Determined to Remember the Broadway Merman
Ethel Merman is one of the great divas of the Broadway musical. Known for her earth-shaking singing voice full of gusto and volume, Merman spent decades as the go-to star for Broadway musical comedy. Though she often found work on television and in film, it was on Broadway, where no amplification was required for her voice to carry over an orchestra, that Merman was her most effective and memorable. Today, I celebrate the stage highlights of Merman’s Broadway musical career.
Girl Crazy (1930)
Producer Vinton Freedley saw Merman at the Palace Theatre where she was performing and was struck by her bold and well-enunciated voice. He invited her to audition for a role in the upcoming Gershwin Brothers musical Girl Crazy. She did, and before long she was making her Broadway debut as café singer Kate Fothergill. It was her singing of the new song “I Got Rhythm” that landed her the role, a song with which she would remain forever synonymous. The show ran for 272 performances.
George White’s Scandals (1931)
While Merman was just beginning a vacation at Lake George, New York in 1931, her retreat was cut short when she was asked to come to Atlantic City to step into a struggling edition of the popular revue series George White’s Scandals. Merman certainly helped boost the production, which also starred Ray Bolger, Alice Faye, and Rudy Vallee. The biggest hit from the score was “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries,” which was introduced by, you guessed it, Ethel Merman.
Take a Chance (1932)
Starting out as a musical called Humpty Dumpty, Take a Chance was a musical with a score by B. G. De Sylva (lyrics) and Nacio Herb Brown and Richard A. Whiting (music)Ir. DeSylva also collaborated with Laurence Schwab on the book. While Humpty Dumpty was trying out in Pittsburgh, it was clear the piece wasn’t working. Audiences and critics agreed, but they still loved Ethel Merman who was the lead. Instead of bringing a flop to New York, the book and score were revamped (additional songs by Vincent Youmans), most of the cast (minus Merman) was replaced, and Take a Chance opened on Broadway where it ran a successful 243 performances. The song “Eadie Was a Lady” was Merman’s biggest song hit from the show.
Anything Goes (1934)
Merman’s role as Reno Sweeney in the Cole Porter/Guy Bolton/P.G. Wodehouse (and revised by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) musical Anything Goes cemented her status as a Broadway star. Playing an evangelist-turned-nightclub singer, Merman introduced some of Porter’s most enduring standards including “I Get A Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and the irreverent title song. Merman reprised her role in the 1936 film version, but her character was boiled down to a supporting role in favor of the film’s star Bing Crosby. In 1954, a made-for-TV version once again found Merman playing Reno, this time with Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr as he co-stars. Only a handful of the songs from the original score were utilized and the plot only retained a vague resemblance to the stage show.
Red, Hot and Blue (1936)
Despite a starring cast that featured Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, and Merman herself, Red, Hot, and Blue had a hard time catching on with audiences. What the musical did offer was an opportunity to introduce one of Cole Porter’s standards “It’s De-Lovely.” The musical, however, had plot issues from its out-of-town tryout, arriving on Broadway to tepid reviews. Merman played Nails O'Reilly Duquesne, a manicurist who comes into money. Red, Hot and Blue is probably best remembered for the billing conflict between Durante and Merman, which was settled by crisscrossing their names above the title.
Du Barry Was a Lady (1939)
Arguably one of Merman’s best pairings with a star was with comedian Bert Lahr in the 1939 musical Du Barry Was a Lady. With a score by Cole Porter, Merman and company got to introduce the Porter standard “Friendship,” which concluded the show’s second act. The plot, by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva, concerned a washroom attendant who is in love with a nightclub singer named May (Merman), who dreams that he is King Louis XV of France, and that May is Madame du Barry. Du Barry Was a Lady enjoyed a healthy run of 408 performances. At the time, Lahr’s film The Wizard of Oz (wherein he played the Cowardly Lion) had just opened in cinemas months earlier.
Panama Hattie (1940)
Panama Hattie was Ethel Merman’s longest-running musical with a Cole Porter score, playing 501 performances on Broadway. With a book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva, the show concerned one Hattie Maloney (Merman) who runs a nightclub in the Panama Canal Zone. Hattie is about to meet her fiancée’s daughter and is tries to make a good impression. Of course, when the girl arrives, everything goes wrong. It isn’t until Hattie becomes a hero when she saves the Panama Canal control room from being blown-up by a bomb that proves herself. It was a ridiculous plot, but the casting of Merman ensured that the show was a hit. Merman starred in a television version of Panama Hattie in 1954.
Something for the Boys (1943)
Ethel Merman’s final leading role in a Cole Porter musical came with the 1943 Something for the Boys. Herbert and Dorothy Fields, who would write the book for Merman’s biggest hit Annie Get Your Gun three years later, crafted the libretto for Something for the Boys. When three cousins inherit a ranch near a military base, they convert their new abode into a boarding house for soldiers’ wives. Merman played one of the cousins, Blossom Hart, a war department worker who must come together with her cousins (who she has never met), one a nightclub singer and the other a carnival barker. Something for the Boys was a hit, running 422 performances.
Annie Get Your Gun (1946)
In 1946, Merman landed the plum role of Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin/Dorothy Fields/Herbert Fields musical Annie Get Your Gun. Though Merman was already, at 38 years old, a bit out of the age range of the young sharpshooter and the portion of her life they chose to tell, it didn’t seem to matter. Merman’s powerhouse voice and her bold portrayal became iconic as she released her powerful belt on such songs as “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “Moonshine Lullaby,” “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’,” “Anything You Can Do,” and of course, one of her signature songs, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” A revival in 1966 saw Merman reprising her role for the musical’s 20th anniversary.
Call Me Madam (1950)
Merman’s singular Tony Award-winning performance was for her starring role in the 1950 Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam. Playing Sally Adams, America’s fictional ambassador to the fictional country of Lichtenburg, Merman’s boisterous personality was a perfect fit for the party hostess (loosely based on Pearl Mesta) called upon by President Harry Truman to represent the United States. Ethel was particularly winning when paired with character actor Russell Nype in the show-stopping counterpoint ditty “You’re Just In Love.” Call Me Madam was also one of the few times that Merman had the opportunity to recreate a stage role onscreen.
Happy Hunting (1956)
According to Merman, Happy Hunting was her least-happy experience in a Broadway musical. With a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, lyrics by Matt Dubey, and music by Harold Karr, Happy Hunting was the story of a wealthy Philadelphia woman named Liz Livingstone who is in search of a royal husband for her daughter. Merman played Liz. Merman was almost immediately unhappy with the book and music, insisting on regular revisions. She was in constant conflict with leading man Fernando Lamas, a tense relationship that could be, at best, considered volatile. Though the score yielded the popular “Mutual Admiration Society,” Merman was never happy with the work of Dubey and Karr. She even insisted upon having some of their songs replaced by songs composed by Roger Edens (a friend of Mermans) after the show opened. Happy Hunting ran 412 performances.
The crowning achievement in Merman’s career was playing the indomitable Mama Rose in Gypsy, with a score by Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and a book by Arthur Laurents. Her character, a relentless stage mother determined to make stars out of her two daughters, was a role that Merman could really sink her teeth into. Initially, Stephen Sondheim was to have written both music and lyrics, but due to Merman’s lack of faith in untried composers after her experience with Happy Hunting, she would only agree to do the show when Styne was brought aboard. It’s hard to imagine a different score, especially after Merman put her indelible stamp on songs such as “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn.”
Hello, Dolly! (1970)
After a parade of actresses starred as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, Ethel Merman entered the blockbuster production to play the title character. It was inevitable that she would play the role, as it had originally been intended for her, but she had turned it down. Two songs cut prior to the opening, initially intended for Merman, "World, Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window," were restored during her tenure in the show. Merman received standing ovations each time she sang in the show, a sensational finale to a sparkling Broadway career. Hello, Dolly! would be Merman’s last starring role on Broadway.