Obituary: Bob Merrill

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The Independent Online
AS A composer-lyricist, Bob Merrill may not be in the exalted class of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Frank Loesser, but he has an important place in American popular music, both as a composer of Hit Parade material - notably with such novelty songs as "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" and "My Truly Truly Fair" - and as a Broadway show composer. Though he usually wrote both words and music, his biggest hit was Funny Girl, for which he wrote the lyrics only to Jule Styne's score.

The son of a sweet- manufacturer, Merrill was born in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but raised in Philadelphia. He was educated at Temple University, then studied acting under Richard Bennett (father of the film stars Joan and Constance). He worked as a night-club singer and comedian, also touring in vaudeville before service in the Second World War, after which he hitch- hiked to Hollywood and worked as a porter before joining NBC radio as a writer. In the late 1940s he joined Columbia Pictures as a dialogue director, then moved to CBS as a television casting director.

He started composing in 1947, though he could neither read music nor play a musical instrument. He composed by tapping out melodies on a toy saxophone, using a numbering system to notate melodies, and in 1950 had his first major pop hit, "Candy and Cake", a hit recording for both Arthur Godfrey and Mindy Carson. It was followed by "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake" (1950) and a string of top hits for Guy Mitchell, including in 1951 alone "My Truly Truly Fair", which sold a million records, "Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle" and "Sparrow in the Tree Top" (which employed three melodies, two in counterpoint). British recording stars who had hits with his songs included Tony Brent with "Walkin' to Missouri" (1952) and Dickie Valentine with the liltingly pretty "All the Time and Everywhere" (1953).

The song he spent most of his later life trying to live down was "How Much is That Doggie in the Window", a million-selling hit for Patti Page in 1953. The following year he wrote hits for Sarah Vaughan ("Make Yourself Comfortable") and Rosemary Clooney ("Mambo Italiano"), but making the transition to theatre was not easy. In 1957 he stated, "I've been writing musical comedy stuff for years but when producers heard I was the guy who wrote `Doggie in the Window' they wouldn't even listen to my songs."

MGM, who owned the rights to Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, had hired Merrill to write a score for them, and in 1956 the director George Abbott heard about it. "I was filming The Pajama Game and Doris Day talked to me of a wonderful score Bob Merrill had written for a musical movie of Anna Christie, then called She Ain't No Saint. MGM had four different screenplays written for it, and none worked. Finally they shelved it." Abbott auditioned the score and with the producers Harold Prince, Robert Griffith and Frederick Brisson acquired it for Broadway. Though not a classic score, Merrill's songs for New Girl in Town (1957) served the book capably.

The first starring vehicle for Gwen Verdon after her success in Can-Can, the show also starred the great character actress Thelma Ritter, whom Merrill gave two catchy duets, "Flings" and "Yer My Friend, Ain'tcha". His next show was another piece of O'Neill Americana, a musical version of Ah Wilderness entitled Take Me Along (1959) which many feel is Merrill's best score as composer-lyricist, full of felicitous delights - the soft- shoe title song for the stars Walter Pidgeon and Jackie Gleason, the plaintive "Promise Me a Rose" for the spinster heroine Eileen Herlie, and Pidgeon's "Staying Young" in which he acknowledges his eternal youthfulness until in a touching reprise he admits that "everyone around me's growing old . . . like me".

Carnival (1961), based on the film Lili about a waif who falls in love with a puppeteer who can communicate tenderly only through his dolls, was a big success on Broadway, with a Hit Parade favourite in "Love Makes the World Go Round", but the show's ingenuousness seemed fey and cloying in the West End production, which was short-lived.

In 1962 Merrill bumped into the composer Jule Styne in Palm Beach. Styne had been signed to compose the score for a musical about the comedienne Fanny Brice, but was unhappy at the prospect of working with the suggested lyricist, Dorothy Fields. He asked Merrill if he would like to write some lyrics on spec. "I gave him five tunes," said Styne, "and he came back in about four days with five lyrics - it was incredible." The lyrics included "Don't Rain on My Parade", "The Music That Makes Me Dance" and a song written to accommodate the show's then title, A Very Special Person. "People" became Funny Girl's greatest hit (though several people, including Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Garson Kanin, disliked it and wanted it removed).

Merrill's involvement with Funny Girl had a major repercussion when its star, Anne Bancroft, who had had a relationship with Merrill three years earlier which had ended badly, rejected the new songs. A new star was needed and the producers considered Eydie Gorme (who insisted her husband Steve Lawrence play the male lead), then Carol Burnett (who loved the role but advised them the girl had to be Jewish) before deciding to audition Barbra Streisand, who proved a sensation.

While the show was in gestation, Styne and Merrill wrote the score for an animated television special, Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol (1963), and Merrill was called upon to provide extra (uncredited) material to boost Jerry Herman's score for Hello, Dolly (1964), writing the numbers "Elegance" and "Motherhood". Funny Girl opened on 26 March 1964, to acclaim for its star and its score, and was filmed four years later. Styne and Merrill wrote a new Oscar-nominated title tune for the film, hoping that Frank Sinatra would play the male lead, but the producers considered him too old. "We'd also written a great, sad ballad . . . called `Sleep Baby Bunting' that Sinatra or Tony Newley could have done beautifully, but Omar Sharif, though a fine actor, cannot deliver a song and make you forget that he is not a musical entity."

In 1965 Styne and Merrill wrote a charming score for a television musical starring Liza Minnelli, The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood, then Merrill returned to solo composing with a Broadway show, Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), but this and subsequent shows, Prettybelle (1971, with music by Styne), Sugar (1972, based on Some Like It Hot, with music by Styne) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (which closed in preview) were not distinguished, though all had individual songs of wit, charm and beguiling melody.

In 1984, a four-character off-Broadway musical, We're Home, was created from 37 of Merrill's songs, and in 1990 he wrote another, Hannah. . . 1939, which starred Julie Wilson as a woman forced to work for the Nazis in Prague. He recently wrote book, music and lyrics for an animated television musical, Tom Sawyer, yet to be shown, but had become increasingly depressed by a series of debilitating illnesses and on 17 February drove his car to a lonely spot and shot himself. "Maybe my songs aren't brilliant or witty," he once said. "But people do like them . . . and I'd rather be writing for the people than a dozen sophisticates in an East Side night- club."

Bob Merrill, composer and lyricist: born Atlantic City, New Jersey 17 May 1921; married 1964 Dolores Marquez (marriage dissolved), 1976 Suzanne Reynolds; died Beverly Hills, California 17 February 1998.

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