Theatre yesterday and today



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“The thing about Doug Henning was that he could make the audience disappear, too!” — Nathan Lane

Merlin was the infamous 1983 Broadway musical that opened 34 years ago today at the Mark Hellinger Theatre and starred the internationally acclaimed magician, Doug Henning. Having totaled 69 preview performances —that’s two months — the longest preview period in Broadway history, many critics decided it was time to open the show all by themselves, without benefit of having been invited. As Nathan Lane again succinctly put it: “When we opened they thought it was a revival.”

Nope. No cast recording was ever recorded, but optimism is everything in the theatre.

The producers were running a bit of a scam, because due to an advertising blitz of a commercial that ran ad nauseum (“Merlin is the magical musical for the entire family!”), it was doing good business. The intention was to run indefinitely like this so the critics couldn’t get their paws on it and write nasty stuff that would keep away audiences which were coming without knowing what a stinker it was. In fact, the only reason a few of the major critics came on their own dime was when the producers had the temerity to end low-cost preview tickets and begin charging full price for a show that had yet to open.

So exactly what sort of musical was Merlin anyway? According to the Playbill it took place in “the time of sorcery,” the vagueness of which I suppose allowed Doug Henning to keep his precious anachronistic head of curls while playing the old man who counseled King Arthur at the time of the Knights of the Round Table. The show was pronounced harmless enough, with nothing risqué or untoward, but from most reports it was just dull. The one reason Merlin existed was to showcase its star, the magician Doug Henning. The composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz figured out something sort of magical a few years earlier when he wrote a show in 1974 that became an unexpected hit. The Magic Show, which centered around Henning, ran for four-and-a-half years (1,900 performances) at the Cort Theatre. And to hide the fact that its lead wasn’t an actor, he was surrounded by very talented character actors such as David Ogden Stiers, Robert LuPone, Anita Morris, Dale Soules and Annie McGreevey, who took the burden off Henning having to carry the show himself — because in addition to his deficiencies as an actor — he couldn’t sing or dance either.

This same formula was applied to Merlin and the producers are to be commended for the foresight of hiring of a young actor in only his second Broadway show — Nathan Lane — and one of the greatest of all leading ladies, Chita Rivera, to play the Wicked Queen. Also featured as Young Merlin and Young Arthur, was a teenaged Christian Slater, who went on to become a steady actor these past thirty-four years on the stage as well as TV and film.

Chita Rivera and Doug Henning in Merlin (1983)

Merlin had music by Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard), who was a world class film composer, with The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird and and Animal House among his over one hundred diverse credits. But Broadway fame and fortune eluded him, as his only other musical was How Now Dow Jones (with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) that is, in my own humble opinion, one of the worst scores I’ve ever listened to. That in spite of one extremely catchy number, “Step to the Rear,” which managed to find its way into immortality when it was used for a long-running TV commercial for Lincoln-Mercury cars and made into a hit recording by cabaret star Marilyn Maye.

Merlin’s lyrics were by Don Black, whose previous musical The Little Prince and the Aviator suffered the rare fate of having closed in previews without ever opening (I saw it and the less said the better). Black had better success later on with Sunset Blvd, for which he provided lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Weber's score, now doing great business in a pared-down revival which opened last week at the Palace Theatre to enthusiastic reviews.

The book for Merlin was by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, whose only experience on Broadway was as sketch writers for a revue entitle Vintage ‘60, which ran for a week in November of 1960. In the course of their long careers, they were far better known as television writers and were unspeakably rich from being the creators of both Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. (For a bit of theatre-TV history, their character of Columbo first appeared in a pre-Broadway try-out of a play called Prescription: Murder that closed in San Francisco. The bumbling police Lieutenant was played by Thomas Mitchell, in his final role).

Merlin was directed by Henning’s fellow Canadian compatriot, the film producer-director-writer Ivan Reitman, who had never directed a play before in his life, let alone a Broadway musical. Not anyone’s idea of a first choice at the helm a $6–9 million show (those details are murky), and of course it only came about after the firing of both the original director (Frank Dunlop) and choreographer (Ron Field). With desperation ruling the day, Reitman, one of the show’s producers, took over as more a default choice than anything else.

Sadly, Doug Henning died at the age of fifty-two of liver cancer. Deeply involved in the transcendental meditation movement, he avoided early proper medical help and instead chose to pursue an unconventional diet, much in the way Steve Jobs did, which may have cost him his life as well. At the time of his death, Henning had only recently opened a transcendental theme park. Leave it to Nathan Lane to wonder what that might have been like. “I guess you put down a pillow and a mattress and pretended you were on a roller coaster,” he told Tom Snyder in a 1997 TV interview.

My longtime friend, Andrew Hill Newman, was in the ensemble of Merlin and was also assigned the task of understudying Henning, as well as Nathan Lane. To this day, I can’t get him to divulge a single answer to any of the magic tricks he was taught and to which he was sworn to secrecy. But leave it to Nathan Lane to admit to possessing a little less will power: “We were all made to sign disclosures that we would NEVER reveal the tricks. But with two daiquiris in me I’d tell you everything.”

Andrew Hill Newman and Doug Henning in a publicity shot for Merlin.

Newman was scheduled to go on as Merlin when, due to a prior commitment, Henning was to take a two-week leave. He trained heavily to make sure he could do all the magic tricks and Newman felt seriously ready to take on the role. But since the show’s box office had dipped for four consecutive weeks, the Nederlanders (who owned the Mark Hellinger at the time) evicted the show, which contractually was their right.

The theatre then sat empty for the next eight months before a new tenant moved in. Nice going.

For Newman, one of the best parts of Merlin was being in the company of Chita Rivera. “Chita is such a class act and one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with. Her heart was with everybody in the chorus and her dressing room was open to everybody.” But the very best thing that came out of Merlin was that it was where Newman met his future wife, Leslie Hicks, who was also part of the ensemble. They’ve been married now for twenty-seven of these last thirty-five years, their love blossoming on the forced opening night of February 13, 1983. While commiserating over the bad reviews, their friendship grew into something deeper. And as the well- known adage goes, “Misery loves company.”

And Merlin was a misery.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.