Bob Merrill: The Music That Made Him

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25 Aug 2011

Bob Merrill
Bob Merrill
Photo by Songwriters Hall of Fame Archives

Late songwriter Bob Merrill's Funny Girl is Broadway-bound, and his other theatre and pop songs are being blended into a new musical, Love Makes the World Go 'Round. Meet those who are marching his band out.

The brightest paper valentine
Has nothin' on this heart of mine.
In spite of me,
It's singing, "Gee,
It's good to be alive."

I figured me a hopeless case.
I thought a smile would break my face,
But all along
I figured wrong.
It's good to be alive.


There's cruel irony in the fact that the man who wrote those heart-swelling words and attached them to a lovely, lilting swirl of music would one day end his own life.

"It's Good To Be Alive" is from the first score ever written by Bob Merrill. Back then (1956), it was for movies, not Broadway — a musical version of Anna Christie for Doris Day called "A Saint She Ain't," but, after four failed screenplays, M-G-M bailed.

A great score was going to waste, Day complained to George Abbott, who was then directing her in the film "The Pajama Game." He gave it a listen and followed that with a fast green light to Broadway where it arrived May 14, 1957, as New Girl in Town, a star vehicle for Gwen Verdon, who gave her third Tony-winning performance.

Merrill used the back door of pop music to get to Broadway legitimacy, penning gold records for Patti Page ("How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"), Eileen Barton ("If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake"), Arthur Godfrey ("Candy and Cake"), Jimmie Rodgers ("Honeycomb"), Sarah Vaughan ("Make Yourself Comfortable"), Guy Mitchell ("My Truly, Truly Fair," "She Wears Red Feathers and a Huly Huly Skirt," "Sparrow in the Treetop" and "Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle"), Rosemary Clooney ("Mambo Italiano"), Sammy Kaye ("Walkin' to Missouri"), Perry Como ("Tina Marie") and Freddy Martin ("Why Does It Have to Rain on Sunday").

Merrill penned "Mambo Italiano" for Rosemary Clooney

Earlier this summer, an in-development "revusical" based on his prolific songbook was brought together in Dayton, OH, by The Human Race Theatre Company, under the general heading of Love Makes the World Go 'Round: The Songs of Bob Merrill. It consists of his early evergreens for the masses mixed with his songs from Broadway — the best of both worlds.

Seventeen hits in his first three years was pretty good hitting for an Atlantic City-born fellow who could not read music or play a musical instrument. Everything was composed on a toy xylophone that had numbers on the keys. It cost him $1.98 at the five-and-dime. He'd tap out a tune and take the numbers he'd written down to someone who could play the piano to transcribe. When his royalties reached $250,000, he treated himself to a $6.98 toy xylophone, which he used for the remainder of his career.

A primal practitioner of the big Broadway sound, Merrill had an advanced (if not downright addictive) sense of melody and an infallible ability to hook his audience.

Only ten of his musicals made it to Broadway, and that's counting Breakfast at Tiffany's, which technically closed in previews, and the two uncredited songs which he added to Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! ("Elegance" and "Motherhood"). Nine of the ten were movies before he made them into musicals; the first two of these originated as Eugene O'Neill plays (the aforementioned Anna Christie/New Girl in Town and Ah, Wilderness!/Take Me Along). The shows without any cinematic roots whatsoever — Prettybelle with Angela Lansbury and The Prince of Grand Street with Robert Preston — wound up sinking out of town during tryouts, with their precious star cargo aboard.

Other movies that Merrill turned into musicals were "Lili" (Carnival!) and "The World of Henry Orient" (Henry, Sweet Henry). With composer Jule Styne, he supplied lyrics only for three more (Funny Girl, Sugar and The Red Shoes) — plus two perennial holiday TV specials ("Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" and "The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood").

Lauren Ambrose will star in the new Broadway-bound production of Funny Girl.
photo by Sam Handel

Funny Girl, the one Merrill show without a cinematic precedent, is, far and away, his Everest, so perhaps its return to Broadway this coming spring, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Lauren Ambrose, will throw some long-overdue limelight on him.

If that be the case, then a trio of ex-execs from the Pasadena Playhouse — producer Jayson Raitt, book writer Duane Poole and music director Brad Ellis — is poised to pounce with this massive Merrill medley they have work-shopped in Ithaca, NY, and now Dayton. At present, it's pointed toward other regionals for further refinement.

"My focus is partnering with theatres across the country to develop new musicals," said producer Raitt. "If a show of mine comes to New York or targets New York, that's fine — but most of what I am doing is developing shows with regional and stock theatres in mind. My philosophy is to create shows with a small cast and a known quantity — in this case, all these great songs — inexpensive shows that are easy to produce for theatres whose audiences know the songs. These are the songs my mom used to sing and I grew up listening to. His melodies, especially, are so infectious."

Initially, the show was to be about Bob Merrill, but so little was actually written on him that Raitt and Poole opted for a plot where characters are created out of existing songs — in this case, three divergent women who find themselves wrapped around a Manhattan piano bar on the same night, each with stories to sing.

"It seemed that Bob Merrill wrote for three very different types of women," Poole pointed out. "He wrote for the young Alice Playten kind of belters, the Anna Maria Alberghetti sort of ingénues and the Thelma Ritters with experience behind them.

"One character is getting married tomorrow, one is maybe getting divorced tomorrow and one who has just seen it all and has advice and ultimately finds a very unexpected romantic relationship. It's three love stories. The fourth character in the show is Henry, who plays the piano and interacts with them a bit. But primarily he serves for musical accompaniment and then, eventually, a romantic foil."


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