February 27, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“The thing about Doug Henning was that he could make the audience disappear, too!” — Nathan Lane
Merlin, the infamous 1983 Broadway musical starring the internationally acclaimed magician, Doug Henning, opened forty years ago this month at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (now the Times Square Church). Having previewed for two months, the show had earned the unnatural distinction of being the longest running musical of the season next to Cats — and this was before Merlin even opened. With the eventuality looming of it claiming the most previews for a musical in Broadway history, the critics decided to review it January 30th, ignoring the show’s already twice-postponed opening date, then scheduled for February 13th. All of which what prompted cast member Nathan Lane to say, “when we opened they thought it was a revival.”
By extending Merlin’s previews, producers were running a bit of a scam because due to an advertising blitz of a commercial that ran and ran and ran (“the magical musical for the entire family!”) it was doing good business. Thinking they could get away indefinitely without the critics writing nasty stuff, the producers kept trying to keep their stinker of a show under wraps. In fact, the only reason some critics came on their own accord was that the producers had the gall to announce they were ending low-cost preview tickets and begin charging full price for a show that had yet to open (rising from $35 to $40). The gauntlet was thrown. The critics got mad and then they got even.
“Some of the weaker songs and story elements were dropped during the two-month long preview period. If the songs and the plot that remain represent the best work of the various people involved, I shudder to think what the deleted material was like” — Newsday
“Its score was afflicted by “a bad case of the feebles” — Associated Press
“While he is not performing his illusions, [Mr. Henning] just smiles absently and seems to be an anonymous gatecrasher at his own party.” — Frank Rich, New York Times
“The Trick is to Get Out of Previews,” was the title of Douglas Watt’s New York Daily News review which went downhill from there.
Henning was angry that the critics came when they did, telling the press “the show was only half-finished.” This, mind you, was after it had been performing eight weeks in front of audiences.
With 31 illusions, 17 of which had never been attempted by Henning before, there was certainly magic to do. But exactly what sort of musical was Merlin attempting to be? According to the Playbill it took place in “the time of sorcery,” the vagueness of which one would suppose allowed Henning to keep his anachronistic head of curls while playing the ancient Welsh wizard who counseled King Arthur. The one reason Merlinexisted was to showcase its star, for whom a far better Broadway vehicle had been devised almost ten years earlier. Playwright Bob Randall and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz figured out a way to use the illusionist to his best abilities with The Magic Show, an unexpected hit that ended up running four-and-a-half years (1,900 performances). And to hide the fact that its lead wasn’t an actor, director/choreographer Grover Dale did a smart thing surrounding Henning with a talented cast that included David Ogden Stiers, Robert LuPone and Anita Morris. They took the burden off Henning having to carry the show himself because, in addition to his deficiencies as a leading man, he couldn’t sing or dance either.
Merlin’s producers are to be commended for the wisdom of topping the bill with Chita Rivera, one of the greatest of all musical leading ladies, to play the wicked Queen. And hiring Nathan Lane, then a young actor in only his second Broadway show, proved a smart move. It also featured as Young Merlin and Young Arthur the fourteen-year-old Christian Slater, who went on to become a steady actor these past four decades in theatre, film and television.
Merlin had music by Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004), a world class film composer, with The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal House among his over one hundred credits. But Broadway fame and fortune eluded him, as his only other musical was How Now Dow Jones (with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) that, no matter how hard I try, remains a tough score to get through. It did have one extremely catchy number, “Step to the Rear,” which managed to find its way into immortality when it was used for a long-running TV commercial for Lincoln-Mercury cars. It was also made into a hit recording by cabaret star Marilyn Maye, who is still going strong and will be making her solo Carnegie Hall debut in March to celebrate her upcoming ninety-fifth birthday.
Merlin’s lyrics were by Don Black, whose previous musical The Little Prince and the Aviator suffered the rare fate of having closed in previews without ever opening. I saw it and the less said the better. And speaking of Christian Slater-like child actors, Anthony Rapp (Mark of Rent fame) was only ten years old when he played the Little Prince. Black had better success later with Sunset Blvd, for which he provided lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s score. Black probably doesn’t want to be reminded, but he has credits on not one but TWO of the three vampire musicals that miserably failed on Broadway in the early 2000’s, Dance of the Vampiresand Dracula, the Musical (don’t rack your brains… the other was Elton John’s Lestat).
The book for Merlin was by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, whose only experience on Broadway was as sketch writers for a revue entitle Vintage ’60, which ran for a week. However, over the course of their long careers they were far better known as television writers who were unspeakably rich from being the creators of both Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. After Merlin, they returned to their comfortable homes in Los Angeles, though Levinson died of a heart attack four years later. Link finished out his career without his long-time partner on a variety of projects, passing away in 2020 at age eighty-seven.
Merlin was directed by Henning’s fellow Canadian, the film producer-director-writer Ivan Reitman (1946–2022), who wound up taking over this $6 — 9 million show (those details are murky), after the firing of both the original director (Frank Dunlop) and choreographer (Ron Field). With desperation ruling the day, Reitman, one of the show’s producers, took over as more a default choice than anything else.
Sadly, Doug Henning died of liver cancer at the age of fifty-two. Deeply involved in spirituality, he avoided early proper medical help and instead chose to pursue an unconventional diet, much in the way Steve Jobs did. At the time of his death, Henning had been a major investor in a recently opened a $1.5 billion transcendental theme park near Niagara Falls,. Leave it to Nathan Lane to wonder what that might have been like in a 1997 interview with Tom Snyder on The Tomorrow Show. “I guess you put down a pillow and a mattress and pretended you were on a roller coaster.”
My longtime friend, Andrew Hill Newman, was in the ensemble of Merlin and was also assigned the task of understudying Henning, as well as Nathan Lane. To this day, I can’t get him to divulge a single answer to any of the magic tricks he was taught and to which he was sworn to secrecy. No problem for Nathan Lane who once admitted to possessing a little less will power: “We were all made to sign disclosures that we would NEVER reveal the tricks. But with two daiquiris in me I’d tell you everything.”
Due to contractual agreement, after ten months, Henning was scheduled to take a two-week leave. As his understudy, Newman trained day and night to make sure he could do all the magic tricks and felt seriously ready to take on the role. But since the show’s box office had dipped for four consecutive weeks, the Nederlanders (who owned the Mark Hellinger at the time) evicted the show, which contractually they had the right to do. The theatre then sat empty for the next eight months before a new tenant moved in. Nice going.
For Newman, one of the best parts of Merlin was being in the company of Chita Rivera. “Chita is such a class act and one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with. Her heart was with everybody in the chorus and her dressing room was open to everybody.” But the very best thing that came out of Merlin was that it was where Newman met his future wife, Leslie Hicks, who was also part of the ensemble. They’ve been together a full forty years (married for thirty-three of them) since their love began to blossom on the forced opening night of February 13, 1983. While commiserating over the bad reviews at the cast party, their friendship grew into something deeper. And as the well- known adage goes, “Misery loves company.”
And Merlin was a misery. Although if you look carefully at the Theatre ABC’s for February, 1983… you’ll see that Merlin was followed alphabetically by an even bigger bomb with a far worse reputation.
Look for that story in the next column.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.