The Saturday List: Celebrating Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman in Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy

I had a dream!
A dream about you, Ethel!
It’s gonna come true, Ethel!
They think that we’re through,
But Ethel

On this day in 1930, Variety gave Ethel Merman a breakthrough review ahead of what would become a breathtaking musical theatre career: ‘She is a good looking girl with a fair enough voice that might carry much further with special stuff. This is her first stage appearance. She’s out of cabaret so probably has plenty to learn.’ Merman learned what she needed to learn pretty quickly, making her Broadway debut in Girl Crazy just three months later, beginning a career that spanned decades and earned her the title “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.” Let’s take a look at her ten biggest Broadway successes.

10. Girl Crazy (1930)

Merman’s Broadway debut was in a musical that was typical of the late 1920s and early 1930s, something that allowed her to showcase her unique star quality. With music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan, Girl Crazy introduced several standards to the musical theatre canon, including “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me.” Playing a singer at the dude ranch that the show’s lead, Danny Churchill, dreams up in response to his father’s instructions to take life more seriously, Merman put her unmistakable stamp on “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and – most significantly – “I Got Rhythm.” Roger Edens, who was on the piano for the show and would go on to become a major player in the music department at MGM, suggested that Merman belt out a single note for several bars during the second chorus of the song. She did, and a legend was born, prompting George Gershwin to warn her never to take a singing lesson.

9. DuBarry Was A Lady (1939)

Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva crafted the nonsensical romantic romp that was DuBarry Was a Lady around songs written for the show by Cole Porter, which included classics like “Well, Did You Evah!,” “Katie Went to Haiti” and “Friendship.” The latter two were performed by Merman, who introduced “Friendship” alongside Bert Lahr. Lahr played Louie, a washroom attendant who wins the lottery and hopes this will enable him to marry May, a nightclub singer, who is in love with Alex, her friend, Alice’s bother, who is unhappily married to Ann. Louie drinks a Mickey Finn and hallucinates that he is King Louis XV and that May is his mistress, Madame du Barry. The other characters all have counterparts in the dream, which eventually makes Louie realise that May and Alex are meant to be together. When he awakes, he uses his winnings to pay for Alex’s divorce and then returns to his old job. This was Merman’s third Porter show and reviews of the time said she was in top form, although the notices for the show weren’t as good as those for its stars.

8. Happy Hunting (1956)

Ethel Merman was not a fan of Happy Hunting. She was forced into the show by her third husband, an airline executive who wanted to use Merman’s fame to drum up some publicity. So while she tolerated the reunion with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, she had very little time for the unknown songwriting team of Harold Karr and Matt Dubey. Merman thought their songs were weak and even showed open disdain for her old pals’ book about a society hostess trying to one-up Grace Kelly by marrying off her daughter to a duke. In the biggest flex of her Broadway career, Merman had two of the shows’ songs replaced with new ones by Roger Edens and Kay Thompson five months into the run.

7. Anything Goes (1934)

Anything Goes was Merman’s biggest hit of the 1930s, introducing the hits “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “You’re the Top,” and “Blow Gabriel Blow” into the singer’s repertoire. With a score by Cole Porter and a book that was first written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse and then revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, Anything Goes is a rom-com that served The Love Boat realness before that classic series came along. Billy Crocker, Reno Sweeney, Hope Harcourt and Evelyn Oakleigh board the SS American and like dozens of musical comedy couples before them do what it takes to end up with the right person. As in many musicals of the period, madcap antics ensue, making it a perfect entertainment for Depression-era America. While three revisals of the show have followed, Merman laid the foundation for every Reno that has followed in her footsteps, including Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster.

6. Something for the Boys (1943)

Something for the Boys, which had a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, was Merman’s fifth show with Cole Porter. You really get the sense that they know each other by know, with Porter crafting a set of songs that allowed Merman to dominate the show, while Merman did what Irving Berlin said she did best: ‘Give her a bad song, and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song, and she’ll make it sound great.’ The musical tells the tale of three cousins who set up a boarding house for soldiers’ wives on a ranch next to a military base. It’s all perfectly serviceable, without being a definitive show in the careers of anyone involved. Perhaps a comment like this appears to be damning the show with faint praise, but is there another show in Merman’s body of work that is better at getting on with the business of simply being a musical of its time?

Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Call Me Madam and Hello, Dolly!

5. Panama Hattie (1940)

Merman kicked off the new decade with a show that showed just how much she could bring to even the most routine material. Panama Hattie. Merman went from being a nightclub singer in her previous show, DuBarry was a Lady, to being a nightclub owner and along with the promotion, a change of setting came along with the deal. The Panama Canal served as a suitably exotic backdrop against which Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva’s tale of sailors, singers and spies could play out. Lots of plotting adds up to very little, but the show did add two great Cole Porter songs to Merman’s repertoire: “I’ve Still Got My Health” and “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please.”

4. Call Me Madam (1950)

The role of Sally Adams aka “The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball” is often cited as being one of any Mermaniac’s favourites, and it is one of only two roles that Merman originated that she would also play on film. (The other was in the 1936 film adaptation of Anything Goes.) The show reunited the star with Irving Berlin following the smash success of Annie Get Your Gun, as well as with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who had retooled the script of one of her early hits, Anything Goes. The ebullient joy that is so often linked with Merman is on ample display here, manifesting itself in the aforementioned number as well as bops like “You’re Just In Love.” Surely nobody was surprised when Merman was awarded the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for this role, her only win in this category, although she was nominated for every role she originated during the part of her career that coincided with the Tony Awards’ existence.

3. Gypsy (1959)

Gypsy, the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim show about Rose Hovick and her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee, gave Merman the last role she would originate on Broadway. ‘You can’t buck a nun,’ she quipped when she lost the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her electrifying performance to Mary Martin, who had played Maria in The Sound of Music. While there is a tendency for people to be patronising about Merman’s acting in the role, all the more so given that she was followed by the likes of the incomparable Angela Lansbury as well as Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone, listening to live audio recordings of Merman performing the show, particularly her performance of “Rose’s Turn,” certainly makes one respect Merman’s Rose more. It’s a pity she wasn’t able to preserve her take on the role on film, which unfortunately went to Rosalind Russell in a turn of events that Merman called ‘the greatest professional disappointment of (her) life.’

2. Annie Get Your Gun (1946)

While Herbert and Dorothy Fields’s book falls into the trap of shuffling the plot along from one song to the next, the score of Annie Get Your Gun is jam-packed with hit songs by Irving Berlin. “I’m An Indian Too” aside, just about every other song ‘sparkle(s) like a crystal’ and Broadway was treated to two outings of the show with Merman as the titular Annie Oakley. She’s even better on the cast album from the 1960s, whether she’s tackling “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” or “I Got Lost in His Arms.” Is there a better Annie Oakley on record? I don’t think so. Merman is definitive here and there’s not much more to say about it.

1. Hello Dolly (1970)

Hello, Dolly! was the only show in which Ethel Merman would serve as a replacement, six years into the run of a show that was originally conceived with her in mind. To mark the occasion, two Jerry Herman songs that were cut from the show before it opened were reincorporated especially for Merman. “World, Take Me Back” outstays its welcome, perhaps, but “Love, Look in My Window” is just a fantastic piece of Herman exuberance. Merman would win a Drama Desk Award for her performance and the show would become the longest-running Broadway musical during her tenure, after which the show would close. While the show was not Merman’s greatest personal success, it was the most successful show in which she performed on Broadway and the last time she would grace the Main Stem in a role.

On Broadway, Merman also performed in Take a Chance, George White’s Scandals, Red, Hot and Blue! and Stars in Your Eyes in addition to the shows we’ve discussed here. To take stock of her legendary status, we might ask whether she was definitive in the roles she originated and whether the legacy she left behind represented everything that she was.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, there is no doubt that Merman was definitely “it.” One can see her wrestling with the shifting landscape of musical theatre changing in the late 1940s and 1950s, a time when musicals started being built more and more around the characters rather than exclusively on the merits of its stars. If nothing else did, Gypsy proved that she could make the shift successfully, even though Rose was a role that made use of her strong points – even if she did eventually sink back into old habits like moving so far upstage when she performed that the rest of the cast ended up with their backs to the audience.

There are, of course, times in the later years of her career when Merman strutted into the territory high camp. Take The Ethel Merman Disco Album, for example, which should be required listening for every serious musical theatre fan. Several of Merman’s hits are set to some fabulously tacky disco arrangements and while it’s hardly something one might expect to rack up a record number of plays on Spotify, this novelty record is worth the occasional spin.

In the final analysis, though, Merman was indisputably a legend. Even in her last appearances, like her performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in That’s Singing – her voice still had its power, clarity and range. Even when some might have said she was past her time, the lady still had it! Right until the end, she followed her credo, ‘I just stand up and holler and hope that my voice holds out.’

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