Theatre yesterday and today



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Today is the birthday of David Merrick, born in 1911, a producer of once great renown. And with the days of one lone producer’s name above the title of a Broadway show a thing of the past, it’s important not to forget his contributions. Especially that nowadays it’s become acceptable for the principle backers of a show, once known collectively as “angels,” to assume producer credit on posters and in Playbill, and therefore receive a nearly equal position alongside the person that does all the work. The credit comes with the potential of sharing in a Tony Award, hopefully luring wealthy investors to part with what is some seriously considerable cash in the high-risk gambler’s stakes involved, especially for a musical. Taking into account that the recent Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark had a $50 million dollar budget (at least), what sort of individual would be crazy enough to pony up that kind of dough all by themselves? “It takes a village” is now what it takes to produce a Broadway show.

The last time a single producer mounted the stage at the Tony Awards to accept that year’s trophy for the Best Play or Musical was in 1981. It was for that season’s biggest hit, 42nd Street, and it was fitting that the producer was David Merrick, as he was the single-most outsized and outrageous figure of the American Theatre for nearly forty years. No one else represented one person’s taste (and input) on shows that bore his name than Merrick. And it wasn’t enough either that he became very rich and successful and be happy with having his name synonymous with good taste and great entertainment. No, in order for Mr. Merrick to succeed (as the old saying goes) it was vital that everyone else should fail.

Merrick was the most notorious producer of his day, a genuine terror dubbed “The Abominable Showman.” He was both feared and famous, and a recognizable figure to all with his thick, dark mustache and coal black eyes. With the exception of Cameron Mackintosh, responsible for Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, no other theatre producer has been so prolific or famous ever since. It was not uncommon to see Merrick on the leading talk shows of the day, like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or find his way to the cover of Time Magazine.

“Broadways’ David Merrick,” March, 1966

Merrick began his producing career in 1942 and eventually gave Broadway such hits as Tony Award-winning plays like Becket, Luther and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, and musicals like Gypsy, Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! He started inauspiciously, with it taking a dozen years to finally have his first hit, the Joshua Logan, S.N. Behrman, Harold Rome musical Fanny. And true to Merrick fashion, he took a moderately received show and turned it into a long-running hit by his abilities as a showman. He got the name Fanny out to the public in ways that gave him a reputation as being both clever and nefarious, as Frank Rich, in Merrick’s 2000 obituary in the New York Times reported:

“He sold the show relentlessly, plastering men’s room mirrors in midtown with suggestive stickers reading ‘Have You Seen Fanny?, running radio and television spots long before they were commonplace and taking the first full-page newspaper ads ever for a Broadway show. He also hired a sculptor to create a life-size nude statue of the show’s belly dancer, Nejla Ates, installed it in Poet’s Corner in Central Park late at night, then alerted policemen and reporters so they could discover it at daybreak.

Publicity bred theatergoers, and Fanny made back its investment in a remarkably fast 17 weeks, then ran nearly another two years. Thanks to a shrewd rental deal Mr. Merrick had extracted from the Shuberts for the Majestic Theater, Fanny was on a weekly basis the most profitable show in Broadway history up to that time.”

Now THAT’S a producer! And most of the time Merrick exploited a product, the public responded positively, delighted by his exploits. The most famous of all his stunts was when he was able to find seven individuals who just happened to have the exact same names as the seven major newspaper critics of the day, and use their names attached to rave quotes in a newspaper ad. Merrick had been planning such a ploy for years, but had been thwarted by the New York Times critic having the uncommon name of Brooks Atkinson. But upon Atkinson’s retirement, Merrick swept into action and wined and dined and sent free tickets to an alternate universe’s Walter Kerr, John Chapman and five others. Compiling their rave comments, he composed ad ad and sent it to the major dailies, one of which slipped past its proofreaders. It was published in one edition of the Herald Tribune and the attendant publicity gave a boost to the middling musical Subways Are for Sleeping that allowed it to run many more weeks than it would have under ordinary circumstances.

Comedy and tragedy, yes. But more to the point: the two faces of David Merrick.

And long before Donald Trump stiffed contractors by forcing them to take less on the dollar or he not pay them at all for what he considered “inferior” work, was for Merrick, a common tactic. A set painter would be summoned to his blood red office (walls, carpet) and submitted to verbal abuse by way of unreasonable demands and threats of law suits (Merrick was a lawyer by training). It made him him someone to be feared — which is exactly the way he wanted it.

The night Merrick won his final Tony Award at the 1981 ceremony, it was also for all intents and purposes, his final moment in the spotlight. After a litany of producer names were read off as the nominees of the other three shows in the category, he got to the stage and with his signature combination of snark and wit said: “You can imagine how lonely it was producing 42nd Street all alone.” Of course, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. And though he made millions, and enjoyed tremendous success, he died a deeply unhappy man. And perhaps worst of all: irrelevant. Ill health forced him to slip into oblivion and past his usefulness. For a person like Merrick, it was a fate worst than death.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: