By Peter Filichia —
Hundreds of record albums have been dedicated to Broadway musicals. Thousands have been sung by Broadway performers. But until October 1, 1964, there had never been a record album that had celebrated a Broadway producer.
On that date, however, RCA Victor released David Merrick Presents Hits from His Broadway Hits. Now it’s back in print, thanks to Masterworks Broadway.
The color of the cover is still, of course, what came to be known on Broadway as trademark “David Merrick Red.” Both his first hit — Fanny in 1954 – and his final smash – 42nd Street – had this fire-engine, eye-catching color dominating its artwork.
The disc doesn’t sound like an original cast album, and it didn’t try to. The artists involved – John Gary, Ann-Margret and The Merrill Staton Voices – had never worked a day on Broadway (although she was well-associated with the film version of Bye Bye Birdie). No question that this is an easy listening experience.
In its own way, that’s rather ironic when one considers that those who worked for David Merrick rarely had easy experiences listening to him. He was a stern taskmaster, but he got his shows on: more than seven dozen in a career that nearly spanned 50 years. No one else has remotely comes close.
The album contains 12 cuts from 12 different musicals – each of which has a story attached.
1) “Fanny” (John Gary). Merrick wanted Rodgers and Hammerstein to write his first musical – — about a young French lad who loved the sea more than his girlfriend — and they were interested. But the team would only write the show if they could be the lead producers. Merrick, who’d been in that secondary position four times before – and had seen the shows fail without his having the power to make the ultimate decisions – wanted to be the only one in charge. So he turned down R&H, went with Harold Rome, and still wound up having the 13th longest-running musical of all time, because he knew how to promote it. One example of many: When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier on April 18, 1956, Merrick had a plane fly over the wedding with a “When in New York, see Fanny” banner flowing from it.)
2) “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” (Carnival; Ann-Margret). Leading lady Anna Maria Alberghetti had such issues with Merrick that she put his picture over her toilet. When she said she was too ill to perform, Merrick made a big deal of her understudy, Anita Gillette. He invited the press to cover the painting of Gillette’s name on the marquee – and they came. Weeks later, he sent a $90 invoice to Gillette to pay for the painting. “And,” Gillette later told me, “I actually had to pay it. Equity couldn’t do a thing for me.”
3) “Make Someone Happy” (Do Re Mi; Merrill Staton). Six out of the seven New York critics liked the show. Only Frank Aston of the World Telegram & Sun dissented. Merrick responded by calling his editor to complain – and protested so much that the editor actually dropped Aston’s final (and unflattering) paragraph in the next edition.
4) “Small World” (Gypsy; Gary). Not a Merrick story, but one worth telling. When Stephen Sondheim gave his lyric to Jule Styne, the composer balked at “I’m a woman with children.” Said Styne, “That means no man can sing the song!” Styne was thinking about an eventual pop hit while Sondheim was solely concerned about the show. But there was an easy way around it, as Gary proves here, although the solution is certainly pre-feminist: “You’re a girl who loves children.”
5) “Our Language of Love” (Irma La Douce; Ann-Margret). Merrick liked to say, “The only shows I’ve ever produced have been for adults.” Case in point would be Irma La Douce, about a French fille de joie. If the lyric seems unfamiliar, be apprised that it was dropped, for the song only appears as background music. Virtually every song was dropped. (If Irma were to be revived today, many would probably assume it was a brand new musical version of the film). Ann-Margret, then 23, certainly conversed in the language of love most eloquently.
6) “Take Me Along” (Merrill Staton). Merrick was a fervent, life-long Democrat. Thus, he wasn’t much pleased in 1968 when this jaunty number was refitted with lyrics that would serve as the Republican presidential campaign song: “Nixon’s the One!” Merrill once told me that Merrick wouldn’t take his phone calls for almost a year afterward.
7) “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (Stop the World – I Want to Get Off; Gary) Howard Taubman of the Times had called it “commonplace and repetitious.” John Chapman in the News declared it “overly precious.” Robert Coleman of the Mirror said he could “take it or leave it.” Nevertheless, Stop the World-I Want to Get Off became a Broadway hit because Merrick knew a good deal when he saw it. In an era when a Broadway musical routinely had 50 in the cast, Stop the World had 13 – and no one ever changed a costume. Although a dozen sets were routinely needed for most ‘60s musicals, this show required one: simply a set of bleachers. In other words, when musicals cost about $350,000 to mount, Stop the World cost all of $75,000.
8) “As Long As He Needs Me” (Oliver!; Ann-Margret). The show was to originally open on Dec. 27, 1962, but days before, Merrick suddenly announced that he was postponing to Jan. 6, 1963. The show didn’t need more fine-tuning; it had had plenty in a long, cross-country tryout. But a newspaper strike was on, and Merrick hoped that it’d end the following week, so everyone could read the raves. The strike went on until February, so on Jan. 7, 1963, Merrick bought radio time and read his own review of Oliver! It was, as you’d infer, positive.
9) “Comes Once in a Lifetime” (Subways Are for Sleeping; Merrill Staton). Merrick hired seven people with the same names as the seven theater critics, and had the impostors rave about the show. He’d thought of the ruse years earlier, but had to wait until Brooks Atkinson of the Times retired, because no one else ever had that name. Actually, Atkinson’s first name was Justin; if he’d chosen to use that at the beginning of his career, would Merrick have been able to find a Justin Atkinson years before Subways?
10) “Anyone Would Love You” (Destry Rides Again; Gary). Lord knows how a bullet had years before wound up in leading lady Dolores Gray’s shoulder. But during the 1959-1960 run of this show, she had to have it surgically removed. And if you think that Merrick didn’t make certain that the press knew about it, you haven’t caught on to the man’s mind.
11) “Is It Really Me?” (110 in the Shade; Ann-Margret). When Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, creators of The Fantasticks, were hired by Merrick for this musical version of The Rainmaker, they were well aware of his reputation for demanding new songs while a show was trying out. They solved the problem by writing over 100 songs in advance, so that when the tryout occurred, they could go back to their hotel rooms and get a good night’s sleep instead of agonizing over piano and notepad. This song, however, was in from the beginning – and stayed in.
12) “Hello, Dolly!” (Merrill Staton). When it closed, it was the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t have remotely happened if Merrick hadn’t had the idea to bring in Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and an all-black cast when the show was nearing its fourth anniversary. Today, that idea seems retro, but in those less enlightened times, it was smart producing. Besides, the cast was as sensational as – well, David Merrick.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.