The theater community paid tribute on Tuesday to legendary producer David Merrick, Broadway’s “Abominable Showman,” who died on April 25 at the age of 89. Various Merrick friends and associates gathered to reminisce about the producer at the St. James Theater, home to his biggest hit, “Hello, Dolly!”
“They used to call West 44th Street the Merrick Parkway,” observed Zack Manna, director of Merrick’s Arts Foundation.
From the stage of the St. James, Merrick’s biographer Howard Kissell noted that while Merrick was known for his lavish hit musicals, he also nurtured the work of several seminal 20th century playwrights who have since “preceded their producer to Valhalla,” including John Osborne, Jean Anouilh and Tennessee Williams. Merrick continued to produce Williams’ later works, such as “The Seven Descents of Myrtle” and “Red Devil Battery Sign,” long after the rest of the theater world had turned its collective back on the great American writer.
Kissell wondered what Merrick’s reaction might be to the presence of two theater critics, himself and Clive Barnes, on the stage of the St. James Theater for this memorial.
Barnes remembered displeasing Merrick early in his career as theater critic of the New York Times. “After about 10 days on the job,” recalled Barnes, “I received a telegram from Merrick: ‘The honeymoon is over.’ ” The critic promptly sent a telegram back: “Didn’t know we were married. Didn’t know you were that kind of boy.” According to Barnes, Merrick thought critics wrote bad reviews of his shows “out of spite” and good reviews “out of terror.”
‘A singular voice’
Jujamcyn’s Rocco Landesman observed that the darker side of Merrick’s reputation had much to do with his not being “a consensus builder. He was a singular voice. No one intimidated him, and he didn’t care what anyone thought of him.”
Or perhaps he did, but in a perverse way. Samuel “Biff” Liff, who had been Merrick’s associate producer for 10 years, remembered a battle with Actors’ Equity regarding an English actress the producer wanted to engage in a New York production. Liff told Merrick they would lose the fight, so why bother?
“But where is the fun?” asked Merrick.
Liff worked with the producer on 45 shows, seven in one year. “He knew how to delegate responsibility,” said Liff. “When the musical ‘Mata Hari’ flopped, Merrick told me, ‘It’s all your fault!’ ”
Merrick’s Arts Foundation, which staged the memorial, paid tribute to the showman’s hits as well as his notorious flops. In the latter category, Melissa Brezinsky performed an aria from “Maria Golovin” and Erin Dilly sang the title song from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Merrick’s more enduring shows were represented by selections from “Fanny,” “42nd Street” and “Mack and Mabel” sung by Brent Barrett, Karen Ziemba and Howard McGillin, respectively.
Brian Stokes Mitchell performed “It Only Takes a Moment” from “Hello, Dolly!” The actor thanked Merrick for giving him his first leading role on Broadway, in the producer’s penultimate show, “Oh, Kay!” Mitchell remarked that if there weren’t many people who loved Merrick, “there are also few who don’t love one of his musicals.”
Missing from the “Celebration in Music & Words” tribute were many of the creatives and performers who had a close working relationship with the producer on his nearly 100 Broadway productions.
Such Merrick performers as Carol Channing (“Hello, Dolly!”) and Jerry Orbach (“42nd Street” and “Promises, Promises”) sent their regrets. Many others were simply absent, including Bernadette Peters (“Mack and Mabel”), Andrea McArdle (“State Fair”), Woody Allen (“Play It Again, Sam”), Lauren Bacall (“Forty Carats”) and Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents (“Gypsy”).