I recently read The Abominable Showman (by Howard Kissel, 1993), a biography of legendary Broadway producer, David Merrick (1911-2000). Merrick was Broadway’s foremost producer in the thirty odd years of roughly 1955-1985.
The stereotype I held was that he was a difficult producer who put drek on stage, pushed people around and made lots of money. This biography reveals that “difficult” doesn’t begin to describe the man. Merrick was a cauldron of neuroses who easily could have kept a cast of psychiatrists working overtime. He ruled by bullying, intimidation, bluster, withholding payment and filing lawsuits. The writer Tom Jones said, “We had the feeling we were working with a deranged person, but also someone who could use derangement for his own amusement and his own purposes.” Jones attributed Merrick’s eagerness to upset his creative team to a “basic theory that creative people were too often too easy on themselves.” A longtime employee remarked that Merrick was “incapable of a non-volatile relationship.”
Merrick wasn’t any easier on his six wives. One wife, with judgment careening into a ditch called fool, married the tyrant twice.
After Merrick suffered a stroke at age 72, a nurse caring for him assessed her impossible charge: “This man has channeled his self-destructive instincts into something positive – his work in the theatre. It is rare that someone with that much destructive energy can find such a constructive outlet.”
As someone active in the Dramatists Guild today, I can’t help but observe that the reason the Dramatists Guild was founded was to protect writers and composers from powerful predators like David Merrick.
Without his foaming and bubbling cauldron, Merrick would never have been driven to accomplish what he did. And accomplish, give the man his due, he certainly did. In two separate seasons, 1963/64 and 1967/68, he opened no less than eight shows. I cannot imagine any producer today opening eight shows in one season. The mind reels.
While he produced his share of drek, he also put up many fine plays, some of which did good box office. He was an early champion on this side of the Atlantic of British playwrights John Osborne and Tom Stoppard. Osborne’s plays could be a challenge for an audience and Stoppard was still a long way from becoming Sir Tom. Cherry-picking from the West End and other British theatres became a favored Merrick tactic.
His two biggest hits were Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street. Dolly, opening in 1964, ran for seven years and 2,844 performances; 42nd Street ran for 3,486 performances, from 1980-89. With those hits came wealth. In 1984 Merrick was earning $500,000 a week just from the Broadway and touring productions of 42nd Street.
Any theatre person reading Merrick’s biography today can’t help but be struck at how far theatre’s fortunes have fallen, roiled by demographic forces and eclipsed by media that didn’t even exist 40 years ago. The industry Merrick reigned over was a substantial cultural force in America. Cast albums of Broadway musicals made lots of money and a Broadway producer could appear on the cover of Time Magazine.
Kissel suggests that Hello, Dolly! marked the end of innocent American musicals. The same year it opened, the Beatles began their ascent. Vietnam was about to fracture America. Three years later the musical Hair would upend the identity of a musical and escort rock music to Broadway.
One of the dark alleys in Merrick’s life, according to Kissel, is that this titan, always attired in bespoke Saville Row pinstripe suits, became a cocaine addict in middle age. Kissel plausibly speculates that the cocaine contributed to the debilitating strokes Merrick suffered later. As strokes sapped his strength (he lost much of his speech) and he wasn’t able to rally the lifeforce to produce more shows, he became a sad and empty shell, pathetic to see for those who knew him.
For a historical parallel downtown you could read Free For All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told (Kenneth Turan, 2009). Papp (1921-1991) founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (1954) and The Public Theatre (1967), and ruled the nonprofit downtown theatre scene during roughly the same period that Merrick sat on his Broadway throne uptown. While Merrick’s and Papp’s dynasties overlapped, they rarely intersected. This is not surprising considering that Papp, while lacking Merrick’s instinctive hostility toward everyone, did have an ego in the same league. Perhaps they recognized that if they occupied the same room oxygen would quickly run out.
Anyone interested in American theatre history of the mid-twentieth century would be well served by reading these two biographies of titans behind the stage.
P.S. While reading Merrick’s biography, I found on YouTube a fascinating five-minute excerpt of Merrick being interviewed by William F. Buckley, Jr. on his television show (June 6, 1966). This interview entertains as much by Buckley’s faux-British archness as by Merrick’s haughtiness and barely suppressed aggression. (As a boy with intellectual aspirations I was enthralled by Buckley’s shows.) Hear Merrick snarl, “Critics are a necessary evil.”