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Mark Bramble, co-librettist of '42nd Street' stage musical, dies

Mark Bramble, co-librettist of '42nd Street' stage musical, dies
Mark Bramble restored Gresham Hall outside Tolchester, his boyhood home. (Baltimore Sun)

Mark Bramble, a McDonogh School graduate who went on to earn plaudits on Broadway and London as a director, author and producer, died of a stroke Feb. 20 at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 68 and lived at a home on the grounds of his family’s Tolchester farm.

He was nominated for three Tony Awards, for his work as a librettist for the musical comedies “Barnum” and “42nd Street” and as a director of a 2001 revival of “42nd Street.”

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Born in Chestertown, he was the son of David Bramble, who owned an Eastern Shore road construction business, and Margaret Kintner, a homemaker. He attended Chestertown Middle School and his eighth-grade English teacher, Honey Wood, introduced him to Broadway touring shows on a class outing to the Playhouse Theatre in Wilmington for “Oliver.” He went on to graduate from McDonogh School. He attended Emerson College and New York University.

His first job in the theater was as an usher at the Mechanic Theatre in 1967.

In 1971 he began work as an apprentice in the office of theater magnate David Merrick and went on to be an assistant with the 1974 Jerry Herman musical, “Mack & Mabel,” which appeared at the Kennedy Center before moving to a New York run.

In a 1980 Sun article, he said he quit Emerson after a year and a semester and went to New York as a $35-a week assistant to Merrick. “It was the best job I ever had,” he said. “I read scripts, ran errands and made payrolls. … [Merrick] taught us the craft of putting shows together” he said.

According to a biography, he was a company manager for the 1977 run of “A Party With Betty Comden & Adolph Green,” which appeared at the old Morris A, Mechanic Theatre, and was assistant general manager for composer Cy Coleman and librettist Michael Stewart’s 1977 musical “I Love My Wife.”

Mr. Bramble wrote the book for another Jerry Herman musical, “The Grand Tour,” which starred Joel Grey. He then worked with Coleman on a musical about the life of 19th-century showman P.T. Barnum. Mr. Bramble earned his first Tony nomination in the Best Book of a Musical category for his effort. “Barnum” opened at the St. James Theatre in New York in 1980 and starred Jim Dale and Glenn Close. The musical also played in London and toured widely.

He then collaborated with Michael Stewart and Bradford Ropes and wrote lead-ins and crossovers for “42nd Street,” a stage adaptation of a classic Warner Brother’s song-and-dance film. He and his collaborators were again nominated for Best Book of a Musical.

In the 1980 article in The Sun, he said, “I became hooked on the theater when I was 12. Acting never appealed strongly to me. But writing and producing did. …. I was interested in doing ‘42nd Street’ because the mood of the Depression was similar to the mood of the country now; the diminishing value of the dollar and confusion here and abroad.”

Mr. Bramble went on to direct numerous “42nd Street” productions. In 2001 he led a new production of the show in New York, which earned him a third Tony nomination, for Best Direction of a Musical. Another production of “42nd Street” ended at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. He was present as a pair of golden slippers was presented to the Duchess of Cambridge at a 2017 charity opening night event.

He also worked on “Pieces of Eight,” a musical adaptation of “Treasure Island” and wrote the book for a 1984 Broadway revival of the operetta “The Three Musketeers,” a 1928 work by composer Rudolf Friml.

He was a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers.

Following the London launch of the revival of “42nd Street,” Mr. Bramble returned to Gresham Hall outside Tolchester, his boyhood home, which he had recently completely remodeled.

“He was a deeply knowledgeable gardener and collector of rare and unusual specimen plants. He enjoyed his gardens overlooking the Chesapeake Bay,” said a friend and McDonogh classmate, Stiles T. Colwill, the former Baltimore Museum of Art board chair. “He kept many of the specimen plants in his greenhouse filled with his prize orchid collection. Orchids fascinated him as he propagated them along with an unusual collection of coleus topiary standards which he cultivated.”

Mr. Colwill also said, “Mark could be reclusive. He didn’t like the limelight and was much happier producing the show and watching from the background. For the small group he let into his life, he had an effervescent personality.”

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Mr. Bramble collected tea caddies — or small containers for tea. Mr. Colwill said Mr. Bramble began with a small collection of caddies begun by his mother and increased the collection to more than 500 pieces.

“He drew them from international sources during his many worldwide travels with the various productions of his shows,” said Mr. Colwill. “The collection is believed to be one of the largest and most important known today.”

Mr. Bramble wrote on this subject in a 2017 book, “ A Tea Caddy Collection.” They were exhibited at Homewood House Museum at Johns Hopkins University and at the Historic Odessa Foundation in Delaware.

A life celebration is being planned.

Survivors include his two brothers, David Bramble and Alan Bramble, both of whom reside on the family’s farm at Tolchester; six nieces and nephews; and six great-nieces and great-nephews.

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