How do you define “diva”? Brian Kellow remembers the days when Ethel Merman was the queen of Broadway.
Opera News Feature, November 2003, vol 68, no. 5.
For decades, Ethel Merman was Broadway’s ideal brassy-voiced tough girl. In 1959, she found the most challenging role of her career: the monstrous stage-mother Rose in Gypsy.
During the 1930s and ’40s, a number of actresses were touted as the Queen of Hollywood, but Broadway’s crown belonged indisputably to Ethel Merman. In 1930, she made her stage debut as the second female lead in George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, and for the next thirty years–the vintage years of the Broadway musical–she maintained a remarkable run, commanding the best material going, from Cole Porter to Irving Berlin to Jule Styne. Of her fourteen Broadway shows, only one, Stars in Your Eyes (1939), didn’t quite make the grade, closing after a run of 127 performances. More characteristically, she played an entire season, or two–or three, as in the case of her biggest hit, Annie Get Your Gun, which lasted for 1,147 performances. Just what was it about Merman that made the public take her so completely to their hearts? With her Little Lulu eyes, broad mouth and gummy smile, she was far from beautiful. But her tough, direct, working-girl-from-Queens persona provided a welcome antidote to some of the theater’s fluffier leading ladies. Actor Jerry Orbach once commented that Merman represented the way New Yorkers liked to think of themselves. Loud, brassy, even vulgar when need be, she was ahead of the pack from the beginning, Broadway’s greatest exponent of what made Broadway tick. Onstage and off, she always shot from the hip. She was incapable of faking anything. But the real key to Merman’s enduring appeal was the voice. It is fair to say that when she stepped onstage in Girl Crazy in 1930, no one had ever heard anything remotely like it. With its enormous size, thrilling sound, true pitch and remarkable evenness from top to bottom, it could galvanize audiences. Like Eileen Farrell, Merman seemed unaware of the “break” that most singers dread so much; to her, such matters were not worth her time. Surprisingly little has been written about her means of vocal production, probably because few understood how she did it. Some claim that she had the equipment of a great operatic tenor–Birgit Nilsson once told her that she would have been terrific in opera–while others insist that she had the ability to take the chest voice up extremely high. What she could not be accurately called is what she was so often called–a belter. Her vocal equipment was much too sophisticated for that; besides, in some of her earlier recordings, such as “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please,” from 1940’s Panama Hattie, she sounds like someone well versed in the art of bel canto. She had a strong physical apparatus, including an enormous ribcage and massive lung power; an instinctive, absolute command of phrasing and breath control; a simple, honest, way of communicating a song; and the most flawless diction possessed by any singer in any field. But by the late 1950s, it seemed that Merman might have reached a stalemate. Her last great hit, Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, had opened in 1950 and run for 644 performances. In 1953, she had married Robert Six, president of Continental Airlines. She had starred in two Hollywood movies–one hit, the 1953 screen version of Call Me Madam, and one miss, an overproduced Berlin extravaganza, There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). She made noises about decelerating her performing schedule, and when she and Six settled in Denver, Colorado, it appeared that she might have kissed Broadway goodbye. In 1956, she did return to the stage, albeit in the weakest material she had ever had–Harold Karr and Matt Dubey’s Happy Hunting. Although she kept the show running for 412 performances, no one, least of all Merman, was enthusiastic about it.
The quintessential Merman show had always been a fairly thin, jokey book, rigged up to show off her blowsy personality–a framework on which to hang a string of great songs. But the mediocreHappy Hunting seemed a sign that this kind of show was fading out. For some time–since Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel in the mid-’40s–the Broadway musical had passed through a long and complicated period of adjustment, reaching for more serious subject matter and multi-dimensional characters. Even as early as 1946, the critics had carped that Annie Get Your Gun was long on vaudevillian flavor and short on dramatic integration. And then, in 1958, along came Gypsy, just when Merman needed it most. David Merrick and Leland Hayward had plans to produce a musical based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, but it was not intended to be a straight bio of the strip queen. Instead, it was a look at the world of vaudeville in the ’20s, when Lee and her sister June (who grew up to be actress June Havoc) were crisscrossing the country with their indomitable stage mother, Rose Hovick. The ruthless Rose was hell-bent on her girls becoming successful in show business, and she stopped at nothing to get their kiddie act booked into the best vaudeville venues. Throughout those hardscrabble years, Rose proved an expert at cutting corners: Lee remembered her mother stealing ashtrays from seedy hotel rooms, justifying it with, “For what they’re charging us for this room, they owe us that ashtray!” From the moment she read a draft of Arthur Laurents’s book for Gypsy, Merman realized that Rose–driven, duplicitous, yet loving and capable of great charm–was the richest role she had ever been offered. Stephen Sondheim, who had provided lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, wanted to compose the entire score, but Merman felt he was too green to be trusted with the whole project. In the end, Sondheim wrote the lyrics, while Jule Styne composed the music. Styne had turned out many fine World War II numbers, such as “I’ll Walk Alone” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” and he had some nifty Broadway credits, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bells Are Ringing. But Gypsy was a stretch for him; the hard-edged songs he wrote for the show crackled with dramatic fire and comedic invention. Especially notable was “Rose’s Turn,” a final soliloquy in which Rose bitterly pours out her own longings and regrets. At once a confessional, near-operatic mad scene and a take-off onGypsy’s strip act, it brought the show to a searing, unforgettable close. Nothing so dramatic had been heard in a Broadway musical since Carousel’s “Soliloquy.” Actors going into a Merman show had plenty of reason to be nervous. Knowing that the fate of her shows rested squarely on her shoulders, Merman was relentless about making sure all the details were perfect. When her good friend and colleague Mary Martin wanted to raise an objection, she might smile sweetly and let her husband, producer Richard Halliday, do the dirty work. Merman didn’t need an intermediary; she took care of business herself. She could be fiercely direct if she thought something was wrong with a song or scene. One story became part of theater legend: in 1944, during preparations for the Vernon Duke-Howard Dietz musical Sadie Thompson, Merman had objected to the word “Malmaison” in one of the lyrics. “What the fuck is ‘Malmaison’?” she demanded of the writers. When she was told that it was a popular brand of lipstick, she canvassed several of her girlfriends, found out that none of them had heard of Malmaison, and promptly walked out on the show, claiming she wasn’t about to sing words when she didn’t know the meaning of them. She had a reputation, too, for firing those who tried to upstage her, her most famous victim being actress Paula Laurence, whom she bounced from the cast of her 1944 Porter hit Something for the Boys.
Such stories gave Merman a reputation for being a holy terror backstage and provided Jacqueline Susann with the inspiration for the tough stage star Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls. Mostly, however, Merman was not excessively brutal, simply blunt and tactless. In the mid-’60s, while starring in a popular revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Merman befriended fellow cast member Ronn Carroll. “We were in Philly during a hot spell, at the old Forrest Theatre,” remembers Carroll. “It was very hot in the theater at night, and she said, ‘Who’s handling the air-conditioning in this place?’ She called the house manager in, and she said, ‘It’s hotter than hell,’ and he said, ‘Miss Merman, I come in here every day at 4:30 and turn on the air-conditioning.’ So the next night she says, ‘It’s still hot.’ And the house manager says, ‘Miss Merman, I came in at 4:30 and adjusted the air-conditioning.’ And she says, ‘I came in at 4:30. No one was here. You throw another log on the air-conditioner, or you can get yourself another girl singer!'” Once, in a 1968 tour of Call Me Madam, the rising young dancer Donna McKechnie was rehearsing a big production number, “It’s a Lovely Day Today.” “We were right in the middle of a routine,” remembers McKechnie, “and Merman and Russell Nype walked in and sat down. I was so excited that she was there, and I was showing off a little bit, and I heard this laser voice say, ‘WHO DID SHE FUCK TO GET TWO DANCE NUMBERS?'” This was all pure Merman–the hard-working perfectionist who automatically assumed that many of the talented women working with her had gotten where they were by sleeping around. During Gypsy, she gradually developed a conflict with Sandra Church, the young actress playing the teenaged Louise. At first, all went well: at Church’s fifth and final audition, Merman was moved to tears by the girl’s rendition of the plaintive solo “Little Lamb.” But her guard went up after Church became romantically involved with Jule Styne while Gypsy was still in rehearsals, as she realized that now another female member of the cast had some clout. “I think Ethel was not a woman person,” observes Church. “My mother was like that–she would always tell me I should have men as my friends, not women. That was not uncommon at that time.” Soon Merman was demanding that “Little Lamb” be cut. “I said to Arthur Laurents, ‘If that song goes, I go,'” remembers Church. “I can’t believe I had the nerve to do that.” The song stayed, but there were further conflicts ahead. Louise’s solo strip number, “Let Me Entertain You,” posed staging problems for director Jerome Robbins. Initially, he wanted to have Merman, as Rose, appear behind Louise in a see-through curtain, looking on and kibitzing. “I didn’t want it to be done that way,” says Church, “so I did the scene poorly. When I got her out from behind me, I went back to doing it well.” Possibly as payback, Merman objected to Church’s appearance onstage at the dramatic climax of her big solo number, “Rose’s Turn,” and insisted that she stay out of the light until the number had concluded.Gypsy opened in Philadelphia, on April 11, 1959. The show was much too long, and a number of book scenes were dropped. The Philadelphia tryout also saw a new Dainty June, Lane Bradbury, who replaced Carole D’Andrea, with whom Robbins had worked in West Side Story. D’Andrea had proved inaudible and been fired, much to Robbins’s disappointment. He vented his anger at Bradbury, going so far as to hide her baton for the “Dainty June and Her Farmboys” number. “Lane had to do her splits that night in Philadelphia with no baton, just moving her fingers,” remembers Church. “She had tears running down her face.” But if Robbins could be rough on other cast members, he worked wonders with Merman. In her previous shows, she had displayed crack comic timing, but never before had she been given such a choice dramatic opportunity. She was every bit the abrasive stage mother, but she didn’t agree with Laurents’s concept of Rose as a “monster.” As a result, in “Rose’s Turn,” she was intensely moving. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, who intended her book to be not an attack on her mother but a tribute to her, Merman saw Rose as a heroine. “She had so much heart,” she commented to Lee in a television interview several years after the show had closed, “and whatever she did, she did for the girls.” Several strong character actors were considered for Herbie, the nebbishy candy salesman who succumbs to Rose’s charms and winds up managing the girl’s act. But when Jack Klugman came to audition, Merman flipped for him immediately. “Jule Styne didn’t want me at all,” recalls Klugman, “and I didn’t think it was something I should do, simply because I couldn’t sing. Ethel got up onstage and sang ‘Small World’ with me. She didn’t want to overwhelm me, so she sang it so quietly that her voice cracked. I was mesmerized, there was so much love in it. I picked up the second chorus, and I sounded like Pinza!” Later, when the show had opened successfully, Klugman decided to take some voice lessons. Merman instantly heard the difference and confronted him. “STOP TAKING SINGING LESSONS!” she snapped. “You can’t sing, and your charm is that you can’t!” For years, Merman had had a reputation for saying her lines out front and not looking at her costars; many felt she performed as if she were alone onstage. In Gypsy, she was up to her old tricks–at first. But one day in rehearsal, when she delivered a line to Klugman, her leading man purposely didn’t respond. “After a couple of moments,” says Klugman, “she turned and looked at me, and then I gave her my cue. She looked at me for a long time–the longest five minutes of my life. She knew exactly what I was doing. But then she went on, and from then on she looked at me when she gave me the lines.”
Running true to form, Merman froze Gypsy a week before opening. One night, she gleefully showed Klugman a list of songs from shows by Berlin and Porter that the composers had tried–unsuccessfully–to insert at the last minute. Gypsy opened at the Broadway Theater on May 21, 1959. Klugman remembers the moment when Merman walked down the center aisle to deliver her opening line, “Sing out, Louise!” “They went crazy,” he says. “I didn’t know she was that loved.” The entire performance came off beautifully, and nearly all the critics gave it their stamp of approval. Once the show was launched, Merman’s suspicion of Church intensified. Soon Merman was needling the younger actress onstage. “Once I was coming out of the tent,” recalls Church, “and I was giggling–sometimes you break up onstage–and she said out loud, ‘Why are you giggling?’ Several months later, at Christmastime, she sent me a gold bracelet. I went downstairs and shoved her dresser to one side and gave her a huge hug, and she hugged me. We never mentioned anything more about it.” Harvey Evans, who succeeded Paul Wallace as the chorus boy Tulsa, remembers Merman’s astonishing professional discipline. “She had a line when Herbie left her–‘You go to hell.’ And every night she would cry during that line. Then she would get to the wings and go right to the stagehands and tell dirty jokes. Her tears would dry up instantly.” Always, Merman held the younger performers in the show to a high professional standard. Alice Playten, who succeeded Karen Moore as Baby Louise, remembers when she was first introduced to the star. “She shook my hand and said, ‘Do you know about the laugh line?’ The laugh line was Louise asking, ‘Mama, how come I have three fathers?’ And Rose would say, ‘Because you’re lucky.’ It got a laugh every night. I think that her humor and delivery of lines was perfection. Everybody else digs into these lines like they’re something to be mined. She could trust material. She knew that if the material is good, you go with it.” Although it failed to win a single Tony Award, Gypsy ran for almost two years, at its peak pulling in more than $80,000 a week (of which Merman received 5 percent until initial costs were recovered, and 7 percent thereafter). Apart from the collapse of her marriage to Robert Six, the main anxiety she suffered was over the question of whether or not she would get to recreate her role in Warner Brothers’ screen version. Mervyn LeRoy, who specialized in rather flat transcriptions of popular plays and novels, was assigned to direct the picture, and he came to see Merman repeatedly. Jacqueline Mayro, who played Baby June, remembered, “One night, when all the movie people were coming, I was sick with a 104-degree fever. And my mother called the theater to say that I wouldn’t be able to perform that night. A little while later, the stage manager, Ruth Mitchell, called back and said, ‘Miss Merman doesn’t care how sick your daughter is. She wants every original cast member on that stage with her tonight.'” Once the New York run ended, after 702 performances, Merman, confident that she would get the part, led the show on a national tour–the first she had ever agreed to do. In Boston, her confidence was further boosted when John Gielgud attended a performance and wrote her a note comparing her with Edith Evans. Thus she was shattered when it was announced that Rosalind Russell, whose husband, producer Frederick Brisson, had purchased the screen rights, would play Rose on film. “She was heartbroken,” recalls Klugman. “LeRoy had told her, ‘Ethel, I wouldn’t do this production without you. This is your legacy.’ He was an S.O.B. She never did get a movie career, and she wanted one very badly.” It was probably cold comfort that the 1962 film of Gypsy turned out to be one of the most embarrassing movie musicals of the period. But if she was prevented from preserving her greatest achievement on film, Merman had the satisfaction of knowing she had pleased those who meant the most to her: the Broadway audience. Today, those who saw her still talk about her performance as one of the memorable theatrical experiences of their lives. “I don’t think there’s another female performer,” says Alice Playten, “who has left such an indelible memory on a role. It’s remembered by people who never even saw it. People come up to me and say, ‘You worked with Merman in Gypsy?‘–and they’re twenty-five years old! That year she lost the Tony to Mary Martin for The Sound of Music, but nobody talks about that performance.” Perhaps it was Merman’s ideas about Rose’s latent nobility that have made her performance travel the years so well. “She could be tough, of course,” says Klugman, “but if she trusted you, there was almost a naïveté about Ethel. I remember once when Gypsywas running, she did a television special with Tab Hunter. She was trying to flirt with him, and she wasn’t getting anywhere. And she was getting annoyed, and she finally came to me and said, ‘Is he gay?’ I said, ‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ And Ethel, who absolutely trusted me, looked at me and paused a little and said, ‘Yes….'”