Broadway Blip: Take Me Along
After his success with New Girl in Town, It wasn’t long before composer-lyricist Bob Merrill was ushering his next MGM property to Broadway, an adaptation of yet another Eugene O’Neill play. Ah, Wilderness! was a departure for O’Neill from his usual complex, modern tragedies and a brief step into the world of lighthearted comedy. This play, about a family celebrating the Fourth of July and the coming of age of the middle son, seemed a far more fitting property for musical comedy than Anna Christie. Notorious producer David Merrick had already explored the idea of bringing Ah, Wilderness! to Broadway as a musical and had gone so far as to initially hire John Latouche to write the book and happily invested in Merrill’s project, thus beginning a long partnership in theatre. Merrill, once again, wrote both music and lyrics and he was joined by Joseph Stein who was to write the book. British director Peter Glenville would helm the piece with choreography by Onna White. On paper, this looked like the perfect ingredients for a solid, nostalgia-inducing musical a la The Music Man.
Ah, Wilderness! and subsequently the 1959 Take Me Along (as its musical version would be known) is the story of the Miller family who live in New London, Connecticut. Set in 1906 during 4thof July celebrations, the plot is mostly built-around the story of the middle son Richard, the story of a 16-year-old boy as he comes to age: falling in love, drinking, and finding trouble as the family worries about him. Take Me Along was mostly an agreeable, innocuous, gentle look at family life with a fun (if less than memorable) score that was an earnest effort on Merrill’s part to give the powers that be the musical that was wanted.
Under the hawk-eyed control of David Merrick, Take Me Along happened with many challenges, most of them inspired by Merrick’s penchant for firing people and his unyielding need for total control. Per Merrick, Take Me Along was to drip with Americana and he directed the creative team, against their instincts, to model the piece after tried and true conventions of the musical theatre, even if it went against the needs of telling O’Neill’s story. From the onset, the assembled team was frustrated with the project, interested in finding unconventional ways of telling the story of the Miller family and not reinventing the wheel of The Music Man. The opening number is a fine example of where visions differed. Merrill wanted to explore layered storytelling through music, introducing the family members one by one and then bringing them all together, something that would be effectively achieved a few years later in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Good Morning, Good Day” from She Loves Me. Merrick wanted the musical to open with a parade, something that was not in the play nor had very little purpose in getting the plot started or the characters introduced. It didn’t matter; if David Merrick wanted the show to start with a parade, then it was going to start with a parade. He was determined to have his Music Man.
Bob Merrill knew that his future rested in his flexibility. He saw David Merrick as both a savvy producer and an important mentor, keeping calm and cool around this erratic and eccentric up-and-coming titan of Broadway in an effort to glean essential learning from him. Many people had trouble navigating David Merrick, but Bob Merrill was a pragmatist where Merrick was concerned, and could separate “how” he said things from “why” he said them. Merrill could distill the essential information and artistry from Merrick’s tantrums and tirades in a way that it made him a better composer-lyricist and all-around artist where constructing musical theatre was concerned. There was much to be learned from this man. It would be good training for a long term career in the theatre. It is also important to point out that Merrill genuinely liked Merrick, looked to him as a father figure, and wanted to live up this man’s faith in him. It is equally important to point out that Merrill was one of the few people that Merrick trusted implicitly, and he often turned to the composer-lyricist for advice on troubled shows that he was producing. There was a synergy between these two men, the flamboyant and totalitarian Merrick and the introspective and diplomatic Merrill, that was greater than the sum of its parts. Both men were better for having the other one in their life.
This did not, however, preclude Merrill being pulled into Merrick’s drama. Occasionally he would be dispatched to do Merrick’s bidding, sometimes an unpleasant task such as firing a director, something he was asked to do on Take Me Along.
Take Me Along opened on Broadway on October 22, 1959 at The Shubert Theatre. It lasted for 448 performances, besting New Girl in Town’s longevity by just a few weeks. It was a busy year on Broadway that season with Gypsy, The Sound of Music, Once Upon a Mattress and Fiorello! pulling more of the spotlight. It was miraculous then that Take Me Along managed to win single Tony Award for Jackie Gleason as Best Actor in a Musical, a role that was not much more than an inflated supporting role, but popular nevertheless. Interestingly enough, Tom Bosley, who played the title character (and obvious lead) in Fiorello!won for Best Featured Actor in Musical. Still, Take Me Along was nominated for ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, which, in such a sparkling season, was a feat unto itself. Ultimately, The Sound of Music and Fiorello! tied for Best Musical, and Gypsy, which is regarded as one of the great musicals of all time, went home empty-handed. New Girl in Town may have put Bob Merrill on the Broadway map, but it was Take Me Along that cemented his credibility to become an important voice and visionary in the musical theatre of the 1960s.