Let’s start with the facts.
The 1987 Universal movie “The Secret of My Success” is a dumpster fire, despite starring the undeniably endearing Michael J. Fox. The plot is a primer in Entitlement 101: Brantley (Fox) is a young guy from Kansas who gets mad because he isn’t handed his dream job when he arrives in New York City. He soon lies and cons his way into an executive office while constantly ogling and/or sexually harassing Prescott Industries’ sole female executive, Christy (Helen Slater). Brantley gets the girl and saves the company with his underhanded ways.
Which brings us to the obvious question surrounding the world premiere musical of “The Secret of My Success” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. How on God’s green earth could anyone watch the 1987 film’s parade of stereotypes and misogyny and think, “Hey! Let’s make it a musical!”?
Composers/lyricists Alan Schmuckler and Michael Mahler did just that, along with book writers Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen, and the result is a triumph over source material.
Directed by Greenberg and choreographed by Amber Mak, the Paramount production turns the movie’s problems to its advantage by satirizing the clichés and blasting Brantley for his privileged cluelessness. The writers have also set it in contemporary times so the landscape is mercifully free of shoulder pads. The script uses the bones of the film: Brantley (Billy Harrigan Tighe) gets a low-level job in the basement of Prescott Industries. After stealing the identity of a junior exec out on paternity leave, Brantley then finagles his way into the corporate board room and begins wooing Christy (Sydney Morton).
The score is a rollicking delight, from Brantley’s “32-Hour Bus Ride” to New York to temp worker Lester’s (Gabriel Ruiz) showstopper “You’re a D-Bag, Brantley Foster.” If nothing else, “The Secret of My Success” gifts the planet with dancing, adult human-sized emojis. This old world needs more of those.
There are some problems, too. Brantley’s climactic discovery that money can’t buy happiness is horseradish. You know what money can buy? Health care, shelter and food. Try being happy without those. Still, the often chirpy script takes pains to acknowledge the existential dread that engulfs us all. Lester’s got a meditation app on his phone that reminds him “You are going to die” five times daily. His work uniform is a dignity-sucking chartreuse T-shirt bearing the slogan “it’s only temporary.” Yes it is, Lester, yes it is. “Secret” understands that this is both the tragedy and the triumph of human existence.
The musical mocks the stereotypes peppering the movie’s original story (by A.J. Carothers) by making the supporting roles satirical while adding much-needed layers to the leads. Brantley retains several glaring blind spots, but he’s also genuinely open-hearted and curious about the world around him. He doesn’t have an ounce of meanness, even when he’s scheming against the temporaries’ boss Garth (Ian Michael Stuart serving Billy Idol by way of “The Office’s” Michael Scott).
Christy here is far more than the object of her co-workers’ obsessions. We meet her mother (Melody Betts) and son (Kai Edgar) and see her at home as well as at work. With the angry, resolute “Get It Done,” Morton captures the frustration and rage that results from endlessly sacrificing family time to keep to a 60-hour work week in a toxic workplace. Morton is a dynamo who seems to carry her own light, along with a clarion voice that’s as effective on love ballads as it is on cathartic revelations.
Wealthy share-holder Vera Prescott (Heidi Kettenring) is not the predatory harridan of the movie, even though she is so rich she travels with backup dancers. Her delivery of ”You Can Have It All” veers from defiance to disenchantment with stiletto-stomping force. When Vera joins Christy on “(I Think) I Like You,” it’s the sound of newly discovered power. Vera’s husband/villainous boss Piers (Jeremy Peter Johnson) is straight-up Snidely Whiplash, at least until “When You Feel Feelings.” As manly man-suffering songs go, it’s up there with “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” “Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too.”
Finally, we need to take a moment for Sara Sevigny’s Sylvia Popkin, an executive assistant whose nudist brother figures briefly in the lyrics. Ms. Popkin’s big reveal (which we won’t) sets up a sequel that in a just world would already be in workshops, ideally with Sevigny attached.
Paramount has taken the bones of a trash heap movie and phoenixed them into something entertaining and commercially viable. “The Secret of My Success” could be the lightning-strike new musical that actually has the potential for Broadway.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.