One of the themes running through the David Merrick memorial, held at the St. James Theatre on July 18 at 11 AM, concerned the famed producer's current place of residence. Fellow producer and president of Jujamcyn Theatres, Rocco Landesman, first broached the topic, addressing his comments to the late Merrick, "if you're there," pointing upwards, "or somewhere else."
But for all the jokes and jibes, some in jest, some half-serious, about Merrick's infamously Machiavellian personality, the speakers and performers gathered also exhibited a healthy amount of respect and, yes, even love for the man who, for four decades, instilled awe, fear, fury and admiration in the hearts of Broadway's denizens.
Among the 100 shows Merrick 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.
Merrick died in his sleep early April 25 in London. He was 88.
"David Merrick's timing was impeccable," said critic Howard Kissel, the author of the Merrick biography "The Abominable Showman." "One can only point out that he died just three days after the death of his life-long rival, Alexander Cohen. Cohen's obituary appeared on Saturday, the week's least-read paper. Merrick's appeared on Wednesday and was front page news." Kissel mentioned that, following Merrick's death, the producer's longtime press agent, Harvey Sabinson, was asked what he thought his old boss and Cohen would say to each other in the afterlife. Sabinson replied, "Jeez, it's hot here."
But Kissel also pointed out, with obvious admiration, that for all the people Merrick alienated with his bulldozing tactics, just as many people were loyal to him -- including the playwrights John Osborne and Tennessee Williams and the composer Jerry Herman. "They knew," said Kissel, "despite all his efforts to conceal it, that [Merrick] loved the theatre as much as they did."
One other critic, Clive Barnes, also spoke, and remarked on Merrick's unique relationship with reviewers: "He terrorized them, which isn't usually the case." Barnes recalled how, ten days after starting as drama critic of The New York Times, he received a telegraph from Merrick. "The honeymoon's over," it read. Barnes promptly replied, "Didn't know we were married. Didn't know you were that kind of boy," and sent both telegrams to Variety for publication.
He also recalled a dream that Merrick gleefully related to him in which Walter Kerr died of a heart attack on his way to the funeral of Brooks Atkinson.
Agent Sam "Biff" Liff recalled how, upon being offered a job as associate producer to Merrick in 1963, fellow moneyman Emanuel Azenberg got down on his knees and begged his friend not to accept the position. Liff didn't pay any heed and worked with Merrick for ten years. "David knew how to delegate authority," he jokes. "He said Mata Hari was my fault."
Liff said he could always con Merrick into doing something for a show by saying the production looked "chintzy." For, despite everything, the producer never wished to be accused of producing something that looked cheap.
The memorial service was peppered with numbers from the many musicals that Merrick produced. Brent Barrett sang the title song from Fanny, Merrick's first hit. Erin Dilly, meanwhile, sang the title song from Breakfast at Tiffany's, the famous flop which closed in previews on Broadway. Howard McGillin, who starred in the London production of Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel, sang "I Won't Send Roses" from that show. And Brian Stokes Mitchell -- who got his first Broadway break in Oh, Kay!, one of the last Merrick shows -- rendered "It Only Takes a Moment" from Hello, Dolly! Finally, Karen Ziemba, who appeared in 42nd Street, delivered "The Lullaby of Broadway."
The St. James was an apt place for the memorial. The home of both Hello, Dolly! and (for a time) 42nd Street, it also housed, upstairs, Merrick's office, painted in trademark "Merrick red." Landesman - who hails from Merrick's home town of St. Louis, and was inspired by the producer -- now has his office in the same space.
"What many people don't talk about is David's personality," said Landesman. "But his personality was, I think, a blessing. He didn't care what people thought of him. And so, he always got what he wanted. Today everything is done by committee and by political correctness. David was not a consensus builder. He was a single, idiosyncratic voice." Landesman, and several of the other speakers, declared that Broadway won't see his like again.
--By Robert Simonson