Merrill, Bob (originally, Lavan, Henry Robert Merrill)
Merrill, Bob (originally, Lavan, Henry Robert Merrill)
Merrill, Bob (originally, Lavan, Henry Robert Merrill), American songwriter; b. Atlantic City, N.J., May 17, 1921; d. Los Angeles, Feb. 17, 1998. Merrill had two distinct, and equally successful, careers as a songwriter. From the late 1940s to the late 1950s he displayed a facility for writing novelty songs that became pop hits, among them such light standards as “If I Knew You Were Comin’ (I’d’ve Baked a Cake),” “The Doggie in the Window,” and “Honeycomb.” Then he turned his hand to writing for the musical theater, resulting in seven Broadway shows that opened between 1957 and 1993, among them such long-running hits as Carnival and Funny Girl, which featured his biggest latter-day hit, “People.”
The son of James Arthur Lavan, a candy maker, and Sadie Abrahams Lavan, Merrill grew up in Philadelphia. During his teens he hitchhiked around the country, getting his earliest theatrical experience by working as a singer, impressionist, and master of ceremonies at clubs. He graduated from high school in 1938 and briefly attended Temple Univ. In 1939 he took a job at the Bucks County Playhouse, where he studied acting with Richard Bennett. He moved to N.Y. in 1940 to become an actor but was drafted into the army and spent time in the cavalry before transferring to the Special Services division, where he wrote and produced radio shows. Discharged from the army in 1942, he moved to Los Angeles, where got a job as a writer at NBC radio. In 1943 he was hired as a dialogue director at Columbia Pictures. He also had some minor acting roles in motion pictures, notably an appearance in the Universal film Senorita from the West in October 1945.
At Columbia, Merrill encountered comic singer Dorothy Shay, who encouraged him to try writing songs and then recorded his composition “I’ve Been to Hollywood” for her album Dorothy Shay (The Park Avenue Hillbillie) Sings, which topped the charts in July 1947. In 1948 he became a casting director at CBS television, leaving that job in 1949 to take a job as a production consultant for the Cunningham-Walsh Agency and the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company. In December 1949 he enjoyed his first small hit, as Billy Eckstine reached the charts with his song “Fool’s Paradise.” His breakthrough, however, came with “If I Knew You Were Comin’ (I’d’ve Baked a Cake)” (music and lyrics by Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts), which became a million-selling #1 hit for Eileen Barton in March 1950. The next month, Mindy Carson hit the Top Ten with Merrill’s “Candy and Cake.” In October, Ernest Tubb hit the country Top Ten with “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” (music and lyrics by Terry Shand and Bob Merrill).
The chief beneficiary of Merrill’s writing talent in 1951 was Guy Mitchell, who reached the charts with five of his compositions. Mitchell charted in March with “Christopher Columbus” (music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and Terry Gilkyson); hit the Top Ten in April with “Sparrow in the Tree Top,” narrowly besting another Top Ten rendition by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters; returned to the Top Ten in June with “My Truly, Truly Fair,” just ahead of a Top Ten version by Vic Damone; scored a third Merrill-composed Top Ten hit in September with “Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle”; and reached the charts in November with “There’s Always Room at Our House.” Meanwhile, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians charted in February with “The Chicken Song (I Ain’t Gonna Take It Settin’ Down)” (music and lyrics by Terry Shand and Bob Merrill), and the Fontaine Sisters with Texas Jim Robertson had the most successful of three chart versions of Merrill’s “Let Me In” in March.
Guy Mitchell was responsible for three of the five chart songs Merrill enjoyed in 1952: “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” a Top Ten hit in April; “Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po)” in August; and “(’Cause I Love You) That’s a-Why,” a duet with Mindy Carson, in November. The year’s other Merrill-penned hits were “Walkin’ to Missouri,” recorded by Sammy Kaye and His Orch., and “Funny (Not Much)” (music and lyrics by Hughie Prince, Bob Merrill, Philip Broughton, and Marcia Neil), by Nat “King” Cole, both in August. Guy Mitchell scored a final chart entry with a Merrill song in January 1953 with” She Wears Red Feathers,” but Merrill’s biggest hits of 1953 came with Patti Page, who, like Mitchell, recorded for Columbia Records under the aegis of Mitch Miller. Page hit #1 in March 1953 with the million-selling “The Doggie in the Window” and the Top Ten in August with “Butterflies.” Merrill also wrote the parody “(How Much Is) That Hound Dog in the Window,” which reached the charts for country comedy duo Homer and Jethro in June.
Merrill’s songs continued to become hits during the mid-1950s. Rosemary Clooney reached the Top Ten with “Mambo Italiano” in December 1954; Sarah Vaughan had a Top Ten hit with “Make Yourself Comfortable” in January 1955; Perry Como made a Top Ten hit out of “Tina Marie” in June 1955; Doris Day reached the charts with “Ooh Bang Jiggilly Jang” in November 1955; “Miracle of Love” was a Top 40 hit for Eileen Rodgers in September 1956; and in July 1956, Teresa Brewer hit the Top Ten with “A Sweet Old Fashioned Girl” while Tennessee Ernie Ford revived “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” for a pop chart entry.
But Merrill had ambitions beyond the hit parade. In 1956 he signed a seven- year, ten-film contract with MGM as a composer, publisher, scriptwriter, and producer. His first assignment was to adapt Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 drama Anna Christie into a musical to star Doris Day. Merrill had written a collection of songs by the time the project was dropped, and director George Abbott heard the songs and decided to turn it into a Broadway musical. The result was New Girl in Town, which opened in May 1957 and was a modest hit, running 431 performances and spawning a cast album that spent a couple of months in the charts. Eddie Fisher reached the charts with “Sunshine Girl” from the score. Meanwhile, pop singer Jimmie Rodgers revived “Honeycomb,” a 1954 Merrill composition, and hit #1 with it in September 1957, selling a million copies. “When the Boys Talk About the Girls,” a newly written Merrill song, became a Top 40 hit for Valerie Carr in June 1958.
Merrill’s success adapting O’Neill to the musical theater made him the logical choice to replace songwriter John Latouche, who died while working on a musical version of O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness!. Under the title Take Me Along, the show opened in October 1959 and ran 448 performances. Anita Bryant reached the charts with “Promise Me a Rose (A Slight Detail)” from the score. For his third musical, Merrill ambitiously tackled a stage adaptation of the 1953 film Lili, a musical itself with an Academy Award-winning score by Bronislau Kaper featuring the standard “Hi Lili, Hi Lo.” Despite this apparent handicap, Carnival, which opened in April 1961, became a major hit, running 719 performances, with a cast album that topped the charts.
Merrill turned to writing songs for two children’s projects in 1962. The first was a film musical employing George Pal’s Puppetoon stop-action animation, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, released in August. Mr. Acker Bilk scored a chart entry with the instrumental “Above the Stars” from the score. The second project was a cartoon adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a television musical called Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, broadcast in December. For the latter, Merrill wrote lyrics to music by Jule Styne. In 1963 two of Merrill’s pop hits were revived: Baby Jane and the Rockabyes released a version of “The Doggie in the Window” that made the charts in January, and the Caravelles hit the Top Ten in December with “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry.”
Merrill contributed a couple of songs to the musical Hello, Dolly!, which opened in January 1964, but his main project for the year was Funny Girl, a musical based on the life of singer/comedienne Fanny Brice, and starring Barbra Streisand. He again collaborated with Jule Styne on the songs, and the result was his greatest success. The show opened in March and ran 1,348 performances. The cast album reached the Top Ten, went gold, and earned the Grammy in its category. “People” was separately recorded by Streisand and became a Top Ten hit, and the song was nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year. Streisand also scored a chart entry with a song called “Funny Girl” that Merrill and Styne had written for the show, although it was cut. Merrill married singer Dolores Marquez during the year; they later divorced. In 1965, Merrill and Styne wrote songs for a second seasonal television musical, this time a live-action effort called The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood and starring Liza Minnelli.
Merrill returned to writing his own music on his next two musicals. The first, an adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, tried out in Philadelphia and N.Y. in 1966 but closed without opening on Broadway. The second, an adaptation of Nora Johnson’s novel The World of Henry Orient called Henry, Sweet Henry, opened on Broadway in October 1967; it was a failure, running only 80 performances. Merrill teamed up with Styne again to write a new title song for the film adaptation of Funny Girl, which was released in September 1968. That song earned Merrill his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Song. The film was the biggest box office hit of the year. The soundtrack album sold a million copies, and “People” was revived by the Tymes for a Top 40 hit.
Merrill was the lyricist and librettist and Styne the composer for the musical Prettybelle, which opened in Boston on Feb. 1, 1971; it closed without reaching Broadway. He then had greater success serving only as lyricist to Styne’s melodies for the musical Sugar, based on the 1959 film Some Like It Hot. Opening on Broadway in April 1972, the show ran 505 performances, earning a Tony nomination for Best Musical; the cast album was nominated for a Grammy.
Starting in the mid-1970s, Merrill began writing screenplays, earning co- credit on Mahogany, released in October 1975, and sole credit on W. C. Fields and Me, released in March 1976. On Dec. 14, 1976, he married Suzanne Reynolds, a radio newscaster. He wrote the book as well as the music and lyrics for the musical The Prince of Grand Street, which tried out in Philadelphia starting on March 7, 1978, but closed in Boston on April 15, 1978, without reaching Broadway. Following this failure, he had difficulty mounting another show on Broadway.
Merrill taught at the U.C.L.A. and Loyola Univ., and worked on screenplays, notably writing the 1982 television movie Portrait of a Showgirl. A revue of his songs, We’re Home, ran Off-Broadway in 1984. He wrote new songs for a Broadway revival of Take Me Along (N.Y., April 14, 1985), which closed after one performance. In 1987 he worked on the book, music, and lyrics to a musical adaptation of the 1968 film The Graduate, but it was never produced. He wrote book, music, and lyrics for Hannah...1939, a musical about the Nazi occupation of Prague, and it ran Off-Off-Broadway for 46 performances in 1990. In 1993 he was brought in to replace librettist Marsha Norman as lyricist for a musical adaptation of the 1948 film The Red Shoes. Writing under the pseudonym Paul Stryker, he collaborated for the last time with Jule Styne, but the troubled production ran only five performances on Broadway.
Merrill’s final work was the screenplay for the 1997 children’s film The Animated Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In failing health, he committed suicide at age 76 in 1998.
(only works for which Merrill was a primary, credited songwriter are listed):stage musicals (dates refer to N.Y. openings):New Girl in Town (May 14, 1957); Take Me Along (Oct. 22, 1959); Carnival (April 13, 1961); Funny Girl (March 26, 1964); Henry, Sweet Henry (Oct. 23, 1967); Sugar (April 9, 1972); We’re Home (Oct. 11, 1984); Hannah...l939 (May 31, 1990); The Red Shoes (Dec. 16, 1993). film musicals:The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962); Funny Girl (1968). television musicals:Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (Dec. 18, 1962); The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood (Nov. 28, 1965).