Wednesday, February 13, 2008
I first became aware of Ethel Merman as a child when she made a guest appearance on my favorite TV show, “That Girl.” She played herself and Ann (Marlo Thomas) had been cast in a Broadway show with her and was thrilled because she admired Ms. Merman so much. It all seemed so glamourous to me that it really made an impression.
When I later discovered the cast album of “Gypsy” I responded to the songs on a soul level, and so was once again drawn to Ethel Merman. When I saw that Brian Kellow was speaking to our Dutch Treat Club at the National Arts Club yesterday about his new biography, Ethel Merman: A Life, I knew I wanted to be there.
As it turns out, Mr. Kellow, who writes the popular “On the Beat” column for “Opera News,” also was fascinated by Ms. Merman when he was a child growing up in Oregon and saw her on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” At first his interest was partly a “childhood rebellion” because his parents couldn’t stand her voice (neither could my mother). “I thought she was astounding the first time I heard her,” he said. So did I!
He was inspired by songs like “Some People,” which talked about longing to get away and have a better life. He knew that feeling living in Oregon and I knew that feeling living in Baltimore. Lyrics like “some people sit on their butts, got the dream, yeah, but not the guts” were a clarion call to me. I had the dream and I was going to have the guts.
Ms. Merman’s dream, according to Mr. Kellow, didn’t require a lot of guts at first. “She caught on right from the beginning,” he said. “She started at the top and she stayed there.”
When she held a note in “I Got Rhythm” for 16 bars while performing in “Crazy for You,” the audience was wowed. “There was never an ovation to meet it,” Mr. Kellow said. “Ethel thought she had snapped a garter and kept looking behind her. There was so much applause.”
And she was never in a flop. She fit perfectly into five Cole Porter shows, even though Ethel Merman and Cole Porter “were not an automatic combination.” (She also wasn’t an automatic combination with the men in her life, chalking up four failed marriages.)
Mr. Kellow said many people tried to discourage him from writing this biography, saying that almost everyone connected to Ms. Merman was dead. But he found nearly 130 people more than willing to talk about the legendary star. “It was a fascinating journey for me. There’s nothing I like better than finding people who were there for Broadway history.”
And there’s not much I like better than musical theatre, so I am looking forward to reading this book.