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

By Mervyn Rothstein
26 Feb 2011

Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser

Working with Loesser, Morse says, was a total joy. "I remember learning 'I Believe in You.' We were in his office. He was sitting at the piano and playing it as I sang, and I remember having to go way up for the notes to the words 'I take heart.' I said I couldn't sing that note. And I had the temerity to say, 'Can we change that?' And he said, 'Bobby, we're going to the theatre tomorrow, and don't you worry about it. You will sing that note when we get to the theatre.' And he was right. I did."

Morse says that he also enjoyed working with Vallee, but that when he first found out that he was going to share the stage with the crooner, he didn't know who his co-star was. "I told my mother and father, and they gasped when I told them I didn't know him," Morse says. "They said the whole country used to turn on their radios and listen to him. I didn't know that in his day he was bigger than even Lady Gaga is today."

Indeed, Debuskey says, Morse was not the only one who hadn't heard of that star of decades earlier — who was often known as "The Vagabond Lover," after the title of his first film, from 1929. Although Vallee had certainly been a household name, and his radio show from the late 1920s through the 1940s had been heard by many millions, when Feuer and Martin went to see him, the crooner was performing in a dismal club in London, Ontario. "The producers flew to Toronto and hired a Piper Cub to transport them over the wilderness to London," Debuskey recalls, "and found him working in a second-rate club, the Silver Slipper, before a sparse audience who did not know nor care who he was. But as soon as he walked out onstage, Feuer and Martin knew they had struck gold; they saw in him the personification of J. B. Biggley."

Vallee was "a very rich man," Debuskey says, "and why he persisted in playing these embarrassing club dates no one other than Vallee could understand."

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

Vallee caused problems in rehearsals, Debuskey says, by insisting "he be allowed to make improvements in Loesser's score" by adding some of his own hits from the 1920s and 1930s, arguing "that his expertise was validated by his past success." Vallee so exasperated Loesser with his musical demands, Debuskey says, that "Loesser implored Feuer to physically punch him out. Feuer ignored the request, and Loesser quit the show for three days, returning only when Feuer agreed to punch Vallee out at the end of the run — which of course never happened."

Vallee had a long-earned reputation for being very careful with his money, but Morse says it was at least somewhat exaggerated. "We did the musical together in other places," Morse says, "and when we both came back to California, Rudy was not cheap with me or anything like that. He was mostly giving, mostly lovely."

Nonetheless, Debuskey says, during the often sold-out run of How to Succeed, Vallee exploited his reputation for "real-life parsimony, just as Jack Benny made a trademark out of his character's cheapness. Vallee had a regular order with the box-office for ten standing-room tickets. He could not resell them for a penny more than the actual price, but he sold them only if the buyer would also rent a chair — a cane with a folding seat — that he provided."

That is, Morse says, "until the New York City Fire Department came in and said, 'You can't do that!' "