Robert Morse, Donna McKechnie and Merle Debuskey Tell How How to Succeed Succeeded in 1961

By Mervyn Rothstein
26 Feb 2011

Robert Morse in the 1967 film adaptation.
photo © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

Expectations for the show were indeed high, says Debuskey, who was president of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers for a quarter century. "But despite good reviews during the Philadelphia tryout, business was tepid; the lines of customers at the box-office were buying tickets to the show next booked into the theatre, Kean — which though it starred the legendary musical leading man Alfred Drake would turn out to be a major bomb."

Debuskey recalls, "One night, during a dance number, the show's producers, Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin [whose hits included Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, The Boy Friend and Silk Stockings], and Abe Burrows and I were sitting on the steps leading to the mezzanine when Loesser walked in after visiting the box office. He emotionally informed us that the treasurer had told him that an elderly lady had arrived at the box office window and asked, 'When does the Rudy Vallee lecture begin?' That opened an angry window to the accumulated frustration, and everyone tried to come up with a remedy for the lack of business."

The suggested solution, Debuskey says, was to change the title. "Feuer, in his memoir, said that he and Ernie were shaken and agreed to change it. Feuer wrote that 'Debuskey . . . said we were out of our minds. I never saw a guy so angry. He said it was the greatest title he had ever worked on. He threatened to quit if we changed it. Turns out he was right.' "

"Actually," Debuskey says, "I had said, and it was the effective persuader, that the title was an invitation to a Pulitzer Prize."

Among the show's problems in rehearsal was the choreographer: Someone named Hugh Lambert had been hired because Feuer had been impressed with a dance piece Lambert had staged at a trade show. But Lambert wasn't working out — "a problem fortuitously and gloriously remedied," Debuskey says, "by bringing in Bob Fosse to stage the musical numbers."

Donna McKechnie (right), with Tracy Everitt, in the original Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

McKechnie remembers that Lambert had been working on the choreography for the show's "Paris Original" number. "We did the same thing for two days in a row, and then he was kind of stuck, going over it. And then he was gone, and Bob Fosse walked in. This was a hard lesson to learn — seeing a choreographer who we all loved spend two days on one number, and he was out the door."

Fosse and Verdon, his dance captain, hadn't had time to do any preproduction work, McKechnie says, "and they would go home at night and she would tell me later they were doing all their preproduction work at night, jumping up and down on the bed, doing all the combinations and setting the choreography."

McKechnie, who 15 years later would win a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for A Chorus Line, says she was "a lucky girl" to be chosen for the chorus. She had done summer stock, commercials for grape juice and stockings, and had been in a touring company of West Side Story. "I auditioned for Cy Feuer, for an automobile industrial show that he and Ernie Martin were producing — it was a big show, $2 million, which was big in those days. I got it. And he took me up to the stairs at the back of the Lunt Fontanne Theatre and said, 'We're doing a new show on Broadway and we'd like you to be in it.' And I said, 'Sure.' "

She remembers that during rehearsals Robert Morse "would speak under his breath, and Rudy Vallee was very soft-spoken — he used one of the very first lavalier microphones I remember. At one point Abe Burrows became very frustrated and said, 'Come on, I've got to hear you. It's a comedy!' "

Morse says it was Burrows who got him involved in How to Succeed. "My first Broadway show was in 1955, playing Barnaby in The Matchmaker, opposite Ruth Gordon. After that came the movie version, with Shirley MacLaine and Tony Perkins. Then I went back to New York, where Abe Burrows was putting together a show called Say, Darling, where I played the wonderful part of Ted Snow, who was based on the producer Hal Prince [and for which Morse received a Tony nomination]. After I left that show I was going into a musical called Take Me Along, based on Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!, starring Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon, and Abe called me and said, 'I can't stand you working for someone else. We have a show for you that we're developing. After you finish Take Me Along we'll talk about it.' And it was How to Succeed."