Pure Broadway

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's one of the most famous stories in show-business history - and Maryland-born Mark Bramble was right in the middle of it.

The story is the saga of the Broadway opening of the musical 42nd Street, a show Bramble co-authored. On Aug. 25, 1980, the day of the opening, the show's director and choreographer, Gower Champion, died of a rare blood disease.

However, David Merrick, the musical's legendary producer, arranged to withhold this information from the public - and from the cast - until after the final curtain.

"His decision was a very controversial one at the time, but at the end of the show, after 11 curtain calls, the audience was on their feet screaming and cheering, and Merrick, who had been absent from Broadway for almost a decade, walked out onto the stage," Bramble recalled last week.

"He got a tremendous ovation, and he held up his hand and said, 'This is tragic,' and the audience roared with laughter. They thought he was just pulling another Merrick stunt. ... Then he said, 'No, you don't understand. Gower Champion is dead.' And, of course, it was the first time the cast heard it, and they were stunned. I've never experienced anything like this. People literally fell into their seats. Some people cried out. People sobbed."

Bramble was one of the few, outside of Champion's family, who already knew of the director's death. "At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, Merrick appeared on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre and summoned me. He walked me to a far corner behind the scenery, and he said, 'Gower Champion is dead.' And Merrick was a big man. He was a large man, and he fell onto me weeping, and then he quickly pulled himself together and said, 'We've got to open.' He said, 'If we don't open tonight, we'll never be able to open.'"

Six months later, Bramble remembers the producer making a "remarkable statement" about that night. "He said to me, 'Gower Champion staged his exit perfectly, and no one could have promoted it better than I did.' Which is absolutely true."

42nd Street went on to be a major hit, winning the 1981 Tony Award and running for more than eight years on Broadway. Two seasons ago, a revival opened on Broadway. Directed by Bramble, it won the 2001 Tony for best musical revival and has spawned a touring company, which opens tomorrow at the Mechanic Theatre.

Creative start

For Bramble, 51, the Mechanic engagement completes a circle that began in January 1967 when he got his first job in the theater - as an usher at Saturday matinees, beginning with the very first Mechanic show, which happened to be a Merrick production, Hello, Dolly!

At the time, the Chestertown native was a boarding student at McDonogh School, where he had begun to explore an interest in theater. At the school, he and some fellow students started a theater group called the McDonogh School Experimental Theater.

"This is in the midst of a boys school that was a semi-military organization and also very much tied into athletics, and he wasn't particularly tied into either of those as I recall, but he did make a mark for himself in the arts," says his former English teacher, Hugh Burgess.

One production that made a strong impression was an adaptation of William Golding's The Lord of the Flies that Bramble starred in, wrote and directed.

"It was fairly startling," Burgess says. "I was completely surprised that they could do this."

Robert B. Kershaw, a Baltimore attorney who attended McDonogh with Bramble, remembers that in their high school days, Bramble was a fan of Joel Grey and also talked about writing a musical about P.T. Barnum. "His vision, his dream, was very early," says Kershaw.

A decade later, Bramble made his Broadway debut as co-author of the musical The Grand Tour (1979), starring Grey. A year after that, Bramble was back on Broadway as the author of the musical Barnum (1980).

"He knew what he wanted and he set about doing it. He was bound and determined," says Baltimore interior designer Stiles T. Colwill, another close friend and fellow McDonogh alum.

Although his parents, David (retired owner of an Eastern Shore contracting firm) and Marnee, were always supportive, his mother recalls that whenever he wanted permission to follow one of his dreams, he would say, "An opportunity has presented itself."

One of those opportunities led him to transfer from Emerson College in Boston to New York University, so he could continue working as an intern for Merrick, a position that began as a work-study project during a minimester at Emerson.

After he transferred, however, Bramble says, "The truth is, I never went [to class]. I was so happy to be in the Merrick office, they would say, 'Don't you have to be in school?'"

"College was a waste of time for Mark," acknowledges Kershaw, who points out that it was through Merrick that Bramble met Hello, Dolly! librettist Michael Stewart, with whom he went on to collaborate on The Grand Tour, Barnum and 42nd Street.

Close relationship

Merrick, who died in 2000, was a notoriously difficult man. Critic Howard Kissel subtitled his 1993 biography, "The Abominable Showman," and even Bramble has described him as "a monster." But Bramble maintained a lifelong relationship with the producer, whom he says regarded him as the son he never had.

"He knew me from the time I was 19 years old, and when he met me, I was so green that whenever he spoke to me I would blush, and that would make him laugh," Bramble says. "He would come running out of his office and say, 'Blush!'"

Over time, Merrick put a lot of trust in Bramble, both personally and professionally. "David had an obsession with cash," says Bramble, who remembers riding around New York in a limousine with Merrick while the producer withdrew enormous sums of cash from various safe deposit boxes, cash he would use to finance the London production of 42nd Street. "He hid [the money] in my apartment, which was very nervous-making," Bramble says.

After Merrick suffered a stroke, he briefly became Bramble's roommate. Surrounded by an entourage, the producer had been recovering in the south of France. Bramble visited him there and was "shocked" to find his former employer huddled under a blanket, moaning in what appeared to be a semi-conscious state.

But when they were left alone, Merrick, who turned out to be dressed in a three-piece suit and trench coat, "sat up and said, 'When are you going back to New York?' just as clear as a bell," Bramble says. "He ended up moving into my apartment and spending the summer. Actually, we had a great time."

"Whatever ups and downs there may have been over the years, when things were difficult at the end, Mark was the one who really reached out and was a true friend to David Merrick," says Kershaw.

Unbound ideas

Bramble remains grateful to Merrick for embracing a vision of 42nd Street that allowed it to become a large-scale extravaganza. He vividly recalls the initial lunch when he and Stewart talked with the producer about their plans to make a stage musical out of the 1933 Busby Berkeley movie and the Bradford Ropes novel on which it was based - the quintessential backstage story of a leading lady who breaks her ankle and the chorus girl who takes her place. (The score augments the movie's Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs with a dozen chestnuts from the songwriters' catalog.)

From the start, Bramble says, "[Merrick] understood what ... 42nd Street could be - what David called a lullaby to old Broadway with an enormous cast, hundreds of costumes, gigantic sets and the most lavish production that Broadway had seen since the 1920s." The 1980 production cost $2.5 million. (The 2001 revival cost $12 million.)

Bramble, currently in London on his way to Moscow, where the show opens in a few weeks, has directed productions of 42nd Street in London, Tokyo, Vienna, Sydney and Amsterdam.

While he's in London, he's meeting with set designer John Napier, with whom he is working on what he calls "a megaspectacle for Las Vegas," "an homage to movie musicals." Bramble lived in London for nine years but moved back to New York in 1991.

Not a man who does things in a small way, for a while he became hooked on horticulture, and his penthouse apartment was home to 500 plants. He has now thinned his collection down to 100 orchids, which co-exist with his two Jack Russell terriers.

Colwill remembers a cocktail party at his friend's apartment for which Bramble acquired "something like 1,000 unhatched butterflies, and the timing was such that the day of the party, most of these butterflies hatched. You cannot imagine what it's like to be in a New York apartment with 1,000 butterflies flying around. It's quite spectacular. There's always been a sense of the theatrical. If Mark's doing it, it's either all or nothing."

Yet despite a career in the theater that has taken him to many of the world's great capitals, when Bramble isn't in New York, the place he returns to most frequently is Chestertown, where his parents and two older brothers still live.

"When I was growing up, I couldn't wait to get out of there," he says. "Now I can't wait to get back."

42nd Street

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25-$72.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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