Theater News

Remembering David Merrick

The so-called Abominable Showman, who died in April, is memorialized at the St. James Theatre.

The Playbill for the memorial service:David Merrick's final production
The Playbill for the memorial service:
David Merrick’s final production

Legendary producer and famous curmudgeon David Merrick was tributed today at a St. James Theatre memorial service that was notable for being in no way a whitewash of the difficult Broadway personality.

The 90-minute memorial to Merrick, who died on April 25, was full of amusing and respectful recollections offered up by longtime Merrick associates Zack Manna and Biff Liff, Jujamcyn producer Rocco Landesman, songwriter Mary Rodgers Guettel, critic Clive Barnes, Merrick biographer Howard Kissel, and aspiring playwright Albert Black.

Appreciative as the speakers were of Merrick’s contribution to New York and international theater, though, they openly acknowledged the personality traits that had caused him to be known far and wide as “The Abominable Showman.” Not shying away from recalling how hard Merrick worked at being disliked, Guettel likened Merrick in his orneriness to her father, Richard Rodgers–a confession and comparison that drew a collective gasp from the audience. Barnes remembered how Merrick recounted a pleasant dream in which Walter Kerr had died of a heart attack on his way to Brooks Atkinson’s funeral.

Kissel, admitting that Merrick could be a “crude tyrant,” stressed, on the other hand, that the producer had taken risks on the early careers of playwrights John Osborne, Tom
Stoppard and Brian Friel–and on the later careers of Jean Anouilh and Tennessee Williams. Liff, who worked with Merrick on 45 shows between 1963 and 1973, indicated that, for his boss, delegating responsibility was often synonymous with delegating blame; but he noted that, when it came to show-biz savvy, the boss was rarely deficient.

Landesman–who now occupies Merrick’s old St. James Theatre office, and for whom Merrick was an important role model–got laughs when he mentioned that he and his erstwhile colleague were both from St. Louis, although Merrick never liked to be reminded of the fact. Only fledgling author Black, who has had an epistolary link with the David Merrick Arts Foundation, was thoroughly complimentary.

Merrick with Mary Rodgers Guettel
Merrick with Mary Rodgers Guettel

Slickly-produced as David Merrick: His Life in the Theater–A Celebration in Music & Words was, many in the less-than-SRO audience may have been wondering what Broadway’s great showman would have thought if he had been filling the St. James Theatre seat he was known to prefer, T-10. (The seat was kept empty for the occasion.) Would he have approved of what he saw and heard, or would he have leaned over to an assistant and dictated changes that must be made before the curtain goes up again?

Merrick may have felt that the event was marked as much by who wasn’t present on the stage or in the audience as by who was. Thinking in theatrical terms, as he always did,
he might have questioned why name-above-the-title performers like Carol Channing or Bernadette Peters or Joel Grey, playwrights like the above-mentioned Stoppard or Friel, or composers like Jerry Herman or Stephen Sondheim weren’t present to perform or speak.

The implication of the low-celebrity turnout was not that the dog days of summer had affected attendance, but that Merrick’s many famous feuds were having a posthumous effect. Liff did read a letter from Channing that included an excerpt from her as-yet-unfinished autobiography, in which she recounts how Merrick cheered her on before her
Hello, Dolly! audition for Gower Champion.

If Merrick were present to decide which musical numbers to retain and which to discard in the memorial’s song-rich program, he would likely have felt that Brent Barrett’s rendition of the title number from Fanny was a keeper. The other performers, all reliably proficient and valuable in reminding the crowd how importantly Merrick and musicals were linked, included Karen Ziemba (who appeared in 42nd Street); Brian Stokes Mitchell (who had a lead in Merrick’s revival of Oh, Kay!); Howard McGillin (Mack Sennett in the first London production of Mack & Mabel); Erin Dilly (a last-minute substitute for Andrea McArdle, and star of the forthcoming Thoroughly Modern Millie); and Melissa Brezinsky, who sang an aria from Gian Carlo Menotti’s Maria Golovin, Merrick’s only attempt to bring opera to Broadway.

As part of his reminiscence, Landesman referred to Merrick as “probably the most important producer of all time.” There was no loud objection taken to that assessment; nor, it’s likely, would anyone in the St. James auditorium have argued with the suggestion that Merrick’s like will not be seen again.