Broadway Blip: Carnival!
If New Girl in Town indoctrinated composer-lyricist Bob Merrill into the world of the Broadway musical, and Take Me Along established his credibility and staying power, it was his next venture, Carnival!, that that really unleashed the poetic and artistic side of his talents. Based on the 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Lili, which was itself adapted from the short story “The Man Who Hated People” by Paul Gallico, Carnival! provided a much more delicate and emotionally charged foundation for a musical than Merrill’s last two outings. It also gave Merrill a chance to work with some established talent in the business, including book writer Michael Stewart and director-choreographer Gower Champion (both recently of the Tony-winning Bye, Bye, Birdie). David Merrick was again onboard to produce.
The film Lili starred actress Leslie Caron as the title character, a provincial girl from France who runs away from home and joins a traveling carnival. Naïve and trusting, Lili is first befriended by a womanizing magician who attempts to take advantage of her. She is then befriended by a lonely and bitter puppeteer who falls in love with the girl, but who can only communicate with her through his puppets. The film also starred Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. What is probably best remembered about the film is the infectious song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” by Bronislaw Kaper (music) and Helen Deutsch (lyrics) which opened the film and set the story’s whimsical tone.
Carnival! opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on April 12, 1961 to positive reviews. What is baffling is that the show was nominated for a handful of Tony Awards (7 in all) including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical, but Merrill’s score was overlooked for a nomination. It’s two winners were for Best Scenic Design (Will Seven Armstrong) and Best Actress (Anna Maria Alberghetti) a tie with actress Diahann Carroll who was starring in the Richard Rodgers musical No Strings. Best Musical would ultimately we awarded to the season’s smash hit How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Carnival! ran for 719 performances, a respectable run for such an out-of-the-box musical. Despite its popularity, Carnival! has never been revived on Broadway though many critics, historians, and fans say its return is long overdue.
Bob Merrill was attracted to the quirky and the whimsical and perhaps it was in how the setting of a traveling carnival lent itself to those attractions that inspired the composer-lyricist to craft his most deeply felt and deeply personal score. Merrill also had a hard time staying put in one place for too long, befitting a tale set inside a traveling carnival. If any of his creations were to sum up who Bob Merrill was, it would be Carnival! that would capture him most distinctly: his poetry, his deeply felt emotional side, his gentle reticence, but also his wanderlust and his deep-seeded need for vibrancy, color and showbiz. Like a self-portrait, Carnival! continues to be a reflection of the artist, a distinctly magical musical because of how much of himself Merrill poured into the final product.