Fifty-eight years ago this week, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING opened to raves from all seven (!) New York newspapers. A Best Musical Tony and even the Pulitzer Prize were in its future, as well as the distinction of becoming the fifth-longest-running musical in Broadway history.
HOW TO SUCCEED’s road to success began in 1952, when Shepherd Mead wrote a parody of a how-to book. Mead knew the territory, for, like his book’s Pierrepont Finch, he started as a mail room clerk for an advertising agency. Twenty years later, he was a vice-president.
Jack Weinstock, a urologist by trade, and Willie Gilbert, one of his patients, bought the rights and started turning it into a stage comedy. After five years when no producer wanted it, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin showed interest – but not exactly in what Weinstock and Gilbert had written.
Although its credits have always read “Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert,” the Pulitzer Prize citation doesn’t include the original pair; it only honors Burrows.
“But,” Ethel Weinstock Kaiden, the top-billed writer’s daughter told me, “Weinstock & Gilbert WERE told they had won the Pulitzer Prize — only to be told later that Abe Burrows was the only one singled out.”
Maybe they should have been included. Dr. Arthur Robinson, a reference librarian at LaGrange College in Georgia, discovered the original script at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and wrote me.
“Hardly any of the dialogue in W&G’s version remains in the musical,” he stated before adding “But nearly all the characters are from W&G’s version.”
W&G added the “J” to Pierrepont Finch (to reference mogul J. Pierrepont Morgan). They retained the name J.B. Biggley for the big boss, but changed his Biggley & Company to World Wide Wickets.
Although Mead had executives named Bratt and Gatch and secretaries called Hedy and Miss Jones, he merely mentioned them in passing. W&G turned them into characters. Mead’s line “The Old Man has for a secretary an aging maiden who has been with him for thirty years” spurred them to make that person Miss Jones.
A how-to book doesn’t have a plot, so W&G got the idea for one from Mead’s line “The callow chaps around you may not look like much.” Enter Bud Frump, Biggley’s nephew-by-marriage who uses nepotism to thwart Finch’s rise. When he feels he’s being treated unfairly, he phones his mother.
Most important of all, W&G created Rosemary. She could provide one of musical theater’s most famous conflicts: career (Finch’s single-minded ambition) vs. love (her getting him to propose).
Mead also had Finch send Hedy to Mr. Gatch, his superior. “You will be moved in quickly to fill his shoes,” Mead predicted. W&G did the author one better by making Hedy Biggley’s “other woman.” Gatch doesn’t know that and propositions her.
But you can’t say that Finch is responsible for Gatch’s gaffe; he got himself into the trouble that resulted in a one-way ticket to Venezuela. (Mead’s choice, by the way, was North Dakota.)
Robinson wrote “Although W&G refer to Hedy as ‘a dumb blonde,’ they made her a bit smarter; she realizes that Finch used her to get rid of Gatch. She’s more realistic – but far less funny — than in Burrows’ version.”
Burrows did retain one significant W&G idea: Frump sent Hedy to seduce Finch so that Biggley could catch them. But Rosemary gets there first, hides Hedy and kisses Finch when Biggley arrives.
W&G also noted Mead’s statement that “You will take the worthless notions of others and add to each of them that important fillip that makes it work.” So Frump brings Finch an idea that Uncle J.B. has already condemned: a quiz show. Ah, but timing is (almost) everything; because Hedy has been hectoring Biggley for a new job, he can appease her by making her the show’s hostess. So he approves the idea of a TV Treasure Hunt.
(The idea of a corrupt game show was topical, for such a scandal had rocked television only a few years earlier.)
Who came up with the show’s first great joke? It has Finch showing up at World Wide Wickets to get a job, stumbling and getting in Biggley’s way. Moments later, Finch tells a personnel manager that he “just happened to bump into” Biggley, implying that they’re buddies. This established Finch as someone who doesn’t quite lie but one who chooses his words carefully; if someone infers something different, he’s not responsible.
Did W&G or Burrows invent that one? No — that delicious scenario came from Mead.
What W&G did do, however, according to Robinson, was create a far more nefarious Finch. “He made his home in the office to save on rent,” Robinson related, “and steals some of the comforts of home, including liquor, from Biggley’s office. But the big difference is their ending. Instead of having Finch accept responsibility as he does in the musical, here he manages to shift the blame onto Biggley and Frump. Not only that, he informs chairman of the board Wally Womper of Biggley’s knitting and hints that Biggley is a secret drinker. He then boasts to Rosemary of what he’s done, whereupon she tells him he’s a ‘shrewd, conniving, ruthless, ambitious phony’ and dumps him. The play ends with Finch not only taking over J.B. Biggley’s job but also his mistress Hedy. Then in the final moments, a young man comes to see Finch, saying he too is from Old Ivy, which is possibly an echo of the ending of ALL ABOUT EVE.”
Let’s not overlook Loesser’s Tony-nominated score. He too took from Mead, starting the show with “How to apply for job” – the actual title of the manual’s first chapter. He also kept W&G’s Bud Frump, for that gave him a rhyme in “The Company Way”: “FRUMP will play it the COMP-any way.”
“The elevator and the men’s room are the only places you will meet the executives on a man-to-man basis,” wrote Mead. Loesser wrote a song for each locale: “Been a Long Day” and its reprise take place at the elevator bank. (You’ll need to hear the 1995 cast album to hear both versions; the original cast recording in the pre-CD era didn’t have room for the reprise.)
Loesser reserved the men’s room for “I Believe in You” – the show’s most famous song. Finch prepares for the big advertising meeting with the adversaries who hate and fear him singing back-up.
Mead’s line “A Secretary is Not a Toy” got Loesser to write a delightful soft-shoe. Around that time the word “pad” had become a slang term for “residence.” So Loesser wittily wrote that a secretary’s “pad is to write in, and not spend the night in.”
“Pick the right suburb,” Mead counseled, which Loesser had Rosemary do: “New Rochelle: that’s the place where the mansion will be,” she sings in the spritely “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.”
To learn that W&G had named their heroine Rosemary solved a question I’d long had. Had Loesser chosen a three-syllable female name to match “J. Pierrepont” for his first-act finale where each name is sung to the same three notes? Nope!
Loesser also took Mead’s advice: “If the boss happens to come from some vile backwater college – and has an inferiority complex about it – you have struck a rich vein.” Mead made Biggley a graduate of “Old Ivy State Teachers Normal.” That led to Loesser’s stirring march “Grand Old Ivy.” He retained Mead’s nickname for the school’s rival — the Chipmunks – while creating the nickname for Ivy: Groundhogs.
Mead had Finch bring in a barbershop quartet into Mr. Rivers’ office to sing “Big Man Rivers” to the tune of “Ol’ Man River.” That way, he’d seem creative and thus be hired. Loesser probably felt that retaining this would be too obvious or jukebox-y — or expensive. (Royalties to Kern and Hammerstein’s estates, you know.) He instead looked in other places, got memorable song ideas from them, and created his own by writing the best eleven o’clock number in musical theater history: “Brotherhood of Man.”
That’s the best way to succeed in musicals – by really trying.