Bob Merrill: The Music That Made Him

By Harry Haun
25 Aug 2011

Music director Brad Ellis

So set 'em up, Bob. Notecards with titles of the available Merrill songs were then shuffled by Poole into something resembling characters. Fortunately, he is a pushover for puzzles. "I just go crazy over any kind of puzzle, and that's what this was. To move songs around in ways that create a romantic heart is one thing, but to keep in mind that a song from Sugar and a song from Carnival! might come out of the same character's mouth is something else. The puzzle is to find the commonality — the common thread — through songs that will let you create a character from them. At every stop, we're exploring, digging into the characters, plugging songs in, pulling songs out, changing character arcs, adding dialogue.

"We're doing 'Winter Was Warm' from 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol' as a female trio thinking back on a love they had in the past, and the harmony just sends chills.

"What we found was songs that hit the same emotion in the arc we were building, so we needed to make 'Sophie's choice': which one of these songs do we keep, and which ones do we set aside? We really couldn't keep them both. We didn't want it to look like we were chucking in every possible Bob Merrill song — although we'd love to. They had to serve the moment, which meant we often had to make hard decisions."

Ellis is, on both sides of the footlights, music man for the show. On stage, he's the piano-playing proprietor of Henry's, accompanying and interacting with the ladies (one more than others). Off stage, "I'm doing the arrangements, what we now call mash-ups — essentially, a medley. These are songs that are either directly in a row or we integrate two songs so you hear bits of both at the same time. I've always had an affinity for the classic heyday music of Broadway, and I do some of that on my 'day job' at 'Glee,' but not a lot so it's nice to spend a little more time in the '50s and '60s."

As soon as this gig concluded in Dayton, Ellis was on a plane to L.A. to resume shooting the Fox TV hit "Glee." (On screen, he has been the mute, scowling accompanist dressed in black since Episode One.)

An imbalance of the upbeat is the risk of any compilation of Merrill music, so Ellis was careful to vary the moods. "The buoyant music is the first thing we think about with him, but he is also the guy who wrote 'People,'" he duly noted. "To me, 'Don't Rain on My Parade' — no matter how bright or uplifting it gets — the root is anger.

A young Bob Merrill

"The range of Bob's songs is actually more than a lot of composers, especially more recent composers who tend to become famous for a certain kind of mood. I would say Andrew Lloyd Webber is a far more successful composer than Merrill was a composer-lyricist — yet you would be a lot harder pressed to come up with a show anywhere as varied out of the catalogue of Andrew. I don't mean to be knocking Andrew. I'm just saying he's done fine without having to reach for as much variety as Bob did. You can't believe 'Promise Me a Rose' and 'The Music That Makes Me Dance' was written by the guy who did 'Sunshine Girl' and 'Poor Little Person.'"

Today, Merrill is dimly and distantly remembered by the masses, but, according to Ellis, he is making subtle, subversive inroads back into the public consciousness via Fox TV's animated series "Family Guy." "The creator of that show, Seth MacFarlane, absolutely adores the old Broadway scores — specifically, Take Me Along. In the weirdest way, he will put these songs like 'But Yours' in this pop-culture show. 'With me, you see no immature or callow youth' — he's put that in 'Family Guy.' You have 16-year-old kids humming Bob Merrill songs, and they have no idea who he is."

At last count, there were 43 songs in Love Makes the World Go 'Round — a half dozen more than We're Home, the 1984 Merrill songbook show he personally supervised at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. It was the Vineyard that presented his last musical, Hannah . . . 1939 — his first show in 20 years.

Merrill's vaultingly melodic style fell out of favor and fashion after the famous Breakfast at Tiffany's fiasco, and he never regained his professional footing. In the mid-'70s, following an uninterrupted run of grinding failures, he took up screenwriting (for Diana Ross' "Mahogany" and Rod Steiger's "W. C. Fields and Me").

Plagued by depression and faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his days in a wheelchair, the 74-year-old Merrill drove himself to an isolated spot in Culver City on Feb. 17, 1998, and shot himself. His legacy, rich in melody, lingers on.