Bob Merrill: From Burlesque to Broadway

Today we celebrate songwriter and scriptwriter of stage and screen Bob Merrill (Henry Robert Merrill Levan (1921-1998), not to be confused with operatic tenor Robert Merrill (1917-2004) or contemporary jazz trumpet player and vocalist Bob Merrill.

This Bob Merrill, who was born in Atlantic City and raised over his family’s Philadelphia candy shop, started out as a singer, impressionist and emcee in burlesque houses and amateur shows. After serving in World War Two, he began to establish himself as a songwriter, co-authoring tunes for the 1947 album of Dorothy Shay, The Park Avenue Hillbillie [sic]. His first smash success was Eileen Barton’s #1 hit recording of “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake”, co-written with Al Hoffman and Clem Watts, and released in early 1950. Other early hits included “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” (1952) for Patti Page, “Chicka Boom” (1953) for Guy Mitchell, “Honeycomb” (1954) for Jimmie Rodgers, and “Mambo Italiano” (1954) for Rosemary Clooney. An interesting tidbit: while Merrill was often photographed at a piano, he didn’t actually play it; he picked out his melodies on a toy xylophone. He clearly had a way with a novelty song, and would have utterly been at home in Tin Pan Alley a half century earlier.

Merrill’s career hit another milestone in 1957 when he wrote the songs for George Abbott’s Broadway musical New Girl in Town, an adaptation of O’Neill’s Anna Christie starring Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter, with choreography by Bob Fosse. This was followed by the Tony nominated Take Me Along (1959), based on O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness, which starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Una Merkel, Robert Morse, Eileen Herlie, Arlene Golonka and a young Valerie Harper. His ascent continued with Carnival! (1961), based on the film Lili, based on a Paul Gallico story, directed by Gower Champion and starring Anna Maria Alberghetti, Kaye Ballard and Jerry Orbach. This one won the best musical Tony.

In 1962 he collaborated with composer Jule Styne to write the songs for the animated television holiday special Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, a work perhaps even more widely known than his previous theatrical outings (and bestowing upon us the immortal phrase “Razzleberry Dressing”.) The fruitful collaboration with Styne then took him to Olympus, as the two co-wrote the songs (including “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”) for Funny Girl (1964). This was undoubtedly the peak of his career, and remains such — the show is on Broadway again even as I type this.

Merrill’s subsequent musicals for the most part weren’t as fortunate as Funny Girl, many closing out of town or only remaining on Broadway a short time. The shows include Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1966) based on the Truman Capote story/Blake Edwards film, with book by Abe Burrows and Edward Albee; starring Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain, and Sally Kellerman; Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), based on The World of Henry Orient, with book by Nunnally Johnson, and starring Don Ameche; Prettybelle (1971) with Jule Styne, starring Angela Lansbury; Sugar a.k.a. Some Like It Hot (1972) based on the Billy Wilder movie, with book by Peter Stone, starring Robert Morse, Tony Roberts, and and Cyril Ritchard.

In 1976, Merrill found fame in another field when he wrote the screenplay to the film W.C. Fields and Me, which we wrote about here. After another theatrical fizzle The Prince of Grand Street (1978) with Robert Preston, directed by Gene Saks, Merrill wrote the made-for-TV movie Portrait of a Showgirl, starring Lesley Ann Warren, Rita Moreno and Diane Kaye and Tony Curtis. Then came the off-Broadway shows We’re Home (1984) and Hannah…1939 (1990), a disastrous Broadway 1985 revival of Take Me Along, and a more successful 1992 London revival of Some Like It Hot starring Tommy Steele. Merrill is also known for supplying lyrical content in a lesser way to Hello Dolly (1964) and the-ill fated 1993 show The Red Shoes (the latter under the pseudonym Paul Stryker).

Sadly, at the beginning of 1998, Merrill took his own life, owing less to the state of his career and reputation than because of depression brought on by severe health problems. A few months after he died, his last new work came out: a straight-to-video family film called The Animated Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with voices by Christopher Lloyd, Kirsten Dunst, Ross Malinger and Ryan Slater.

For more on show business history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.