Theater News

Farewell to The Producers

Remembering Alex Cohen and David Merrick, deceased within three days of each other.

Alex Cohen and David Merrick(in a composite photo)
Alex Cohen and David Merrick
(in a composite photo)

Rarely has the phrase “end of an era” seemed more apt than it does in the wake of the passing, within the space of three days, of the legendary Broadway producers Alexander H. Cohen and David Merrick.

Merrick died in his sleep in a London rest home early yesterday (Tuesday, April 25) at age 88. Cohen died peacefully at Lenox Hill Hospital on Saturday, April 22 at 8:10am, surrounded by his family. He was 79.

According to Clive Barnes–currently a reviewer for the New York Post, and the chief drama critic of The New York Times from 1967 to 1977–Merrick and Cohen were “the last of the great impresarios. They were ‘hands-on’ in a way that very few producers are nowadays. Both of them had a theatrical flair and a sheer business courage that has become increasingly rare in our theater. For this reason, they will be enormously missed.”

Cohen–currently represented on Broadway by his 101st production, Noël Coward’s Waiting in the Wings, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris–was recognized in the millennium issue of Variety as one of the ten most important producers of the 20th century. Merrick, during his four-decade career, was responsible for such Broadway classics as 42nd Street, Gypsy, and Hello, Dolly!. His last Broadway show was State Fair in 1996.

“They were rivals,” says Barnes. “I think they had a sort of wary respect for each other. Also, they were both characters. Merrick and Cohen held the strings of publicity like the reins of a chariot, and both were often able to parlay shows that might have flopped into what could be thought of as hits. They very rarely just held up their hands in distress and gave up. If they did give up, it was usually out of town; they were not for the ‘one-night wonders’ on Broadway. Once they determined that a show was worthy of their imprimatur, they usually stuck with it.”

Merrick with Mary Rodgers
Merrick with Mary Rodgers

David Merrick determined to become a theatrical producer after abandoning a career in law. His first Broadway show was Fanny (1954), a play with music that starred the great operatic bass/baritone Ezio Pinza. In the ensuing years, Merrick produced more than 100 musicals and dramas on Broadway, including The World of Suzie Wong, Irma La Douce, Do Re Mi, Carnival, Oliver!, Promises Promises, Forty Carats, A Taste of Honey, Cactus Flower, I Do! I Do!, and Look Back in Anger. He won Tony awards for Beckett, Travesties, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Luther, Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street, as well as two special Tonys for his contributions to the theater.

Cohen with Richard Burton
Cohen with Richard Burton

Alexander H. Cohen–who always insisted on being called “Alex,” even by those he had just met–brought such shows as David Storey’s Home (with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson), the Richard Burton Hamlet, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, and Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen to Broadway. His musicals included the flop Dear World (with Angela Lansbury) and the hit A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine. In London, Cohen presented Arthur Miller’s The Price, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, Robert Morley in Peter Ustinov’s Halfway Up the Tree (directed by Gielgud), James Stewart in Harvey, and the musicals 1776 and Applause (starring Lauren Bacall). One of his greatest legacies is having brought the Tony Awards to national television in partnership with his wife, writer Hildy Parks; Cohen and Parks produced and scripted the annual ceremony for 20 years beginning in 1967, including an unforgettable 25th anniversary telecast that featured original cast performances from every Tony Award winning musical from 1947 to 1971. The team also produced three spectacular Night of 100 Stars telecasts in 1982 (Emmy Award), 1985, and 1990.

Both Merrick and Cohen were noted for speaking their thoughts uncensored, and for statements and actions guaranteed to attract notice. Faced with negative reviews for the musical Subways are for Sleeping, Merrick invited individuals who happened to share first and last names with the major drama critics of the day to see the show, then reproduced the favorable comments of those laymen in print ads. Cohen relished his long-standing feud with Jerry Lewis, who is said to have behaved abominably during Cohen’s ill-fated production of Hellzapoppin’. When a technical snafu temporarily halted a critics peformance of the musical I Remember Mama, Cohen addressed the audience and told them that he had good news and bad news: The good news was that a cure had been found for Muscular Dystrophy; the bad news was that Jerry Lewis was out of a job.

“I first worked with Alex in the early ’60s,” says David Rothenberg, the press agent for Waiting in the Wings. “He was looking for a young person to handle all of his press, and he hired me. So I did press for Beyond the Fringe, the Burton Hamlet, Rugantino, and The School for Scandal with Gielgud and Richardson. Then I left the business for nearly 20 years, and when I came back, Alex rehired me. Working for him was always an adventure, always fun. The best measure of Alex may be that all of his former staff members would come to the parties that he and Hildy gave. That includes people who went on to become very accomplished, and they all say the same thing: They learned so much from Alex, because he really knew the business. He was a company manager and a press agent before he became a producer. He knew everything about the theater, and he was totally committed to it.

“I worked much less often with David Merrick,” Rothenberg continues, “mostly in his final years, when he was hardly the man he once was. It’s certainly an irony that David and Alex passed away within days of each other, because they–along with Bob Whitehead–represent the last of the old-time producers. Both men brought an excitement to everything they did. I think Alex was the greater humanitarian, but who’s to measure that?”

Indeed, Merrick’s temper was so infamous that he was dubbed “the abominable showman.” Disabled by a stroke some 15 years ago, he retired from active participation in the theater in 1998 and named his business partner, Natalie Lloyd, to head his organization. This was a controversial move, as Lloyd–who had been Merrick’s companion for 10 years, and whom he married in November 1999–was viewed in some quarters as taking advantage of a frail old man. But Tom Briggs, who co-authored the book of State Fair with the late Louis Mattioli, disputes this assessment.

“Even though he was perceived as infirm, that certainly wasn’t my experience,” says Briggs. “He was as eager and alert about State Fair as anyone else in the room was. David had trouble speaking after his stroke, but I’ll tell you: When he wanted to make himself understood, he was perfectly understood. Natalie Lloyd did a lot of speaking on David’s behalf, but there were moments when he himself would take the reins, and he made himself clear without her help. I can’t quite believe he’s dead. David Merrick is one of those people you always thought would be here.”

In addition to his wife, Merrick is survived by two daughters from previous marriages: Cecilia Anne of Mullica Hill, New Jersey, and Marguerite of New York City. Cohen is survived by his wife of 45 years, Hildy Parks; his daughter, Barbara Hoffmann; his sons, Christopher and Gerry; his grandson, Brock Pernise; and his great granddaughter, Mia.

A private service for Cohen will be held this week, and a public memorial service will be announced shortly. Merrick’s body will be flown to the United States for private burial; plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date.