Saturday, June 2, 2012

Theatre For Thought, June 2, 2012

joel fishbane
Most Canadians will be watching the Tony Awards to see if the Stratford Festival’s Jesus Christ Superstar will win Best Revival of a Musical (it won’t) or if  Josh Young will win for his portrayal of Judas Iscariot (er…maybe). But the real drama that day will have already happened over at Foxwood Theatre. Annoyed that Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark only received two nominations (for set and costume), the producers are offering free tickets for the matinee performance to anyone named Anthony, Antonio, Antoinette, Toni or Antonia.  Said producer Michael Cohl: “Nothing would make us prouder than to have more Tonys than any other show on Broadway on Sunday, June 10.”
The stunt, which is cute at best, becomes more significant when one considers that Cohl has long been angling for the title of the Next David Merrick. Although he died in 2000, Merrick remains a titan in the history of American theatre. Merrick was the legendary producer of shows like 42nd Street, Hello Dolly! and Marat / Sade and was himself the progeny of other legendary showmen like P.T. Barnum and Florence Ziegfeld. 
He refused to let in a single paying audience member until the show was like Goldilocks’ porridge: just right.

Like Cohl, Merrick was famous for his legal battles (Cohl is currently involved in a lawsuit with Spider-Man’s former director, Julie Taymor) and for keeping shows in previews far longer then anyone else (Spider-Man took months to open).  In 1990, during his revival of the Gershwin / Wodehouse musical, Oh Kay!, Merrick paid his cast a full salary to perform the show for several weeks only for him. He refused to let in a single paying audience member until the show was like Goldilocks’ porridge: just right. 
That revival of Oh Kay! saw two other publicity stunts of note. The first happened after Merrick denied a curtain call to actor Alex Kenneth Smaltz. Smaltz played a villain in the 1990 revival of the Gershwin’s Oh Kay!. “This is an old-fashioned romance,” Merrick’s spokesperson told the NY Times. “The good people live happily ever after. The bad people are never heard from again." Actor’s Equity took the matter to arbitration; apparently, a curtain call is one of the few inalienable rights Jefferson forgot to mention.
But the real stunt for Oh Kay! came after the show finally opened and received a negative review from Frank Rich of the NY Times. On the Monday after opening, Merrick bought an ad featuring two connected hearts. Inside one was a negative review from Rich. Inside the other, was a negative review from gossip columnist Alex Winchel – who was also Rich’s paramour. Beneath these remarks, Merrick wrote: “At last, people are holding hands in the theatre again! To Frank and Alex – all my love, David Merrick.”
But in 1990, nobody seemed to care that newspaper criticism makes for strange bedfellows and the show closed after two months.

Merrick’s point, presumably, was that the lovers may not have had the courage of their own convictions and only trashed Oh Kay to keep from sleeping on the couch. But in 1990, nobody seemed to care that newspaper criticism makes for strange bedfellows and the show closed after two months.
There are other stories, of course. After the musical Subways are for Sleeping was panned, Merrick found seven people with the same name as New York’s seven most important critics; he treated the doppelgangers to the show and published an ad that quoted their ecstatic praise. He once closed a show before it opened and issued a public apology to the public – this was the never seen musical version of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Seven years after 42nd Street opened on Broadway, Merrick famously pushed curtain-time to 8:15, allowing him to call the show “Broadway’s Latest Hit.” This was also the show in which director Gower Champion died on opening night – and Merrick kept the news from the cast, deciding to announce it to the audience after the curtain call.
Whether Michael Cohl will become as legendary as David Merrick remains to be seen, but I’d argue that the theatre world needs these impresarios and their stunts. In my mind, it’s all part of the show. Far from the cruelty of the Hollywood tabloids, these theatrical stunts are usually done in good humour and helps foster an impression of community.  

So while I don’t mind Cohl’s little joke, but I’d encourage him to do better. Lord only knows what David Merrick could have done in the age of social media – if Cohl really wants to fill his shoes, let him take advantage of the Internet for all its worth. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. 

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