Filichia Features: How How To Succeed Came to Be

Filichia Features: How How To Succeed Came to Be

By Peter Filichia on June 26, 2015

How does a manual become a musical?

I posed that question last Friday when I discussed a recent production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The 1961 smash hit remains the only show to win a Best Musical Tony and Pulitzer Prize -- and be based on a mock-self-help book.

That came in 1952, when Shepherd Mead wrote his parody of a how-to book to which he affixed the now-famous title. Mead was qualified; in 1936 as a 22-year-old, he’d started as a mail room clerk for Benton & Bowles, the legendary advertising agency that invented the soap opera (specifically to promote its soap-selling client Procter & Gamble). Twenty years later in 1956, Mead left the firm as a vice-president.

He resigned because he’d done well with writing in his spare time. Another how-to-succeed book involving TV had hit the market and another concerning women was just about to. What’s more, Mead’s 1954 novel The Big Ball of Wax had been optioned for Broadway. In the Pink would boast a score by Harold (Pins and Needles) Rome and be directed by Moss Hart, who’d just staged My Fair Lady.

That musical never materialized, and was one of two reasons why Mead was down on Broadway during the late ‘50s. The other? Jack Weinstock, a neurosurgeon, and Willie Gilbert, a writer who had been one of his patients, had bought the rights to make a stage comedy out of How To Succeed. But as the ‘60s began, Weinstock and Gilbert had had five years of frustration, for one producer after another had rejected their script.

Their agent then approached the team of Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, who’d produced six shows, five of which were hits: Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, The Boy Friend and Silk Stockings. As it turned out, the team wasn’t interested in producing the play, but they did see possibilities for a musical – not surprising, given that that was the only type of show they’d produced.

They wouldn’t entrust the property to unproven musical talent. Instead they called Abe Burrows, who’d done an exemplary rescue job on Guys and Dolls a decade earlier, once Feuer and Martin had found the original Jo Swerling book wanting. Could Burrows do it again?

He’d have one of the best songwriters to help him: Frank Loesser, his old Guys And Dolls composer-lyricist. Loesser didn’t take long to find his initial inspiration. His first lyric – “How to apply for job” – is right there as the name of Mead’s first chapter. Later Loesser noticed Mead’s line “A Secretary is NOT a Toy” and turned it into a waltz.


Original Album Cover, 1961

Both writers came through with a show that would finish as Broadway’s fifth-longest-running musical. And while the credits for How To Succeed have always read “Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert,” the Pulitzer Prize citation didn’t even mentioned the original pair but gave all book credit to Burrows.

And yet ... and yet … can we really say that Burrows was responsible for each and every good idea and the other two weren’t? Oh, for a look at that original Weinstock and Gilbert play! Without it, we’ll never know who did what. So, in order not to deprive any man of his rightful due, I’ll use the term “the adapters” when detailing new takes on Mead’s words. For my looking at Mead’s original work and seeing what was (and wasn’t) chosen for musicalization made for fascinating reading.

The smallest change? Mead used as his prototype Pierrepont Finch; the adapters added a “J” in order to reference mogul J. Pierrepont Morgan. They also have him repeatedly stating “Finch, Pierrepont Finch” to people he meets, inspired by Mead’s “Always be careful to establish the name.”

Besides, “J. Pierrepont” has three syllables that are accented with the same emphasis as “Rosemary.” And Rosemary -- a character not found in Mead – provides one of musical theater’s most famous conflicts: career (shown by Finch’s single-minded ambition) vs. love (Rosemary’s attempts to get him to propose).

Mead does mention, albeit almost incidentally, “Choose the right wife. Otherwise, you may be forced to replace her.” Actually, Rosemary’s the one who’s intent on choosing the right mate. She’s also more likely of the two to “pick the right suburb,” as Mead counsels. (“New Rochelle,” as she sings, “is the place where the mansion will be.”)

Mead coined the name of the big boss J.B. Biggley, which the adapters retained. But Mead’s “Biggley and Company” (which made wickets, whatever they may be) was renamed “World Wide Wickets.” (That does sound more contemporary in our current age of the World Wide Web.)


Original Broadway Cast Members, 1961.Rudy Vallee, Virginia Martin and Robert Morse.

Mead also named executives Bratt and Gatch as well as secretaries Miss Jones and Hedy. But aside from Biggley, who does have some interaction with Finch, the others were merely names mentioned in passing. The adapters had to find their characters -- and did. For example, Mead’s line “The Old Man has for a secretary an aging maiden who has been with him for 30 years” spurred the adapters to make her Miss Jones.

A few plot points – but not all that many – come from Mead, such as Finch’s stating to a personnel office that he “just happened to bump into” Biggley, making it seem that they were already buddies. All that really happened is that he stumbled and got in Biggley’s way. This comes early in both books, and is important, for it establishes Finch as someone who doesn’t quite lie but one who chooses his words carefully; if someone takes a different meaning from his words, well, that’s not his problem.

“The callow chaps around you may not look like much.” Hence, the adapters invented of Bud Frump, Biggley’s nephew-but-only-by marriage who will use nepotism to thwart Finch’s rise.

Did the adapters or Loesser give Frump his name? There’s a possibility that the lyricist created it because he needed a rhyme in the song “The Company Way”: “Frump will play it the comp-any way.”

Mead advised Finch not to take just any promotion, for it could lead to a dead-end job. So the adapters have Finch, selected as the new mail room supervisor, refusing it and recommending Frump --because he anticipates (and gets) a better job as a junior executive. Here’s another example of how the adapters made Finch likeable. He was paying attention and knew that a new job was opening up; Frump wasn’t, putting him in you-snooze-you-lose territory.

“The elevator and the men’s room are the only places you will meet the executives on a man-to-man basis,” writes Mead. The adapters put both a scene and song in each locale: “Been a Long Day” takes place in front of the elevator bank where Frump and Biggley lock horns. “I Believe in You” occurs in the men’s room where Finch prepares for the big advertising meeting while his adversaries wish him ill.


1995 Revival CastMegan Mullally, Victoria Clark and Matthew Broderick (© Joan Marcus)

Mead also urged Finch to send his sexy secretary into a superior’s office and “you will be moved in quickly to fill his shoes.” The adapters did Mead one better by having the secretary be Hedy, now surnamed La Rue to make her all the sexier – and Biggley’s innamorata. True, Finch purposely sends in the minx to his superior Mr. Gatch in hopes that the man will succumb to her body before he can learn who she is. No question that Finch led the horse’s ass to water at the mouth, but he isn’t technically responsible for Gatch’s breach of conduct. It’s the man’s own damn fault that he got himself in trouble – and thus dispatched to a remote outpost.

North Dakota was Mead’s choice, but the adapters worsened matters by choosing Venezuela. How interesting that Mead knew (instinctively or otherwise) that old comedy rule that “Words with a ‘k’ are funny.” What’s odd is that the adapters – especially Burrows, who’d been writing professional show-biz comedy since 1940 -- didn’t capitalize on that.

They did, however, create a memorable Hedy, whom they have believe that she’s coming across as bright when she says “It is I whom (sic) am late.” She introduces herself to Finch by saying “A secretary was ordered to be assigned to you. I'm your assignation.” She tries to get him to succumb, but it’s Rosemary he wants – spurring Hedy to show us she’s not just a dumb blonde: “I guess I’ll have to wait for that pigeon until after he’s married.”

Mead created the scenario in which Finch gets to the office on a sleepy Saturday morning just moments before Biggley arrives to pick up his golf clubs and spreads coffee cups and cigarettes around to suggest that he’s been working all night. But the adapters took three other scenes from Mead’s book and merged them here.


2011 Revival Cast, Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette (©


1) Mead’s advised Finch on “The Old School Tie” syndrome. As he wrote, “If the boss happens to come from some vile backwater college – and has an inferiority complex about it – you have struck a rich vein.” The adapters agreed and even retained some of Mead’s name for a second-rate school – “Old Ivy State Teachers Normal” – leading to Loesser’s stirring march “Grand Old Ivy.”

2) The sports imagery in that song has its roots in Mead, too. “Memorize the scores of all football games back to 1903,” he suggests. Mead even mentions that an Old Ivy rival team be named “Chipmunks.” Loesser, however, provided the nickname for Old Ivy’s eleven: Groundhogs.

3) “Discover the boss’ hobbies,” Mead urges, whether he “raises hamsters, collects cigar bands or plays the zither.” The adapters instead had Finch knitting (which is funnier) because he’s learned that Biggley knits, too.

They’re all nice details, but they’re no substitute for plot. They found the germ of one in Mead’s advice that “You will take the worthless notions of others and add to each of them that important fillip that makes it work.” So Bud brings Finch an idea that his uncle has already nixed: World Wide Wickets would sponsor 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 Vanna White.

Because The Great TV Game Show Scandal had rocked the entertainment world only a few years earlier, the adapters used it. Hedy screws up and Finch looks like the fall guy until Burrows (oh, who’s kidding who? Yes, Burrows!) gets him out of it in delightful fashion. Mead had to admire all the additions to his book, not to mention his substantial cut of the royalties.

When Mead heard that his book would become a musical, he must have immediately thought that one scene he’d written would definitely be included. He had Finch, when applying for a job, bring a barbershop quartet into Mr. Rivers’ office and had the foursome sing “Big Man Rivers” to the tune of “Ol’ Man River.”

But Loesser didn’t take Mead’s bait. If he had, the result would have been, to use a favorite musical theater expression, “on the nose” – meaning “too obvious.” Loesser looked in other places and got memorable song ideas from them. That’s how you succeed in musicals – by really trying.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at, Tuesday at and Friday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at