Gotta Get a Gimmick

When the Tony nominations are announced next Monday, you may be forgiven a certain confusion in keeping all the names straight. In this season of two largely forgettable musicals based on a largely forgettable artifact from the twenties, Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, everything seemed to come in pairs, as if heading for the ark before Disney completely floods Broadway. There were two swing-dance extravaganzas, Contact and Swing! Two Arthur Miller plays, The Price and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. Two Susan Stroman shows, the aforementioned Contact and The Music Man. Two agreeable musical revivals, Music Man and Kiss Me, Kate. Two highbrow British revivals, Amadeus and The Real Thing. Two freedom-loving queens, Aida and Dame Edna. Can’t anyone around here come up with an original idea?

All right, so Broadway is rarely about original ideas and always about business – something no one knew better than Alexander H. Cohen and David Merrick, who showed poor judgment last week by dying within days of one another, thereby ensuring that the longtime rivals in a bygone era would have to compete even in their eulogies. Cohen, gleefully anointed “Lord of the Flops” by this magazine two decades ago, departed this mortal coil first, at the age of 79, only to be upstaged a few days later by his far more successful sometime nemesis Merrick, who was 88.

Even if you don’t actually know it, you are conversant with both their legacies. From 1959, when he backed the quintessential backstage musical, Gypsy, to 1980, when he backed another quintessential backstage musical, 42nd Street, Merrick epitomized the independent sonofabitch Broadway producer: He had a keen eye for talent nurtured elsewhere, a ruthless way of dealing with that talent once it was on his payroll, and a genius for marketing shows regardless of their merit. He is the producer who famously ordered his minions to cull the phone book for men with the same names as the leading newspaper critics of the time so he could invite them to a free dinner and performance of the lousy Subways Are for Sleeping in order to stuff exclamatory encomiums in their mouths for the quote ads. That the ruse didn’t work (the ad appeared only in one edition of one paper, and it wasn’t the Times) hardly mattered; the publicity for the stunt rivaled any con by P. T. Barnum (a role model to both Merrick and Cohen).

While Cohen may have seemed an also-ran, he had a lot more fun than the notoriously ulcerous Merrick – a man who relished his nickname, the Abominable Showman. Cohen’s expertise, too, lay less in the cultivation of talent than in its promotion. He lacked Merrick’s take-no-prisoners aggression; where Merrick ultimately found a meal ticket in director-choreographer Gower Champion (who staged both Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street), Cohen took risks with offbeat comedy acts that included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, not to mention Nichols and May. Cohen followed the money (well, other people’s money) and not infrequently lost sight of it. He blew a fortune on Liv Ullmann in I Remember Mama and Jerry Lewis in Hellzapoppin, but he also brought Richard Burton’s Hamlet to Broadway and sold Lincoln Center Theater on the idea of Peter Brook’s brilliant redaction of Carmen (though it was Merrick who, with a nearly flawless eye for discerning the work of genius among the merely provocative, earlier imported Brook’s history-making productions of Marat/Sade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Broadway).

At one point or another, Cohen approached virtually every journalist who crossed his path about writing his biography (including me and, separately, my wife). He finally got to tell his story in 1998, when his one-man show, Star Billing, became an unexpected Off Broadway hit as old friends and enemies made their way to hear his gently wicked score-settling. He followed up this season with a succès d’estime, a middling Noël Coward swan song, Waiting in the Wings, populated with unexpected good taste by Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris and anointed with money reviews (in an era, unfortunately, when money reviews may confer everything but money).

Alex Cohen will be remembered for bringing the Tony Awards to a national audience – a dubious credit, in my book, since the broadcast has long since devoured what little there was left of the art, distorting everything produced in the commercial theater. Yet he and his wife, Hildy Parks, turned the Tonys from a Knights of Columbus buffet into what was, for a time, the gold standard of televised awards shows, and when, after twenty years, it was taken away from him, the bitter taste never left. Born a pitchman – he loved telling stories of his success as a flack for Bulova watches – he died a pitchman, too: His last project was a new awards show to compete with the Tonys that, he promised with characteristic understatement, would upstage the Hollywood Walk of Fame by using lasers to project the stars of Broadway and the rest of New York City into the night sky above Times Square. He’d partnered with Grammy producer Pierre Cossette and booked Radio City Music Hall for a date in February 2001, and Cossette is prepared to go through with the plan.

Alex Cohen’s New York awards scheme was provoked by a disdain for the powers-that-be that he shared, if unintentionally, with David Merrick. Both were mavericks who openly loathed the producing-by-committee that has come to define Broadway. And yet, as the original cherry pickers and stuntmen of the Street, they are at least partly accountable for the current sorry state of affairs. They, after all, sold the sizzle, not the steak. As the strippers in Gypsy sing, “You gotta get a gimmick.” Were Stephen Sondheim to write that lyric today, the line might well read, “You gotta get a brand.” Cameron Mackintosh, now on the wane, and Disney, now on the ascent, are in truth Cohen and Merrick’s natural successors.

This may seem like sour grapes in what will look, next week, like a strong Broadway season, even for new plays, of which there were – drumroll, please – ten, a surfeit by today’s standards. And yet a certain amazing blockheadedness obtains. Not just in two Wild Partys, neither of which will send you home singing “Till There Was You.” (Only one – George C. Wolfe’s Wooster Group-style deconstruction – was mounted on Broadway.)

The debate that occupied the Tony administration committee over the brilliant Contact – is it a play? a musical? – revealed once again how incapable this group is of thinking outside the Broadway box. In a season that saw yet another Pulitzer go to a play that will never be seen on Broadway, the Tony voters will now have to cast their vote for a “musical” with a canned score of golden oldies in which not one live actor sings.

If this were London, Contact would get an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment, end of conflict. But that’s too original a notion for the Tony folks. Instead, Contact will compete with Disney’s Aida and, the critics notwithstanding, will probably lose – the Tonys once again wrenching defeat from the jaws of victory. And David Merrick and Alex Cohen, looking down (or up) from their present vantage points, will doubtless share a belly laugh.

Gotta Get a Gimmick