Broadway's David Merrick was his own 'most notable creation'

December 05, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Title: "David Merrick: The Abominable Showman"

Author: Howard Kissel

Publisher: Applause

Length, price: 565 pages, $24.95 In 1961, David Merrick produced a Broadway musical called "Subways Are for Sleeping." The music was by Jule Styne, the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. But despite the efforts of this illustrious team, it was clear even before opening night that "Subways" was headed for disaster.

This gave Mr. Merrick a chance to try a publicity stunt that had been in the back of his mind for years. Using a Manhattan telephone directory, the producer found seven New Yorkers who happened to have the same names as the critics for the city's seven daily newspapers. After the bona-fide reviewers printed their less-than-favorable notices, Mr. Merrick invited their namesakes to the theater, then took out a full-page ad quoting their glowing opinions.

The stunt didn't save "Subways" from closing in the red, but in the annals of show business history, it has become at least as famous as the show itself.

The ad was a vintage prank for the man who once had eight shows running in a single season (1963-1964), including Bertolt Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," John Osborne's "Luther" and "Hello, Dolly!" -- one of two musicals for which he is perhaps best known, the other being "42nd Street."

In fact, Mr. Merrick became so well-known for big, glitzy musicals that it's easy to forget that he also introduced the plays of Brecht and Osborne to Broadway.

But impressive as such achievements may be, it is the thesis of Howard Kissel's new, exhaustive and unauthorized biography that Mr. Merrick -- the man Time magazine once dubbed "the adulte terrible of Broadway" -- was his own "most notable creation."

And while certain of his shows may have brought truth, beauty and art to the American stage, the persona Mr. Merrick fashioned for himself was a far less attractive creation. "I discovered early on that I did not have a warm personality. Since I was never going to get anywhere with charm, I decided to be the most unlovable person around and see if that would work for me, and it has," the producer is quoted as telling a member of his staff.

As Mr. Kissel demonstrates over and over, Mr. Merrick reveled in his self-made Mephistophelean image. In 1966, an Al Hirschfeld caricature appeared in the New York Times picturing the producer in a Santa Claus suit, tiptoeing away from a Christmas tree and presents, which he had just set on fire.

At first Mr. Merrick threatened to sue the artist for libel. After a change of heart, he had the drawing reproduced on his Christmas cards.

However, turning the other cheek was the exception for Mr. Merrick. He was a lawyer by training, and Mr. Kissel suggests he may have derived almost as much pleasure from confrontation as he did from producing plays. Indeed, despite the abundance of theater lore included in these pages, at times the chronicle of Mr. Merrick's underhanded tactics makes the aptly subtitled "Abominable Showman" pretty grim reading.

Born in St. Louis in 1911, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who divorced when he was 7, Mr. Merrick began the process of inventing himself at an early age. By the time he was in high school, he was already wearing his trademark pin-stripe suits. More significantly, he was perceived by his peers as condescending.

The theater, Mr. Kissel suggests, was the ideal milieu for Mr. Merrick: "In the theater you could be what you wanted." What Mr. Merrick wanted was to be a success. "Conventional success, however," the author explains, "was not what he was after. To be a success was not the same as to be a presence, a force."

Mr. Merrick worked in New York for a decade before he produced a play that lasted more than a few weeks. After that, he did everything in his power to become -- and remain -- a force to be reckoned with.

Some of his tactics were amusing. During Grace Kelly's wedding to Prince Rainier, a skywriter flew over Monaco promoting Mr. Merrick's production of "Fanny."

Other tactics were just plain devious. The musical "Gypsy" was already in rehearsals when the conductor, concerned that he hadn't received his contract, discovered that no one else had, either. This was a typical ploy of David Merrick. He avoided signing contracts for as long as possible -- and not just because he was holding out for the best possible terms.

"By denying his employees contracts, Merrick was implying that they served at his pleasure," Mr. Kissel writes.

"He had utter contempt for contracts," the influential agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar is quoted as saying. "What he depended on was the reluctance of people to get into lawsuits. . . . Most people are wary of lawsuits. He thrived on them."

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