“I can hold a note as long as the Chase Manhattan Bank”
Actor Jack Klugman tells the story of the opening night of Gypsy on May 21, 1959. When Ethel Merman made her “designed for a star entrance” from the back of the house and down the aisle on house right of the Broadway Theater, the house, according to Klugman, went “crazy.” “I had no idea that they loved her that much.” They certainly did love the Merm that much, and the strong adulation continues today more than twenty years after her death, and nearly one hundred years since her birth in 1906.
Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway is a wonderful new book by Geoffrey Mark, and once again ignites discussion and interest in the career and singing of Miss Merman. As inspiration for this book review/article, I have also been listening to Ethel and Mary Martin as they sing their way through The Ford 50th Anniversary Show from June 15, 1953. Within Ethel Merman’s voice, one can hear the clarion tone, and reverberant timbre that shook Alvin Theater (currently known as the Neil Simon) on October 14, 1930 when she first took the Broadway community by storm with her thrilling rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” in the world premiere of Girl Crazy. Although Miss Merman attempted to make a legend of they myth that she came to Broadway as a complete unknown, it is well documented that she had been singing in nightclubs for four years prior to this stunning debut on Broadway. The New York Times review the next morning only hinted at the great career ahead for Ethel Merman. One can safely assume that no one had ever heard anything like this distinctive voice.
“Another is Ethel Merman, whose peculiar song style was brought from the nightclubs to the stage to the vast delight last evening of the people who go places and watch things being done.”
According to the author, Mr. Mark, the opening of Girl Crazy was a career making moment for Ethel Merman, and she never looked back. Her particular delivery of the song “I Got Rhythm” lives as a legend today, and her holding of the A above middle C for sixteen bars over lively Gershwin arranged orchestral accompaniment was well appreciated by the audience of 1930. Cole Porter once said that you better give Ethel Merman a good lyric, because without a doubt, the patrons in the second balcony will hear it as well as everyone else in the theater. This notable projection became a calling card for many of Ethel Merman’s roles as a brassy broad in numerous productions.
Nearly every Ethel Merman book or article produces a new set of stories about the celebrated star. There are a few of these stories which really stand out. In the long original run of Annie Get Your Gun, Annie Oakley’s gun failed to go off one night, but the “dead bird” fell from the rafters anyway. Merman looked at the audience and said, “I’ll be damned, apoplexy!” Merman walked out on a show in the 1940’s due to bad song lyrics. Ethel’s “goon look” upon seeing Frank Butler stopped the show every night on Broadway, and is often imitated by actors playing Annie Oakley. Bernadette Peters had her own stunned, "goon look" when she won the Tony Award for playing Annie Oakley in the 1999 Broadway revisal of this classic Irving Berlin show. Ethel was known for playing all of her lines to the audience and sometimes ignoring other actors. Miss Merman did not forgive Producer Richard Rodgers for 25 years for forcing her to stay with Annie Get Your Gun longer than she had planned. Finally, a warm glow must have settled over Broadway when Ethel finally agreed to appear in the original Broadway production of Hello Dolly as the closing Dolly Levi. While Ethel was in the show, it became the longest running Broadway musical of all time for a period of years. Jerry Herman restored two songs to the score that he had written for Ethel, and she received a super star’s welcome from the Broadway audiences. Originally scheduled to play a limited run of three months (Ethel was already 64 years old). Ethel extended her run to nine months after receiving more than nine current calls on opening night and several standing ovations every night.
There are many personal stories of four divorces, suicide, drug abuse, dishonesty, deceit and tawdry relationships in the life of Ethel Merman. Despite heart wrenching adversity, she kept performing with her characteristic strength and brilliance.
In an uninterrupted string of over fifteen Broadway musical hits, spanning forty years, Ethel Merman established herself as not only the star of Broadway, a superstar of Broadway, but as “the biggest star on Broadway.” It is important to remember that Ethel Merman had a much longer time in the spotlight and more than twice as many genuine hit songs when compared with the fabled Al Jolson. She had more hit shows than Tallulah Bankhead and Helen Hayes put together. (Note to the reader: we already have the Helen Hayes Theater). Mr. Mark even asserts that although Mary Martin was richer than Ethel Merman, Merman was “better.” His book proffers the indisputable evidence throughout his book that Merman was the first lady of Broadway during much of the twentieth century.
Defining the exact characteristics that made Merman a star is a difficult challenge. Her big expressive eyes, out-sized personality, and immense smile lit up the stage. It is widely known that he demeanor as an actor and her style of delivery were well suited to the live Broadway stage in days when there was no amplification of voices. These same characteristics seem to have doomed any hope that Ethel Merman had of being a big movie star. During the decade of the 1930’s, Merman bounced back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood always having a great success in New York, and very little success in the movies.
Undeniably, Miss Merman’s claim to artistic fame was her matchless and unrivaled voice. She continued singing well into her eighth decade of life. Like all performers her voice aged, and sometimes not well. However, there are many recordings that demonstrate that her pipes were still working well for her, even in later years. Opera singer Birgit Nilsson assured Merman that she could have made it as an opera singer, and her luminous voice never failed to thrill a Broadway audience. Ethel did not seem to have a break in her voice, and although many voice experts state that Ethel was the first “belter,” this term fails to capture the breadth and scope of Ethel’s voice and the unique way in which she used her voice. One must listen to early recordings of Ethel singing her hits from the 1930’s and early forties to understand the vocal journey and talent of Miss Merman.
With so many great hits including and especially Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, Call Me Madam, Anything Goes, Girl Crazy, Panama Hattie, and her legendary performances in the Jerry Herman musical Hello Dolly in the waning months of the original Broadway run, it is time for the theatrical powerhouses in New York City to insist that a Broadway theater be renamed the Ethel Merman. It is a glaring and unacceptable oversight not to have this recognition for Miss Merman, and she is much more deserving than some recent theater community people who have achieved this status and honor. The span of her career, the illustrious shows that rode on her talent, the eminent songs of Porter, Berlin, and Styne that she brought to fame, the prominent critics, colleagues and audiences which thrilled at her work, and her abundant allocation of shear fortitude and spirit have earned Ethel Merman a lasting recognition of her efforts on Broadway. It is past time to name a Broadway theater for Ethel Merman.
Ethel Merman never missed a performance of Call Me Madam. She rarely missed a performance of Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy which each had long runs on Broadway. She was an agent, producer, artistic director, actor, singer, casting director, and musician of the first degree. Merman was the greatest exponent of that which made Broadway tick: onstage and off stage, Ethel Merman shot directly from the hip.
Today, those who saw her in Gypsy still talk about her performance as one of the memorable theatrical experiences of their lifetime. Mary Martin won the Tony Award that year for The Sound Of Music, yet no one talks about that performance. The supreme, goddess-like stamp of Ethel Merman will forever lie on the role of Mama Rose. Writing in the New York Times review of the opening night of Gypsy, Brooks Atkinson states all of the following. (Note to the reader: we already have the Brooks Atkinson theater.)
“But trust Ethel. She concludes the proceedings with a song and dance of defiance. Mr. Styne’s music is dramatic. Miss Merman’s performances expresses he whole character: cocky and aggressive, yet sociable and good-hearted. Not for the first time in her fabulous career, her personal magnetism electrifies the whole theater. Ethel Merman is a performer of incomparable power. Gypsy is a good show in the old tradition of musicals. For years, Miss Merman has been the Queen.”
Please join the effort to name a theater for the great one: Miss Ethel Merman!