Tony winning producer dies at 88

NEW YORK — Legendary legit producer David Merrick died in a London rest home Tuesday, the same day the lights on Broadway dimmed for one of his major rivals in the theater, producer Alexander H. Cohen, who passed away three days earlier. Merrick was 88.

Merrick produced a total of 88 shows, and won Tony Awards for his productions of “Becket,” “Travesties,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “The Happy Time,” “Luther,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “42nd Street,” as well as two special Tonys for his contributions to the theater.

Born David Margulois in St. Louis on Nov. 27, 1912, Merrick became one of Broadway’s busiest and most flamboyant producers. He practiced law for theatrical producer Herman Shumlin before going solo. His first success as an impresario was “Fanny,” starring Ezio Pinza, in 1954.

Other successes, many of which were imported from London, included “The Matchmaker” (1955), “Look Back in Anger” (1957), “The Entertainer” (1958), “The World of Susie Wong” (1958), “Gypsy” (1959), “A Taste of Honey” (1960), “Irma La Douce” (1960), “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off!” (1962), Oliver!” (1963), “Cactus Flower” (1965), “Marat/Sade” (1965), “Promises, Promises” (1968) and “Play It Again, Sam” (1969).

His output as a film producer was relatively brief with decidedly mixed results at best, however. Those movie credits include only four projects: “Child’s Play” (1972), “The Great Gatsby” (1974), “Semi-Tough” (1978) and “Rough Cut” (1980).

As with the most successful legit impresarios, Merrick suffered the inevitable flops, including one of Broadway’s most memorable fiascoes: 1966’s musical version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, which had been adapted by Edward Albee from the Truman Capote novella. Merrick closed the production in previews.

Slap trap

Merrick’s flair for promotion was unparalleled. He was dubbed the “Barnum of Broadway” and, less flatteringly, “The Abominable Showman.” He once paid a woman in the audience to go on stage and slap an actor to help publicize the controversial “Look Back in Anger.” Later, during the run of “Inadmissible Evidence,” actor Nicol Williamson turned the tables and struck Merrick backstage. No one ever knew for sure if the producer had commissioned that second blow.

There were other print-seeking maneuvers. Unhappy with the reviews for his “Subways Are for Sleeping,” Merrick found men with the same names as the leading legit critics of the day and printed their raves. When business lagged for his long-running hit “Hello, Dolly!,” he returned it to sold-out status with an all-black cast that headlined Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.

For his new “42nd Street,” he insisted that all critics attend and review the opening night performance, a practice that had been out of favor for years. That evening, the producer announced the death of Gower Champion, the musical’s director, from the stage of the Winter Garden during the actors’ curtain calls. The director had died earlier that afternoon, a fact Merrick somehow was able to withhold from both the media and the public. He turned the production into an extraordinary hit. It was to be his last.

When “42nd Street” moved from the Winter Garden to the St. James Theater, “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Majestic soon became the big success story of 44th Street. A true showman, Merrick pushed back his tuner’s curtain time so that theatergoers who failed to secure tickets to “Phantom” could walk south a few feet to see “42nd Street” at the St. James.

The producer suffered a stroke in 1983, but continued to stage shows, none successful. In the end, his publicity ploys exhibited more creativity than the plays he was staging. In 1990, his ill-fated revival of the Gershwin musical “Oh, Kay!” entered theater lore when Merrick placed an ad in the New York Times that consisted of a Valentine’s heart wherein quotes from Frank Rich’s pan review ran together with Times theater reporter Alex Witchel’s especially negative news item on the show. The ad’s headline read: “At last, people are holding hands in the theater again!” Rich and Witchel, who later married, were dating at the time.

In Rich’s book “Hot Seat,” the critic wrote of the incident: “The stunt was a replay of a famous one (Merrick) had pulled on Walter and Jean Kerr three decades earlier, when he publicly accused Jean of influencing Walter’s reviews by dramatically ‘nudging’ him at the theater.”

Merrick feared no critics, and took particular pleasure at going after the Times’ scribes publicly. In between Kerr and Rich, he delivered a 30-minute “review” of Times critic Howard Taubman, whom he likened to Adolf Eichmann, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show in 1963.

In a ‘State’

He grew no less feisty as his production schedule diminished. In 1996, Merrick sued the Tony Awards administration committee when only four songs of the 15-song score of his musical “State Fair,” based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein film, were deemed eligible for nomination. The suit was dismissed.

The following year Natalie Lloyd, Merrick’s longtime companion and business partner, announced that the producer would bring two new shows to Broadway, with plans to revive his 1980 hit, “42nd Street.” The projects never came to fruition.

In 1998, Merrick named Lloyd to head his organization, the David Merrick Arts Foundation, which endows the David Merrick Prizes in drama, dance and music at the Juilliard School. The producer married Lloyd last November.

In addition to his wife, Merrick is survived by two daughters from previous marriages.

Merrick had been married six times. His body will be flown to the U.S. for a private burial.

The Gotham theaters lowered their lights at 8 p.m. Wednesday to honor Merrick. Two Broadway dimmings in as many days is historic. The legit community, through the League of American Theaters and Producers, is very protective of its ultimate honor. The theater lights were last dimmed in July 1998 to mark the passing of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins.

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