My Memories of Inner City
My mother, Eve Merriam, wrote the successful but controversial book of rhymes called The Inner City Mother Goose, which became the basis for the Broadway musical Inner City, conceived and directed by Tom O’Horgan, with music by Helen Miller, and starring Blues singer Linda Hopkins. The book (published in 1969) was the result of her discovery that the original eighteenth-century Mother Goose poems were “social and political commentary,” and thus perfect for updating for adults. Her poems were told from the point of view of inner city residents, describing street violence, slums, and hypocritical and corrupt politicians. Some adults were offended by the language and point of view of the poems. Others were in an uproar to find out their kids had gotten the book out of school and public libraries. The Inner City Mother Goose became the second most-challenged book in U.S. libraries in the early 1970s. But it was praised by Roy Wilkins, executive Secretary of the NAACP; former Attorney General Ramsey Clark; New York’s Mayor John Lindsay; and author Studs Terkel.
When Inner City opened on Broadway in December of 1971, I was in my sophomore year in college. Christmas vacation had begun the day before. There was a grand opening night party after the show at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. I had grown up a block away from the Tavern, but had never been inside. It was thrilling to meet famous theater folks such as choreographer Michael Kidd, and Helen Gallagher, who had been giving diction lessons to Delores Hall. I am pretty sure I chatted with Harvey Milk, who was an associate producer.
The rawness of the book made it onto the Broadway stage. In fact, I was surprised by some of the sexual language my mother used in Inner City. “Licking somebody’s ass”, “Somebody eating off somebody else,” and “We only got Fuck-Ins up here” are expressions I had never heard her use in her everyday life. My favorite song(s) were the three by the hooker (“You make it your way”), the pusher (“You push it your way”) and the pickpocket (“You steal it your way”). When I told my mother how much I liked them, she said she had tried to write them in a Brechtian manner. Brecht was one of her heroes.
My mother delighted in the many recordings of “Deep in the Night.” She proudly showed visitors her albums by Barbra Streisand (Songbird), Etta James (Deep in the Night), Sarah Vaughan (Feelin’ Good), Linda Hopkins (Linda Hopkins), and The Shirelles (Shirelles). Because of these recordings, “Deep in the Night” has had a life outside the show. When I meet fans of Streisand, or 70s Sarah Vaughan, or Broadway trivia experts, I manage to let them know my Inner City connection. When they find out my mother wrote the lyrics to “Deep in the Night,” they rave, “Really? Your mother wrote ‘Deep in the Night’? I can’t believe it. That’s one of my favorite songs!”
A new version of Inner City called Street Dreams was produced in San Francisco in 1981. At the time, my mother was in a long-distance relationship with screenwriter Waldo Salt. She and Waldo had actually been involved back in the 1940s, but had broken off their affair when it became clear they couldn’t both get divorced from their current spouses. They reconnected three decades later in the late 1970s. In San Francisco over dinner before opening night in 1981, my mother told me she was disappointed Waldo couldn’t make it to the opening. Back in 1971 she had written “Deep in the Night” expressing her feelings for Waldo and she had recently sent Waldo the words to the song. He told her he knew the song because one of his daughters used to sing it around their apartment! During the show, when I heard the song, I began crying. I reached across to my mother who was sitting next to me, and brought her hand up to my cheeks.
The Inner City connection was strong for my mother. She stayed in touch with Carl Hall and Harvey Milk, sending Harvey his first campaign contribution in his first run for San Francisco supervisor in 1973. And she became lifelong friends with Helen Miller (the composer), Robin Wagner (the set designer), and director Tom O’Horgan. When Mom and Waldo Salt got married in 1983, they had their wedding reception at Tom’s loft in lower Manhattan. And when my mother died in 1992, my brother and I thought Tom’s place would be the perfect setting for her memorial. At the gathering there, Carl Hall sang “The Great If,” with Helen Miller accompanying him on the piano.
– Dee Michel