Michael Myerberg, Broadway Heretic

The Sunday Herald Tribune had an article on producer Michael Myerberg, producer of the Mary Martin musical “Lute Song,” playing at this time on Broadway. It presented Myerberg as a risk taker who previously had taken a chance with Thornton Wilder's “The Skin of Our Teeth” after it had been turned down by a long list of Broadway producers. He had trouble attracting investors to the Wilder play, which almost closed in New Haven but made it to Broadway where it had a season long run.  “Lute Song,” adapted from a Chinese classic, had been making the rounds of producers for 15 years, and had several amateur and semi-professional productions, notably recently at Catholic University, before Myerberg took it on. The Chinese original ran all day.

The article noted that Myerberg had three flops before the success of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” then managed Leopold Stokowski for five years.

Myerberg does not fare well in accounts written by the people with whom he worked. In his autobiography, Elia Kazan, who directed “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wrote that with the success of “Our Town,” he was surprised that Wilder had turned to the relatively inexperienced Myerberg and was equally surprised about his own choice as director since he had few theater directing credits at this point in his career. He described Myerberg as a “tall man, without the grace some tall men have, unnaturally thin, rickety, his complexion a washroom green.”  They did not get along.

Tallulah Bankhead, who starred in "The Skin of Our Teeth," in her autobiography called him an “erratic, tactless man, lean as Cassius, who had been fiddling around the theater for a dozen years with little success.” She wrote that Wilder had been impressed by Myerberg's enthusiasm for his new play in contrast with the bewilderment shown by most of the other producers in town. It had been a rocky production out of town with egos flaring, according to Tallulah! the Life and Times of a Leading Lady by Joel Lobenthal. Lobenthal quoted Isabel Wilder, Thornton Wilder's sister, who was attached to the production as his eyes and ears, as saying that everyone was to blame for the chaos but that Myerberg was the worst of the lot, attempting secretly to make script changes. “He was a novice taking on this big thing, and so all the time he was shaking, shaking, shaking and making quarrels, quarrels, quarrels,” she said. Isabel Wilder thoroughly disliked him. Frances Heflin, a member of the cast, which also included Frederick March, Florence Eldridge and Montgomery Clift, said that when Myerberg was called up for Equity arbitration for his multiple infractions of union rules, the entire cast testified against him. After the rocky start in New Haven, Myerberg turned to his stars for financial backing. Bankhead turned him down but reportedly the husband-wife team of March and Eldridge put up enough money to keep the production going.

Myerberg was responsible for an incident that inspired the movie "All About Eve." He hired a 20-year old actress/model to be Bankhead's understudy, over Bankhead's objection. It was rumored he was sleeping with her. The young woman, born to Slovak immigrant parents in Scranton as Emma Matzo, went professionally by the name Elizabeth Scott. She never got to go on for Bankhead in the Broadway production, in which she also had a walk-on part. When she took over the role in the Boston production, she dropped the initial E in her name. It was as Lizabeth Scott that she became a Hollywood star, appearing in 1946 in her breakout role with Barbara Stanwyck in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”

During the rehearsals for “Lute Song” there had been an odd incident recounted by Michelangelo Capua in Yul Brynner: A Biography. Myerberg, having decided he was unhappy with the production, called in the cast over the course of a weekend when director John Houseman was away and restaged the whole play himself. Myerberg had been hospitalized several times prior to this incident and when Houseman returned, Myerberg had a relapse. After he was released from the hospital, he expressed satisfaction with Houseman's direction and the bizarre episode was never mentioned again. "Lute Song" had a mixed critical reception and a modest run.