Theatre Lover's Journal for April 2000

Alexander Cohen & David Merrick

by John Kenrick

Two legendary Broadway producers passed away last week, Alexander Cohen and David Merrick. Arch rivals for decades, both of these men played vital – if extremely different – roles in the history of musical theatre.

David Merrick was one of the most difficult and unpopular people on Broadway, a brilliant showman who produced a staggering array of hits and flops. His hit musicals included Fanny, Gypsy, Hello Dolly and 42nd Street. His flops included Mack & Mabel and Breakfast at Tiffany's. His reputation for dastardly behavior combined with an instinct for over-the-top publicity schemes led to the title of his biography, The Abominable Showman. Merrick's last project was a hostile takeover of the stage version of State Fair, which failed soon afterward. Despite decades of crippling illness, he only announced his retirement last year. While many respected Merrick, many more loathed him, and no one in the business pretended to actually like him.

Despite dozens of attempts, Alexander Cohen never had a musical hit. His failures included Dear World and Prettybelle, two of the most infamous flops of all time. However, for many years he produced the annual Tony Awards telecasts. Under his tutelage, the Tony show became one of the theatre's most potent marketing tools, with highlights from each season's nominated musicals drawing literally millions of visitors to Broadway. Active to the end, he was one of the producers of the current comedy Waiting in the Wings. While Cohen had his share of enemies, there are many in the business who genuinely mourn his passing.

I had the privilege of meeting both these men in the course of my theatrical career -- Merrick at a preview of his ill-fated revival of Oh Kay, and Cohen at a League luncheon. Both were powerful personalities with tremendous presence. In a dog-eat-dog world where other producers came and went, these two survived and thrived for decades. They were both mavericks, the embodiment of a Broadway where someone with determination and modest means could single-handedly produce Broadway shows and give them an individual stamp.

For better and for worse, the passing of Cohen and Merrick marks the end of an era. Loved, respected, and even hated, they -- like Broadway as they knew it -- will most assuredly be missed. And to the day I die, I'll thank the Creator that I NEVER had to work for David Merrick!

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