How Jewish is 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying?'
In Frank Loesser’s beloved 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, a new production of which starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe opens at Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre on March 27 (previews start February 26), J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe) is portrayed as an inexorably rising businessman. His name alludes to the turn-of-the-century capitalist and Episcopalian, J. Pierpont Morgan, whose presence in 20th century American Jewish culture includes appearance or evocations in E. L. Doctorow’s novel and subsequent Broadway musical Ragtime; Charles Strouse’s musical “Annie,” Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (in the song “Elegance”); and even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But how Jewish is J. Pierrepont Finch and his world?
Finch, a window-washer who schmoozes his way amazingly quickly to being chairman of the board, is often casually compared to Sammy Glick from the Broadway musical What Makes Sammy Run? adapted from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel. Yet Sammy Glick is a lethally ambitious, double-dealing bluffer who “runs people down” so somberly that some readers saw him as an anti-Semitic stereotype, to which Schulberg could only reply that Sammy’s victims were Jews, too. By comparison, Finch is a gracefully sunny caricature (entirely appropriate for a theater named after Hirschfeld), thanks to the genius of writer and director Abe Burrows (born Abram Solman Borowitz), who directed “Sammy” in its Broadway debut in 1964, when “How to Succeed,” for which Burrows wrote the book and directed as well, was still running.
To avoid Sammy Glick-like bitterness in “How to Succeed,” Burrows kept the latter an entirely goyish affair. The non-Jewish author of the original 1952 spoof manual, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, reprinted by Simon & Schuster on February 1st, had changed his name from Edward Mead to the even more WASP-y sounding Shepherd Mead. This was appropriate for Mead’s career at Benton & Bowles, a New York ad firm which sought young employees with Yale College diplomas, according to 1986’s “Advertising the American dream: making way for modernity, 1920-1940” by Roland Marchand, from the University of California Press.
Marchand notes that in the 1930s, when Mead began his advertising career, N. W. Ayer & Son, America’s first advertising agency, still shunned Jewish job applicants. By 1961, such racist policies mainly belonged to the past, but Burrows edulcorated even the memory of prejudice by changing Mead’s advertising world to the musical’s World Wide Widgets Company. Similarly, the climactic number, “Brotherhood of Man,” (see YouTube video below) is often mislabeled a “gospel” number although it is very unlike authentic African-American gospel music; the lyrics of Brotherhood of Man (Your lifelong membership is free…Oh aren’t you proud to be/ In that fraternity) instead recalls a university singalong, perhaps for Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT, brothers of which are nicknamed Zebes) founded in 1898 as America’s first Jewish fraternity.
Yet Finch, whatever his ethnicity, does follow the paradigm of the young Jew confronting the world of American capitalism, as in Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky. Finch might even be a recent immigrant whose original name was Yehoshua Peretz Finitzsky. Like Cahan’s David Levinsky, who clutches a copy of Dickens’ novel “Dombey and Son” to master English-language culture and sensibility, Finch clutches his own bible for success, as shelter from a hostile world. Because of Burrows’s bubbling wit and Loesser’s splendid music, his trajectory is infinitely more amusing than those of the grasping Glick or the lugubrious Levinsky.
Watch Abe Burrows on a 1952 TV quiz show.
Watch Barbra Streisand participating in an unusual 1963 TV performance of Loesser’s “Brotherhood of Man” from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.