cover image David Merrick - The Abominable Showman: The Unauthorized Biography

David Merrick - The Abominable Showman: The Unauthorized Biography

Howard Kissel. Applause Books, $19.95 (578pp) ISBN 978-1-55783-172-9

The chief theater critic for the New York Daily News has written a frank portrait of Broadway's most famous producer, a man as renowned for his outrageous behavior and sharp business practices as for the string of hits that began in 1954 with Fanny , continued through the '60s and '70s with Gypsy , Hello, Dolly! and prestigious British imports like Marat/Sade and climaxed in 1980 with the lavish stage version of 42nd Street , which ran for nine years. As documented in his source notes, Kissel has talked to most of Merrick's associates, whose comments scathingly depict him as cruel to subordinates, contemptuous of the artists who created his shows and awful to his many wives. The book is not gratuitously mean, however; Kissel admires Merrick's taste and promotional skills and argues convincingly that his difficult personality stemmed from his extremely unhappy Midwestern childhood. His story is also a social history in miniature of the changing American theater, showing the decline of the middle-class, middlebrow audience that supported Merrick's productions and the rise of nonprofit theaters in which, as one playwright remarks, ``No one can make a living except the administrators.'' Virtually inactive since a debilitating stroke in 1983, Merrick remains the standard against which all commercial producers measure themselves. No theater buff will want to miss this strong--and by no means entirely unsympathetic--biography. Photos not seen by PW . (Nov.)