Musical Comedy Takes Sideways Look at Big Business

Riley Costello (Finch), left, and Fred Grandy (Biggley) in 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,' onstage June 2-12, 2016 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)
Riley Costello (Finch), left, and Fred Grandy (Biggley) in 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,' onstage June 2-13 at the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre. Grandy, who has pursued a career in politics as well as acting, reflects on enduring themes in the musical comedy. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

Fred Grandy is in his second act as an actor.

Grandy, who stars in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying!” which opened June 2, first gained fame as Gopher Smith in the television series “The Love Boat.” He then served from 1987 to 1995 as a member of Congress representing his native Iowa, and led Goodwill Industries International as president and CEO, before returning to the stage and screen several years ago. He currently appears as Dr. Robert Ledreau in the Fox and Hulu comedy “The Mindy Project.”

So when Grandy says the story of the rise of a window-washer to high-powered executive, told in the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, still resonates more than half a century after its Broadway debut, he brings a singular perspective not only because of his varied career but because of his early role as J. Pierpont Finch, the window-washer, in a tour of the musical 35 years ago.

“The themes work, the jokes work. The songs always work. It’s still relevant in a kind of gently provocative way,” says Grandy, who plays company president J.B. Biggley in the CRT production. “A lot people would look upon this and say, oh, that old war horse; it’s a period piece – you dress up like ‘Mad Men’ and do the show. The message of this show is as relevant today as it was when Vance Packard was writing ‘Hidden Persuaders’ and you had [the management book] ‘The Organization Man’ and things that were defining American business and cutthroat capitalism. That’s what makes this show almost timeless.”

Fred Grandy (Biggley), left, and Riley Costello (Finch) in 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,' onstage June 2-12, 2016 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)
Fred Grandy (Biggley), left, and Riley Costello (Finch) in ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,’ onstage June 2-12, 2016 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

He also draws parallels between politics and show business.

“Theatrical training is wonderful training for politics. Politics is terrible training for the theater,” he says, “It is not a reversible process because the things you learn in politics fly in the face of what you learn as an actor. The operating unit of organization in the theater is the ensemble. Those are people who have to listen to one another and respond accordingly and work to interlock a dialogue that is your play or TV show. The unit of organization in politics is the caucus, where you usually wind up fighting with each other before you even get to the part where you’re planning a strategy against your enemies. It is absolutely antithetical.”

As he left politics and began thinking about a return to acting, at age 50 Grandy earned an MFA from the Washington Shakespeare Theater and George Washington University. For 11 months, he was immersed in Shakespeare each day. Following his work in Storrs, he will portray Escalus in “Measure for Measure” in Wilmington, N.C. He is enjoying his first time as a guest star in a university-based production.

“It’s great fun. It’s a delight to see people just putting their toe in the business; it’s so much fun. It’s pretty invigorating for me,” says Grandy. “I am awed by the voices of these kids in this production. Riley Costello, who is playing Finch, has this angelic tenor voice. I couldn’t get close to that when I was playing Finch. I was an actor who sings. This guy is a singer. Sarah [Schenkkan as Rosemary] and Ariana [Shore as Hedy LaRue] are singers. We’re loaded with great vocal talent. I am pleased to be doing the comic role at this point. I don’t remember our show being quite that operatic.”

Grandy sees characteristics of some politicians he has known in his businessman character on stage.

“My impression of Biggley is despite the fact he has vaulted himself to the top floor he is terribly insecure, nervous,” he says. “He reminds me of a lot of the people I knew in politics who had clawed their way to the top and were either committee chairs or high up in the leadership, and they had done it by, in some cases, not very pretty ways. They always have the sense that something is gaining on them. That’s, kind of to me, who Biggley is. There’s a Nixonian quality to this guy.”

“How to Succeed” is directed by CRT artistic director Vincent Cardinal and also stars Broadway performer Riley Costello, who led CRT’s “Peter Pan” last summer; Sarah Schenkkan, who last appeared at CRT in “Guys and Dolls” and is currently playing Eleanor Browder in the new Amazon series “Z;” and Tina Fabrique, who is reprising the role she played as Miss Jones in both the Broadway and National Tour productions of “How To Succeed’s” popular first revival. She last appeared at CRT in “The Sunshine Boys” and “Hairspray.”

The CRT production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying!” runs June 2-12 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. For more information, go to crt.uconn.edu.