’m keenly aware of the allure of invisibility, and the ways in which it can relate to identity (which is right up there with sexuality in terms of subjects I can talk about for hours) are especially personal.

    I have a lot of feelings on invisibility, disappearing, and erasing of personality and self. They’re a big part of how I feel about celebrity worship, if that makes sense.

  2. The disappearing thing about fame is kinda what freaks me out.

    I guess it’s the same as decorating a show home. You decorate to fit the tastes of the majority. So if you want to be loved by the majority, you have to be a showhome, right? That’s what all these property porn shows do, is show you how to make your home — with all the marks and colours of your life — into a show home that the generic house hunter will like.

    And I suppose if you’re becoming famous or want to be, you have to be the person that everyone loves. Not you, but you have to be the showhouse version of you. Magnolia walls, lots of light. No clutter. Nobody I really like is all Magnolia wallls and no clutter.

    That made no sense at all. I blame the drugs.

    1. Oh, they’re Magnolia, now? It was Navajo White when I was a kid…and I think we can skip the obvious discussions that name would suggest.

      (and yes, this is an utterly inconsequential reply, because I simply do not have the spoons to get into my actual reaction to the post.)

  3. I’ve been waiting for you to write about this!

    I was so disappointed not to be able to see the show (though I keep hearing whispers about a DVD that I think probably aren’t true. I can dream anyway), but I do love the show, and the way you’ve spoken about it makes it seem like they’ve done some interesting things with it.

    I think it’s interesting that erasure comes up so often in such a musical… and I really wish I had the words to say anything clever about it.

    (This pointless comment has been brought to you by…)

  4. It really is a deeply, deeply creepy musical. Gah. I haven’t seen Darren Criss in it, but I saw it twice with Daniel Radcliffe, ’cause I had to caption it. Still, I’d bet that neither of them could touch the absolute unhinged terror of Robert Morse’s original:

    (Extra relevant for anyone who’s watched Mad Men, where he plays the Japanophile Objectivist Nutbag Boss.)

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