WWDMD (or What Would David Merrick Do?)
I can confidently say that every producer colleague of mine has an admiration often bordering on obsession for this notorious producer. In addition to producing a massive number of Broadway shows in his day, he was better known for being ruthless, mean-spirited, prone to start fights with anyone and everyone and for making statements like, “It is not enough that I should succeed – others should fail.”
These antics made him a legend and set an example for how horrible people could, at one time, succeed in this business.
Merrick could succeed because people were willing to work with him time after time, even though he ruined more careers than he built. It didn’t hurt that he was producing a vast number of the shows playing on Broadway and was thought to employ as much as 20% of the Broadway workforce at any given time. He gave the world huge hits like Hello Dolly and 42nd Street and some creative publicity stunts but he also left in his wake, many of the overly strict equity and union rules that hinder today’s producers and were put in place as a result of Merrick’s abuses.
I can admit to enjoying a biography about his notorious dealings. I think we all have a sick fascination with watching someone’s bad behavior from the sidelines. (Can you say Charlie Sheen?) But I know from talking with several of his contemporaries whose careers, finances and families were devastated, often merely for the sake of Merrick’s publicity, that Broadway is better off without him.
Fast forward to today, where his legacy still lingers in more ways than one. I was having a conversation with a writer friend about a difficult person and he said, “In this business you sometimes have to work with people who aren’t nice.” I thought about this and have to politely disagree.
You don’t have to work with those people and I would ask any of you reading this, if you would choose to work with someone who would actively seek to put you down to further their own success, rather than someone who wants to support you and succeed together?
You may say, “But I don’t get that choice — this or that nasty person is the key to my success.” An artistic director, producer, director (or any other decision maker) is only as good as the people who are willing to work with them. These days, with the current plethora of theaters, producers, and “musicals makers”, there are options. You have the power to say, “No,” — you have only to exercise it. Tough artistic decisions are one thing but cruelty and spite are unacceptable. There’s a reason why Broadway hasn’t found its replacement for Merrick today.
As I was talking to another theater producing legend recently, I asked if he’d ever run into Merrick back in the day. Turns out, early in his career he’d been offered a prestigious job in Merrick’s office. His friends and family had to convince him to turn it down. It was a hard decision but looking back he can honestly say he got to where he did (3 Tony’s later) because he turned down the job and moved forward in his career without the Merrick stigma. We can all learn from his example and support each other when we’re faced with Merrick-types, who are only out for themselves, because sometimes you should, “Just say no.”