OBITUARY : Ernest Martin

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The Independent Online
Ernest Martin, tall and business-like, and his partner Cy Feuer, short and pugnacious, were among Broadway's most successful producers of musical shows, including Guys and Dolls, Can Can, How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and The Boy Friend, which in 1954 became the first British musical hit on Broadway in 25 years (since Nol Coward's Bitter Sweet), though headlines at the time concentrated more on the acrimony between its British creators and the American producers.

The first five Feuer-Martin shows were all smash hits, and though not the most popular characters on Broadway, the two men were credited with being among the most creative. "I don't think we're bad guys," Martin once said, "if the end justifies the means." The means were frequent firings, changes of approach and shattered relationships, but the results included several classics of the musical stage.

Born Ernest Harold Markowitz in Philadelphia, Martin rose from being an usher at the CBS Radio Station to director of network programming. Deciding in the late Forties that radio's peak had passed, he and Feuer, a music director at Republic Pictures, joined forces as producers - "We pushed our way into the theatre with our elbows and teeth," he later said. Martin initiated projects, spotting theatrical potential in material, then tended to business while Feuer took artistic control. "Ernie was the spark-plug," Feuer said, "and I was the engineer."

Where's Charley? (1948), a musical version of Charley's Aunt, was their first production and the first stage score by Frank Loesser. Its stormy tryout period was described by Loesser's then wife Lynn as "a hornet's nest of feuds, illicit love affairs, unrehearsed ballets, unfinished orchestrations and overall fury at Feuer and Martin . . . their manners were atrocious". The show ran for over two years and established the team, but it was their next show that elevated them to the major league.

Martin told Feuer that he had found a collection of Damon Runyon stories with a great title for a Broadway show, "Guys and Dolls". Loesser again provided the score, and brought in his chum Abe Burrows, writer of Duffy's Tavern, a radio show peopled with Runyonesque characters, to work on the libretto. Again, tryout travails (at one point Loesser literally slapped the leading lady Isabel Bigley in the face) were forgotten when the show opened in 1950 to become an instant classic.

Cole Porter's Can Can (1953), Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend (1954) and Porter's Silk Stockings (1955) gave the team their remarkable run of five hits, though The Boy Friend's triumph, while making a star of Julie Andrews, was marred by a vitriolic battle between the producers and the show's composer, Wilson, and director, Vida Hope, which resulted in private detectives being hired to keep the British pair out of the theatre during rehearsals and the seven preview performances. It was claimed that the Americans had broadened and vulgarised the affectionate pastiche. The only evidence available, the cast album, is so entertaining (and Wilson's reworking of "The Riviera" at the producers' request an improvement) that it is difficult to understand the acrimony, which was such that Wilson and Hope did not attend the first-night party where Martin proclaimed, "This boy Sandy's a genius."

A similar situation arose regarding George S. Kaufman and his wife Laueen McGrath, who initially worked on Silk Stockings but were asked to leave while revisions took place. When the couple arrived in Boston for the show's opening, they were informed by Martin that they were not welcome and were turned away.

Kaufman's venomous response was to comment later, "When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Ernie Martin's face." Cole Porter, though, credited the team with hiring him when many on Broadway thought his best work was past and when both his health and temperament needed nurturing. Silk Stockings was, in fact, his last Broadway show.

The team's first failure, Whoop-Up (1958), was forgotten when Martin detected musical potential in an unproduced play based on Shepherd Mead's handbook How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. A dubious Frank Loesser was persuaded to do the score - he had been producing his own shows, the semi-operatic Most Happy Fella and a twee folk piece, Greenwillow, and was reluctant to return to the brash New York milieu - and the result won Tony and Drama Desk Awards plus the Pulitzer Prize.

Though Little Me (1962), starring Sid Caesar, was a moderate success, their next two musicals, Skyscraper (1965), with Julie Harris, and Walking Happy (1966), with Norman Wisdom, won praise for their stars but little else. They entered film production with a big hit, Cabaret (1972), entrusting the direction to Bob Fosse, who had choreographed How to Succeed for them. Their final Broadway musical was a vehicle for their Cabaret star Liza Minnelli. Entitled The Act (1977), it was the first stage work directed by Martin Scorsese and had a troubled history.

In 1985 they realised a long ambition by producing the screen version of A Chorus Line, directed by Richard Attenborough. Most of the team's later years were spent as managing directors of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Light Opera Companies.

Tom Vallance

Ernest Harold Markowitz (Ernest Martin), stage and film producer: born Philadelphia 28 August 1919; married three times; died Los Angeles 7 May 1995.