Two of Broadway's greats take their final bows.

By Daniel Okrent
Updated May 12, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the last days of April, three remarkable things happened on Broadway.

First, it was the best box office week ever: 308,000 people paid nearly $17 million to see Broadway shows. Then Alexander H. Cohen died at 79. Three days later, so did David Merrick, at 88. It was as if the two most prominent theatrical producers of the last half century jointly realized that with sales like these, Broadway didn’t need them anymore. Except Cohen and Merrick would never have done anything jointly—nor would they ever have believed Broadway could survive without them. In some ways, it hasn’t; the Age of the Impresario has given way to the Era of the Corporation, with producing combines (”bookkeepers” to Merrick) controlling Broadway.

David Merrick could lay claim to two distinctions. With hits such as Gypsy, Hello, Dolly!, and 42nd Street, he was the most successful producer in Broadway history. And, despite tough competition, he was also the most despised. His enemies had two reasons to hate him. First there was his—well, his hatefulness. Phyllis Diller once said if she needed a heart transplant, she’d ask for Merrick’s: ”It’s never been used.” One of his wives cut the sleeves off his handmade shirts before she left; he publicly called another ”ugly”; a third married and divorced him twice, taking pains to reveal that the second marriage had never been consummated.

But it was probably Merrick’s huge success that most motivated his rivals. In 1958, he had four plays running on one block. Seven years later, he enjoyed a dream season with five hits spanning the spectrum from the goo of Hello, Dolly! to the revolutionary shock of Marat/Sade. He introduced the work of Tom Stoppard, Brian Friel, and John Osborne to America.

But if his taste was excellent, his tactics were gross. In his most notorious stunt, Merrick withheld news of director Gower Champion’s death until after the opening performance of his 42nd Street—guaranteeing that the announcement, which he made in front of a stunned cast during the curtain calls, would score front-page coverage. ”As a producer,” he said, ”I couldn’t resist it.”

Unlike Merrick, who lived surprisingly modestly, Alexander Cohen luxuriated in his role as showman. ”If God had meant me to take taxis,” he once said, ”he wouldn’t have invented the limousine.” Like Merrick, Cohen treasured the publicity of a catfight, blasting Jerry Lewis for not rehearsing sufficiently for Cohen’s failed 1977 revival of Hellzapoppin‘, attacking Gov. Mario Cuomo because ”he hasn’t been to the theater in 25 years,” and making certain the world knew (or at least believed) that he had had the name of New York magazine critic John Simon printed on his toilet paper.

Until the late ’80s, Cohen made his money producing the Tony Awards telecast. But if he liked the cash that came from the tube, he loved the glory that could spill only from a stage, as when he brought Richard Burton to Broadway in Hamlet, or mounted plays by Eugene O’Neill, Harold Pinter, Jules Feiffer. After a six-decade career that was launched with 1941’s Angel Street and ended with the current Waiting in the Wings, Cohen was still loudly criticizing those who had turned Broadway into a Disneyfied tchotchke mall of T-shirts, mugs, and posters.

It got his name in the papers. And, as with Merrick, that may have been the thing he wanted most.