Friday, August 06, 2004

Bob Merrill On Broadway

I wanted to write something more about Bob Merrill. I previously mentioned this Mark Steyn article, written for Slate soon after Merrill's suicide a few years back, which called him "the worst songwriter of all time" on the basis of his '50s novelty songs like "Doggie in the Window." Like a lot of Steyn pieces, it displays an impressive knowledge of popular-culture history but suggests that the writer is ignoring everything that doesn't support his main thesis. In this case, Steyn doesn't discuss Merrill's Broadway work (except his lyric for "People" from Funny Girl) because it doesn't support his point that Merrill was all about Mambo-ing Italians and Huly-Huly skirts. So I'd like to write a bit about Merrill's post-"Doggie" career, when he got out of the pop-song market and broke into writing Broadway shows.

As Steyn mentions, Merrill composed by tapping his melodies out on a toy xylophone. He couldn't read or write music (like Irving Berlin and Noel Coward among others), so he had the names of the notes marked down on the xylophone. As I understand it, he'd find the notes of the melody on the xylophone, write the melody and harmony on paper in letters (A, B, B-flat), and give it to an assistant to turn the letters into notes on a bar sheet. This being the case, it's no surprise that Merrill's melodies aren't exactly harmonically or structurally sophisticated -- but they can be delightful. He had a knack for finding just the right musical phrase to build a song around, a phrase or motif that could stick in your head instantly. (Once you've heard "Mambo Italiano," can you ever get that "HEY MAM-BO..." thing out of your head?) As a lyricist, he was... well... unique, in good and bad ways. Merrill wrote extremely fast. When Jule Styne played him five melodies he'd written for Funny Girl, Merrill wrote lyrics for all of them (including several of the show's hits) in only three days. And his lyrics always sound like they were written fast. They sound spontaneous and original; there are strange and different images in a Bob Merrill lyric that you won't find in a lyric by a more measured, sensible lyricist like Stephen Sondheim or Sheldon Harnick.

But he didn't always seem to care much whether his images made any sense, with the result that Merrill's lyrics abound in mixed metaphors, non sequiturs, and general weirdness ("Let them analyze/What our amalgamation implies"). He was also, in all likelihood, the sloppiest rhymer ever to have a successful career as a Broadway lyricist. A Bob Merrill score will always include non-rhymes like "Cozy/Knows me," "Lookin' in/Brook-a-lyn," "Got to/Not you," "Half-witz/Kafritz." A friend of Merrill's, posting on, once explained the sloppiness as an indication of Merrill's lack of interest in a situation:

Merrill was sloppy all over the place, but not always at the right time. It wasn't the seriousness of the moment. Merrill could write an exquisite lyric like "Promise Me a Rose." But if he didn't feel a particular involvement with the characters, his words could fall to pieces. I've always felt that once he started with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, he could never get a handle on who those people were, and he's sloppy all over the place. And when I listen I giggle.

It's definitely true that Merrill's lyrics were sloppier in flops than in hits, and in songs for weak characters as opposed to songs for interesting characters so there may be something to this.

Merrill's first Broadway show was New Girl in Town, a musical version of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. He had originally written a score for an updated movie musical version of Anna Christie that never got produded; writer-director George Abbott liked the idea, and decided to make it into a Broadway show -- but set in the original period, which meant that none of the songs Merrill had written could be used. Undaunted, Merrill wrote a completely new score in record time. The show starred Gwen Verdon as Anna, and she was such a hot ticket at the time that it made money even though it only ran a little over a year. Merrill's score is typical of his work in that it's half excellent stuff and half filler. Most of Anna's songs are very good, including her bitter "On the Farm" (about her sexual abuse at the hands of her cousins, which led her into a life of prostitution), which was selected by Stephen Sondheim as one of the songs he wished he had written. But much of the score consists of atmosphere-setting twaddle and pointlessly jolly chorus numbers, with rhymes like "Okey-doke, jack / smokestack."

Merrill's next show was yet another Eugene O'Neill adaptation, but from a more obvious source for musicalization: Take Me Along was based on O'Neill's nostalgic comedy Ah, Wilderness! The show didn't do as well as it should have, perhaps because there was an imbalance created by the casting: the biggest star in the cast, Jackie Gleason, played a relatively small part, that of Sid, the drunken uncle. So Sid wound up getting more than his fair share of songs and scenes, and the main story -- about the father, Nat (Walter Pidgeon) and the son, Richard (Robert Morse) -- got pushed to the side. It's a good rule of thumb that musicals don't succeed when it winds up giving too much space to what should be a subplot. Merrill's score has the usual share of clunkers, including more pointless choruses like "The Volunteer Firemen Picnic" and lines like "This very attrac-a-tive, thoroughly mod-er-in, marvelous fire machine." But it also has some exquisite songs, including two of my very favorite musical theatre songs of all time. One, "Staying Young," was sung -- surprisingly well -- by Walter Pidgeon, and is a beautiful and finally very moving song about a man trying to pretend he's not growing old; it's also one of the few songs where a second-act reprise actually expands on and develops the meaning of the song. And, in the second act, "Promise Me a Rose," delivered in a vibrato-ridden but charming way by Eileen Herlie (another non-singer -- after My Fair Lady, more and more shows were casting non-singing actors in singing parts), is a very touching song, sung by a woman who loves a man who perpetually disappoints her. The complete lyric is at the end of this post; I can't post the tune, but it is very lovely, and the trick of ending the song by repeating the B section is very well-done, giving the song the feeling of not having an ending -- which reflects the fact that it's being sung by someone who, against her better judgement, keeps on hoping.

Merrill's biggest hit was Carnival, based on the movie Lili. The score doesn't reach the heights of Take Me Along but has fewer dead spots than any of Merrill's other scores; combined with a fine book by Michael Stewart, the result is a show that ought to be revived more often. (The problem, I suspect, is that the lead part is difficult to cast.) In 1964 Merrill contributed to two hit shows; he wrote the lyrics for Funny Girl, which remains his most famous credit, and he wrote music and lyrics, uncredited, for two songs in Hello, Dolly!: "(I Stand For) Motherhood" and "Elegance."

Merrill's career after that didn't go well. Henry, Sweet Henry was a musical adaptation of the movie The World of Henry Orient; it was a good source, and it had an excellent star in Don Ameche, but Merrill's score was mostly second-rate. The following year he worked on what seemed like a sure-fire hit: A musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, produced by David Merrick, written and directed by Abe Burrows, and starring Mary Tyler Moore. But Moore proved unsuited to the stage (as she did recently when she dropped out of and/or was fired from a Neil Simon play), and Burrows never fully solved the problem of how to turn Truman Capote's story into a full evening's entertainment (he tried to be more faithful to the book than the movie version had been, which may have been a mistake). Burrows was fired out of town and Merrick, in desperation, turned to the man who was still the "in" playwright on Broadway: Edward Albee. Albee wrote an incomprehensible new book where half the story appeared to be a dream, cut most of Merrill's songs, and generally wound up with a total mess that closed down without even making it to New York. Merrill later financed a studio recording of all the songs he wrote for the show; the recording reveals some attractive ballads, but a lot of sloppy lyrics and monotonous tunes that show Merrill not knowing or caring why he should give a damn about these people.

Merrill wrote lyrics for a couple of other shows with music by Jule Styne, one of which was a moderate success (Sugar, based on Some Like it Hot) and the other of which bombed (Prettybelle with Angela Lansbury). He wrote scores for other shows that didn't make it to Broadway (including one called The Prince of Grand Street, with Robert Preston), and -- unlikeliest thing -- a musical about the Holocaust, Hannah 1939, which opened Off-Broadway in 1990.

I'm not very familiar with Merrill's later work, which is why I ran through it so quickly (that and space limitations). But based on his best work, in the late '50s and early '60s, I can say that he was by no means "The Worst Songwriter of All Time"; indeed, when he was at his best, he was very, very good.

Here are the lyrics to "Promise Me a Rose" (try to find the cast album of Take Me Along if you can, or pray for a reissue of this out-of-print recording):

If you promise me a rose,
I go out and buy a pot.
My imagination grows
Into roses by the plot.
I have roses on my doors,
On my ceilings and my floors,
And if you forget to keep your promise,
For some reason or another you fail,
How can the dreamer of sweet roses
Be bothered by a slight detail?
If you promise me a bird,
One to sing above my chair,
Then a dream in me is stirred
And one bird becomes a pair,
Then my room is full of song,
'Cause the pair becomes a throng,
And if you forget to keep your promise,
For some reason or another you fail,
How can the dreamer of sweet music
Be bothered by a slight detail?
All my birds are in their cages,
Ev'ry rose is in a pot.
I get dreamier by stages,
Maybe so -- so what?
If you even touch my hand
Absentmindedly as this,
Just your touch upon my hand
I can dream into a kiss.
Then the kiss begins to soar
Into love forevermore,
And though your little boat has no anchor,
And my little boat has no sail,
How can a dreamer on love's blue ocean
Be bothered by a slight detail?
All my birds are in their cages,
Ev'ry rose is in a pot.
I get dreamier by stages,
Maybe so -- so what?


Anonymous said...

I don't think Bob Merrill was one of the great lyricists or composers of all time but was was good and often very good. "Carnival" remains one of my favorite scores, with images such as
"The sun today
Will be scrambled for my souffle"
Even the novelty song are good novelty songs. If you don't like that part of fifties culture, you obviously won't like them.

Unfortunately, most Broadway songwriters seem to end on a low note. Richard Rogers last three musicals were not particularly good, Alan J. Lerner had a string of late career flops, Kander and Ebb's most recent musical closed out of town, as did Sondheim's.

Kirsten said...

Does anyone know where I can find the lyrics on the internet (i.e., free) for "Her Face" from Carnival? Please email me at:

Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the words to "If you promise me a Rose". It's a whimsical poem; really quite lovely.

Anonymous said...

As Noel Coward said, "Funny, how attractive cheap music can be."

Like Berlin, (and others) Merrill was raised in Tin Pan Alley, but unlike Berlin (and others), never really had the genius when he left Tin Pan Alley to become a song writer of note. His songs attract you but never profoundly move you. Although others may disagree, Carnaval! is arguably his best work and even the theme song of that score is a reworking of another person's song. He wisely chose to work with the great Julie Styne later in his career as musicals continued to get more complex, and these collaborations were more successful than his own. Styne's work was so good that Merrill's often pedestrian lyrics could often be overlooked.

Some people would argue that it takes genius to write the lyric to People because it seems to be so wed to the music. But what you really remember is only the first two lines. Just like Oscar Hammerstein's work on "I Won't Dance" and "Couldn't you, couldn't I, couldn't we?" from "Only Make Believe." And remember that the lyric to "Tea for Two" is admittedly a dummy lyric (i.e., a placeholder lyric to be replaced by an actual, thought through composition). This work, in effect, is hack work.

I say all this because I just came across the cast recording of Take Me Along in my library and decided to give it another try. And I got the same reaction again: I smiled but there was no emotion.

Anonymous said...

I wrote with him in the Vanderbilt hotel in the early 90's. It was a very pretty song. He had quickly written the lyrics(verses with a hook line and a bridge). He handed me the paper and I put it to music singing it with my guitar. He liked it very much. It seemed kind of simple to me; "lets try trying again"..but sweet, and I found an elaborate little melody, and it became something that nicely blended sincerity and depth. We wrote 3 songs, but I don't remember the others. I had no idea he had killed himself. I found this site looking, as I didn't know what ever did happen to him. Here he was all the way out in Nashville at his age, dabbling..searching, and was kindly satisfied to be writing with someone like me.. I couldn't shake the feeling of how lonely he seemed. But I was charmed by his pureness of energy and eagerness to share.
He told me many stories of the Broadway days, as I was so intentive. When he wrote for High Lillie Hi Lo (which I loved as a kid) he said he had written some beautiful intricate little french songs, and the big wigs kept humming and hawing, saying they needed something more commercial. Bob scoffed Yea, you want something like (singing brassly)"Love makes the world go round, Love makes the world-go-round.."
They said "..Yeah!!!"

Anonymous said...

Just saw "Take Me Along" at the Irish Rep in NYC, and I was pleasantly surprised by the score, especially "Promise Me A Rose." It's too bad that the only recording available is the cast album - Eileen Herlie is very hard to listen to!

Anonymous said...

I also saw Take Me Along at the Irish Rep, and was impressed by the song "We're Home," an ode to domestic bliss made pathetic because the singer's hopes seem unlikely to be realized.

The song "Take Me Along" had a life outside the show. I remember hearing it often as a young boy.

I also remember hearing the song "It's Good To Be Alive" from New Girl In Town, which was played repeatedly by Captain Kangaroo. Of course, I had no idea what show it was from or who wrote it; I just loved the song. It seems ironic today, given how Merrill's life ended