A spokesman from the New York office of legendary producer David Merrick said the impresario behind such hits as Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street had died in his sleep early April 25 in London. He was 88.
Mr. Merrick's wife, Natalie Lloyd Merrick, was with him when he died in a London rest home. His body will be flown back to the U.S. for private burial.
In a bit of irony bordering on the theatrical, Mr. Merrick died within days of the April 22 death of his theatrical arch-rival, the producer Alexander Cohen. Cohen and Mr. Merrick, famously, were to have co-produced Look Back in Anger together, but Mr. Merrick snatched the U.S. production rights from Cohen. Mr. Merrick was never forgiven by Cohen.
Mr. Merrick was born in St. Louis in 1911 and would rise to become one of the world's most successful and provocative producers, sparring with stars, the Tony Awards, the press and anyone else who got in the way of his ability to make good on Broadway. He left a St. Louis law career in 1940 to pursue a dream of being a Broadway producer. He earned two special Tony Awards and six Tonys for producing.
Mr. Merrick's health had been failing in recent years following a stroke in 1983, after 42nd Street was a smash. He had used a wheelchair for several years, but his Broadway business continued, sporadically, with productions of an African-American Oh, Kay! in 1991 and a stage version of State Fair in 1996. He officially retired in 1998. Among the 100 shows he produced alone or with others in New York City were Fanny, The Matchmaker, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, The World of Susie Wong, Gypsy, Take Me Along, A Taste of Honey, Becket, Irma La Douce, Carnival, Oliver!, Cactus Flower, Marat/Sade, How Now, Dow Jones, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Happy Times, Promises, Promises, Sugar, Mack and Mabel, Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Travesties and many more.
"I think, unquestionably, he was a giant," said theatre critic Howard Kissel, who penned a 1993 Merrick biography called "The Abominable Showman" (Applause Books). "If you look at his contribution, it was incredible. In terms of plays, mainly what he did was bring great theatre from London. He never was able to achieve any real success with American plays...[but] nobody produced as many memorable musicals."
Although Mr. Merrick's glitzy musicals tended to pull focus from his many credits, he was not partial to American product. He is responsible for bringing cutting-edge British drama to New York City, introducing audiences to director Peter Brook's athletic, visionary version of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, but also giving Stoppard, John Osborne, Shelagh Delaney, and others a voice in New York following success in England.
Kissel said that Mr. Merrick had both taste and business acumen. "If he didn't have taste," said Kissel, "he could have put on a lot of garbage."
Although the showman produced a number of famous flops, including a musical, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Kissel said Mr. Merrick's work was never low-grade, or schlock. And even the shows that did not end up becoming part of the American cultural landscape (Take Me Along, for example), were "perfectly cast and brilliantly mounted."
Kissel also points out that it was Mr. Merrick who mounted later works of Tennessee Williams (The Seven Descents of Myrtle, The Red Devil Battery Sign), which showed some risk-taking, as Williams' reputation as a dramatist was spiraling downward.
Mr. Merrick was a businessman who knew how to grab the headlines and bolster ticket sales.
In a famous publicity stunt to boost the sagging box office of Look Back in Anger, Mr. Merrick had a woman jump on stage and slap the actor playing pugilistic character Jimmy Porter. News of the supposed audience rebellion stimulated the box office.
To perk up sales for the musical, Subways Are For Sleeping, he invited people who had the same names as New York theatre critics and quoted their glowing reviews in ads. The ads were eventually pulled or rejected by papers.
Mr. Merrick's aggressive business tactics (called "unalloyed passion for theatre," according to the official statement from the Merrick office) caused pain to colleagues over the years, Kissel said, "but a lot of people came back to him" because he had the muscle to get a show on.
Kissel's book did not use Mr. Merrick as a source, and Kissel met the producer at a public gathering in 1999. The meeting was cordial, Kissel said, although Lloyd asked him why the biography was called "The Abominable Showman." Kissel told her that was the headline Mr. Merrick himself requested for an Esquire magazine article years before.
Kissel is planning a second edition of the book. After the first edition, show folk came out of the woodwork with Merrick anecdotes, he said.
Recently, the David Merrick Arts Foundation had been established to help nurture new American musicals. The foundation has also endowed the David Merrick Prizes in drama, dance and music at The Juilliard School.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Merrick is survived by two daughters, Cecilia Anne and Marguerite, from previous marriages.
-- By Kenneth Jones