Of all the talent folks who have tried their hand at writing lyrics in the past century or so, few can match Johnny Mercer for freshness, catchiness, wit and charm — not to mention prolificacy. With more than 1,200 songs to his credit, Mercer might best be described using the title from one of them: "Too Marvelous for Words."
Everyman Theatre's "A Tribute to Johnny Mercer," opening Sunday, will offer a sample of his works in a show directed by Vincent Lancisi. One of the singers in the production is Delores King Williams, who first suggested Mercer as a possible subject for the company's winter cabaret. She was featured in Everyman's 2008 cabaret salute to the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Around that time, the singer, a longtime member of the popular satirical troupe Capitol Steps, happened to be studying some opera arias by Verdi with Frederick Petrich in Baltimore.
"My low notes were really coming in," Williams said, "and my teacher said I ought to do [Mercer's] 'Blues in the Night.' So when Vinny asked what else I would want to do in a cabaret show at Everyman, I said, 'How about Johnny Mercer?'"
The extent of Mercer's legacy was driven home in 2009, his centennial year, when Knopf published a hefty coffee table book, "The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer," edited by Robert Kimball and others. Even a random flip through the pages will land on great pop music standards: "One for My Baby," "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Laura," "Old Black Magic," "Skylark," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Moon River." The list goes on and on.
Although the Savannah-born Mercer, who died in 1976, wrote the melodies to some of his words, most of his work was done in collaboration with more than 200 composers, including Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel and Henry Mancini.
"I thought I knew a lot of Mercer's work until I started looking into it," Lancisi said. "It has not been fun trying to narrow it down to 30 or 40 songs."
Joining Williams onstage for the show with be vocalists Judy Simmons and Jamie Zemarel; Howard Breitbart is the musical director/pianist.
"Of course, we'll do songs the audience would murder us for if we didn't," Williams said. "But we will also do some that aren't so well known."
The rarer items include "Whistling Away the Dark," which Mercer wrote with Mancini for the 1970 film "Darling Lili."
"That was one I had never heard before. It just floored me," Williams said. "Mercer could create a whole world with very few words. And you couldn't take out one syllable; they are so perfectly melded with the music."
"A Tribute to Johnny Mercer" opens Sunday and runs through Jan. 2 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Ticket are $30. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org for show times.