Bob Merrill, the hugely successful composer/lyricist/librettist, penned several titles in the Concord Theatricals catalog. Though Merrill began his career by writing charming little dime-store ditties, he went on to write some of the most iconic songs in Broadway history.
On the anniversary of his birth, let’s take a moment to celebrate the work of this theater great.
Born in Atlantic City, NJ, on May 17, 1921, Bob Merrill grew up in Philadelphia, PA. After serving in the armed forces and working briefly as a dialogue director in Hollywood, Merrill got his start as a songwriter by composing tunes for a comic singer named Dorothy Shay. In 1950, he wrote his first big hit, the chart-busting “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked A Cake,” sung by Eileen Barton. Other big hits included “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” sung by Patti Page (1952) and “Mambo Italiano,” sung by Rosemary Clooney (1954).
Merrill’s first Broadway venture was the score to New Girl in Town, an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, starring Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter and directed by George Abbott. The show was a success, and, in a rare tie vote, Verdon and Ritter both won the Tony Award for best actress!
Next up was Take Me Along (US/UK), the 1959 adaptation of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness. With music and lyrics by Merrill and book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell, the show starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon, Eileen Herlie, Robert Morse and Una Merkel. Take Me Along was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and Jackie Gleason won for his leading performance. (Though best known by modern audiences as Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason also had a successful career in music, and he was able to show off his singing chops in songs like “Single Kid” and “I Get Embarrassed,” a duet with costar Eileen Herlie.) Take Me Along includes one of Bob Merrill’s most charming lyrics, “Promise Me A Rose.” Here’s a sampling:
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 such sweet roses
Be bothered by a slight detail?
Merrill’s next Broadway venture, Carnival! (US/UK), featured one of his biggest hits, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Based on the 1953 film Lili, the endearing Carnival! opened on Broadway on April 12, 1961, starring Anna Maria Alberghetti, directed by Gower Champion. The story of a wide-eyed young woman enchanted by a traveling carnival, featuring charming puppets and stage magic, ran for 719 performances.
Hey, New York– it’s really us / Barnaby and Cornelius!
Merrill and Herman also collaborated on “Elegance” and “The Motherhood March.” Of course, the lion’s share of the show’s score was undeniably Jerry Herman’s, but for a few numbers, Bob Merrill “Put A Hand In There.”
In that same year, Merrill triumphed with the critically acclaimed Funny Girl (US/UK), for which he wrote lyrics to music by Jule Styne. Opening March 26, 1964 at the Winter Garden Theatre, Funny Girl made leading lady Barbra Streisand a megastar, and yielded numerous hits, including “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “I’m the Greatest Star” and “People,” which became the first in a long line of popular hits for Ms. Streisand.
After Funny Girl, Merrill wrote music and lyrics to a musical version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Mary Tyler Moore, with a book by Edward Albee. The show struggled in tryouts in Philadelphia and Boston and closed before ever opening on Broadway.
In 1967, Merrill wrote the score to Henry, Sweet Henry (US/UK), a musical stage adaptation of the novel The World of Henry Orient by Nora Johnson, daughter of librettist Nunnally Johnson. The show, about two smitten teenage girls who unwittingly blow the whistle on a womanizing composer as they chase him up and down Manhattan, failed to catch on, playing only 80 performances. But the show’s ebullient score eventually found an audience through a vibrant cast recording. Merrill’s next show, Prettybelle, on which he again partnered with Jule Styne, closed in Boston in 1971.
Sugar (US/UK), Merrill’s 1972 collaboration with Styne, was an adaptation of the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot. Starring Robert Morse, Tony Roberts and Elaine Joyce, Sugar was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion and produced by David Merrick. In an era of spare, contemporary musicals like Sondheim’s Company, Sugar embraced the size and energy of Golden Age musicals with its jazzy, big-band score. The show ran for 505 performances and continues to delight audiences in revivals and amateur productions.
For the next two decades, Merrill wrote lyrics for several other Broadway shows, but these later efforts did not achieve the grand success of his earlier work.
In addition to his contribution to the theater, Bob Merrill worked regularly in Hollywood. He wrote several successful screenplays, including Mahogany, the 1975 smash starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams.
And he had two quirky TV hits as well:
In 1962, Merrill collaborated with Jule Styne on the score for a holi
day classic, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. The first animated holiday program ever produced for television, the show boasted a wonderful score, featuring catchy tunes like “Ringle, Ringle,” “Alone in the World,” and “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” in which Tiny Tim dreams of gorging on “razzleberry dressing.”
In 1965, Merrill and Styne wrote songs for The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood (US). This odd caper, which retells and reworks the Red Riding Hood story from the wolf’s perspective, starred Cyril Ritchard and a spunky 19-year-old newcomer named Liza Minnelli.
Despite his work in TV and film, Bob Merrill is undoubtedly remembered best for his extensive contribution to the theatre. Sure, he started his career writing about “That Doggie in the Window” and penning lines like “Howdja do, howdja do, howdja do?” But every theater fan should remember him for glorious, elegant lines like this:
People who need people,
Are the luckiest people in the world.
Thank you, Bob Merrill, for your contribution to the Great American Musical.