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

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26 Feb 2011

Robert Morse, as he looks today, as star of TV's
Robert Morse, as he looks today, as star of TV's "Mad Men."
Photo by AMC

Robert Morse, Donna McKechnie and Merle Debuskey — the respective star, chorus gypsy and press agent of 1961's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — reminisce about the hit.


Robert Morse remembers working with Bob Fosse back in 1961 on getting the choreography just right for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Morse tells, "Fosse said, 'Go into the other room and learn the steps, because you need a little help. Go see my assistant.' And his assistant was his wife — Gwen Verdon."

For Morse, who won a Best Actor Tony Award in the musical for his indelible portrayal of J. Pierrepont Finch, the young and intrepid window washer who rises rapidly from the mail room to the upper echelons of the Worldwide Wicket Company, How to Succeed was itself so overwhelmingly successful because "it was a true reflection of its times."

It was a satire on the office life, the personal life, the daily life of its era, Morse says. "It was a sunny, happy, wonderful production. It was right there in your face, and it was hysterical."

The musical used laughter to shine a comic light on the business world of the early 1960s, he says, just as the current hit TV series "Mad Men" uses drama to delineate that same era. (And Morse should know, since he has portrayed Bertram Cooper, the senior partner of the "Mad Men" advertising agency, in the series' first four years.)

Morse is reminiscing about the landmark Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical because it is now being revived on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, starring Daniel ("Harry Potter") Radcliffe as Finch and five-time Emmy Award winner John Larroquette as J.B. Biggley, the Ivy League-educated company president, the role played in the original by the 1920s crooner Rudy Vallee.

Also offering their memories of a show that The New York Times said "belongs to the blue chips of modern musicals" are Tony-winning Broadway veteran Donna McKechnie, who made her Broadway debut in the show's chorus, and Merle Debuskey, the legendary press agent who was the musical's press representative.

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

How to Succeed is, in fact, considered one of the great musicals in Broadway history. It opened at the 46th Street (now the Richard Rodgers) Theatre nearly 50 years ago — Oct. 14, 1961. With a score by Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, a libretto, based on an eponymous book by Shepherd Mead, by Abe Burrows (who also directed and whose credits also included Guys and Dolls), Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, it ran for 1,417 performances, won seven Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

"Everybody came to see it," Morse says. "President John F. Kennedy was there. The show opened with me coming down on a scaffold, wondering if it would break — and this was way before Spider-Man." (The Times described Finch as "a collaboration between Horatio Alger and Machiavelli," a "rumpled, dimpled angel with a streak of Lucifer," and said that Morse essayed the role with "unfaltering bravura and wit.")

Long before everyone came to see it, though, not everyone involved in the production was certain about its chances. But they all wanted success, and they were all really trying.

"I remember that at the first rehearsal, and the second rehearsal, everybody laughed at everything," Morse recalls. "It was all so funny — the idea of me singing 'I Believe in You' into a mirror, the dialogue, the lyrics, everything. Then on the third day of rehearsal nobody laughed. The laughs were over. Everybody got scared. After three or four weeks of rehearsal even the idea of laughter was gone. But Abe Burrows told us that it was sketch comedy. That it goes from one little scene to another. That people in rehearsal have heard it ten times or more, so it's not funny to them. But he said we shouldn't lose faith — it would work. On our first night in our out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia, the house was only half full. But people laughed."


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