Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Remembering Bob Merrill


01 Mar 1998

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Remembering Bob Merrill

Faced with various health problems, popular songwriter and Broadway composer- lyricist Bob Merrill took his life Feb. 17. Because the first half of Merrill's musical theatre career was far more successful than the second, he may not hold as high a place in the annals as several of his contemporaries. The fact that he went back and forth between writing full scores and lyrics only also clouds his position; while he did uncredited work for one of Broadway's biggest hits, his most famous credited show is one for which he did only the lyrics. Herewith a rundown on recordings of the musicals of Bob Merrill.

Faced with various health problems, popular songwriter and Broadway composer- lyricist Bob Merrill took his life Feb. 17. Because the first half of Merrill's musical theatre career was far more successful than the second, he may not hold as high a place in the annals as several of his contemporaries. The fact that he went back and forth between writing full scores and lyrics only also clouds his position; while he did uncredited work for one of Broadway's biggest hits, his most famous credited show is one for which he did only the lyrics. Herewith a rundown on recordings of the musicals of Bob Merrill.

NEW GIRL IN TOWN: After success with novelty songs like "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?," Merrill was hired to write the score for a film remake (starring Doris Day) of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. When this became a stage vehicle for Gwen Verdon with choreography by Bob Fosse and book and direction by George Abbott, Merrill made his Broadway debut.

New Girl's libretto is dangerously slim; pretty much all there is to the story is the discovery by the heroine's father and lover of her recent past as a prostitute. Fosse filled the stage with dances for his greatest exponent, but clashed with Abbott and producers Hal Prince, Robert Griffith, and Frederick Brisson. Verdon and co-star Thelma Ritter tied for the Best Musical Actress Tony in a season dominated by West Side Story and The Music Man. New Girl had a year's run, enough to return its investment in those days, but has never had a major revival (in the '70s, New York's small-scale Equity Library Theater production attempted to restyle the show along the lines of Prince's subsequent concept musicals).

On disc, New Girl is richly atmospheric. Merrill's songs (music and lyrics) range from irresistible charm material for Ritter ("You're My Friend, Ain'tcha?" and "Flings") to more serious items for Verdon ("It's Good To Be Alive," "If That Was Love," the tough "On The Farm"). The score's shortcoming: too many local-color, non-character songs and production numbers ("Roll Yer Socks Up," "Sunshine Girl," "At The Check Apron Ball," "There Ain't No Flies on Me," "Chess and Checkers") that depict the period and background but not the characters.




TAKE ME ALONG: Merrill's next two scores, both for David Merrick musicals, are his best. Strangely enough, his second show, which also enjoyed a year's run, was another O'Neill adaptation, the 1959 Take Me Along. Already the basis for the 1946 film musical Summer Holiday, O'Neill's comedy Ah, Wilderness! (currently enjoying a Lincoln Center Theater revival) was more malleable material for a musical comedy. The book was co-authored by Robert Russell and pro Joseph Stein, and a bountiful cast was assembled, led by Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Robert Morse, and Eileen Herlie.

Underrated in a year that also produced Gypsy, The Sound of Music, and Fiorello!, Take Me Along has one of the most charming scores of its time and a solid book; while a modestly appealing Goodspeed Opera House revival was unwisely imported to the Martin Beck Theatre in 1985 and folded after a single performance, Take Me Along remains eminently performable.

Merrill's score is loaded with delights, first and foremost the touching solos for Herlie's Lily, "Promise Me A Rose" and "We're Home." She shared two fine duets with Gleason, the raucous "I Get Embarrassed" and the winning "But Yours." Gleason and Pidgeon's soft-shoe title number is perfect; Gleason had a first-class intro number ("Sid, Ol' Kid") plus "Little Green Snake," sung to his hung-over nephew; Pidgeon had the beautiful "Staying Young"; and Morse scored with the amusing "I Would Die" and the soaring "Nine O'Clock." Both New Girl and Take Me Along are available on RCA Victor CDs.


CARNIVAL: Merrill was still handling both music and lyrics for his most acclaimed and perhaps most distinguished show, the 1961 Carnival. One of those film adaptations (the 1953 Lili) that is a significant improvement on its source, Carnival was above all a triumph for its stager, Gower Champion, who peaked with a production of constant invention and a particularly celebrated opening sequence (roustabouts arriving and setting up a carnival before the eyes of the audience). In her only Broadway role, Anna Maria Alberghetti triumphed as the waif who joins a carnival and finds a home and romance with a psychologically troubled puppeteer. In support were a brooding Jerry Orbach, a riotous Kaye Ballard, a dashing James Mitchell, and a sweet Pierre Olaf.

Carnival has made a number of reappearances here and there, and in 1967 was the final entry in City Center's glorious series of musical revivals. A new production staged by Jack O'Brien and Rob Marshall was announced to begin at the Old Globe a few years ago, but has yet to happen; there has also been talk of an animated film version. It remains a powerfully emotional piece with a strong Michael Stewart book, and if the score produced only one hit song -- "Love Makes The World Go Round"-- it is almost entirely strong, especially Alberghetti's "Mira," "Yes, My Heart" and "Beautiful Candy," Ballard's "It Was Always You," and Orbach's "Her Face."

While the first two Merrill scores have but one cast album apiece, Carnival has three. MGM's Broadway cast set, reissued on a Polydor CD, is a must. HMV's LP of the unsuccessful 1963 London production has a weaker cast but far more material and better sound. And there's a very enjoyable live 1977 Mexico City cast recording; under the title Lili, the production features an exciting leading lady (Virma Gonzalez) who takes what was written as a soprano role and belts it a la Liza Minnelli.


HELLO, DOLLY!: When this smash hit was experiencing difficulties on the road, Merrick made its composer Jerry Herman miserable by bringing in other talents to help out. By this time a Merrick favorite, Merrill contributed "Motherhood" and "Elegance," the latter especially good.


FUNNY GIRL: Merrill had his own show the same season as Dolly!, and it was to be his longest run, Funny Girl. Merrick was to have been a producer, but let the project drop; Merrill's lyrics were for the first of three collaborations with composer Jule Styne.

Merrill's most famous work by a mile, Funny Girl is one of the great late- golden-age scores; even its more routine material ("Find Yourself A Man") is professional, and its best songs are simply fabulous. Just as he had been by Carol Channing, Judy Holliday, and Ethel Merman, Styne was inspired to do his best work for new star Barbra Streisand (and we should all be grateful that she came along just in time to rescue a project that had already been announced for Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft, Kaye Ballard, and others). For Streisand's big numbers (particularly "Don't Rain on My Parade"), Merrill supplied a brand of loopy poetry that worked beautifully (and would work less well in his remaining projects). There's only one cast recording of Funny Girl, but that's all there needs to be; anyone who doesn't possess it can't be very interested in musicals (there's also the film soundtrack, but you might just as well purchase the movie on video).

Streisand's West End understudy, Lisa Shane, recorded an exciting EP of four songs, which was reissued on a DRG CD compilation of London rarities. Diana Ross and the Supremes devoted an entire disc to the score; there's a negligible British studio cast LP starring Julie Dawn; and JAY records is planning the first complete recording, to star a lady whose voice is very well suited to the role.


BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S: Merrick again, and the seemingly sure-fire, big- advance-sale show that turned into one of Broadway's most legendary flops. In Not Since 'Carrie': 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, I have told the calamitous story of this 1966 musical that closed during New York previews (the same book also includes three more Merrill shows discussed below). What's worth noting here is that while the original cast (headed by Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain) never recorded the show, a very-full-length recording of all versions -- Philadelphia, Boston, New York -- of the score was made almost three years ago but remains unreleased. Starring Faith Prince, Sally Kellerman (in her original role), John Schneider, Hal Linden, Ron Raines, Jonathan Freeman, Patrick Cassidy, and Carol Woods, the recording features the original Ralph Burns orchestrations and has the genuine sound of '60s Broadway. While Merrill's score (music and lyrics) is a very mixed bag, ranging from fine things ("I've Got A Penny," "Grade-A Treatment," "You've Never Kissed Her") to trashy ones, the recording is an invaluable document and will be of great interest to any collector.


HENRY, SWEET HENRY: A 1967 flop based on the sweet and superior film The World of Henry Orient, Henry, Sweet Henry was far from a washout, with superb Michael Bennett choreography, a show-stopping turn from Alice Playten, and a good deal of effectively sentimental material for the show's leads, two teenagers (Robin Wilson, Neva Small) enamored of a womanizing composer. Henry was one of the more pleasant disasters of its era, and the cast album (an ABC LP, a Varese Sarabande CD) is also quite nice. The problem is obvious: The songs for the young women are strong, the material for the adults (including Don Ameche and Carol Bruce) is not. Still, a recording worth checking out, and a show likely to turn up again somewhere.


PRETTYBELLE: Taking on both the book and the lyrics, Prettybelle was a daring attempt at something different, a musicalization of a nifty little novel about the attempt by the widow of a bigoted, redneck sheriff to undo her late husband's wrongs by allowing herself to be "raped" by as many members of minority groups as possible. Prettybelle folded after its 1971 Boston tryout; take it from one who saw it that it did not work and was a serious turn-off to the audience. Angela Lansbury was never better than in the title role, but the other members of the team --Merrill, composer Styne, and stager Gower Champion-- were working on far too traditional a wavelength for such wildly unconventional material.

Miraculously, most of the original cast of Prettybelle reunited more than a decade after its demise to record the score. That recording, available on a Varese Sarabande CD, is a must for Lansbury followers, and much of her material is very attractive.


SUGAR: Lyricist Merrill back with Styne, Merrick, and Champion on a project that appeared to be surefire, a musical version of the glorious Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot. But like Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, the film was too perfect to require a redo, and perhaps no musical version could hope to compete with what was there on screen. Sugar (the 1972 United Artists cast recording remains unavailable on CD) contains one of Styne's weaker scores (Jerry Herman was initially announced for it), and Merrill's lyrics are often awkward. But in the theater, Robert Morse's star turn in the Jack Lemmon role went above and beyond the call of duty; Cyril Ritchard was helpful in support; some of the original screenplay shone through; and Champion staged a couple of colorful numbers.

Sugar was Merrill's only post-Funny Girl hit. There was a 1992 London production under the title Some Like It Hot, which produced a First Night Records cast album, and there's also a 1973 Mexico City cast LP.


PRINCE OF GRAND STREET: The second of Merrill's two out-of-town closers, with Merrill taking on book, music and lyrics. Based on events from the life of Yiddish stage actor Boris Thomashefsky, Prince of Grand Street (1978) had very little plot, and the great Robert Preston, in his second out-of-town- closer and final stage musical, was not entirely at home. Neva Small was once again an unlucky Merrill leading lady. It's Merrill's only unrecorded score (excluding, of course, several unproduced projects, such as a musical version of The Graduate for which a full-length demo recording exists).


HANNAH...1939: His career damaged by so many failures, Merrill did not return to Broadway during the final 20 years of his life. But he was sole author of the musical play Hannah...1939, presented by New York's Vineyard Theatre in 1990. About the uneasy situation at a dress factory in Prague commandeered for uniform-making by the Nazis, Hannah was ambitious but not entirely successful. But it did give Julie Wilson the best musical theatre role she ever created, and her presence and delivery of several of the numbers was unforgettable. TER recorded the production, and the disc is worth hearing, both for Wilson and as Merrill's final contribution (other than his pseudonymous lyrics for The Red Shoes).

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com