Dramaturg’s Notes: The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!
The following piece was published in the program for the 2018 world premiere production of The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular! (directed and written by Paul Conroy).
“Always give them the old fire,
even when you feel like a squashed cake of ice.”
— Ethel Merman
There was nobody quite like her. With her piercing belt, perfect pitch, and sharp diction, Ethel Merman could be heard all the way to the back of the house over any orchestra in show business. Her name alone is iconic, her voice practically the stuff of parody, but even with her indisputable legacy, it can be difficult to fully wrap one’s head around how big of a deal she was in her prime: it’s not an exaggeration to say she was probably the most successful musical comedy performer to tread the boards in the twentieth century. But who was she?
Ethel Agnes Zimmermann made the move from nightclubs and vaudeville to musical theatre in 1930, when she appeared in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, introducing one of her many showstoppers, “I Got Rhythm.” Four years later, after two other successful Broadway appearances, she made history originating the role of Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Here again, in an escapist smash in the chill of the Great Depression, she introduced some of the most indelible additions to the Great American Songbook: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “You’re the Top,” and, of course, “Anything Goes.” This would be her first of five appearances in Porter musicals in just nine years.
If she became a Broadway sensation overnight, her attempts at crossing over into Hollywood proved to be a bit more difficult. She was briefly on contract with Warner Bros. in the late 1920s, leading to nothing but bit roles in the disarray in the transition to talking pictures. However, Anything Goes brought another promise with it: film stardom. She was handed what must have looked like the golden ticket when she became the only Broadway cast member to reprise her role in the 1936 film adaptation, opposite Bing Crosby. Merman received good notices, while the film around her was greeted politely and unenthusiastically. Two years later, she received strong reviews again for the Best Picture-nominated hit Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), but film offers remained scarce.
The story was different in New York: the hits kept landing, from modest successes like Du Barry Was a Lady (1939) and Panama Hattie (1940), to flat-out blockbusters like Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950, her only ever competitive Tony Award). She landed another plum role in Madam’s 1953 film adaptation, picking up a Golden Globe this go around, but by this time, the American pop-cultural landscape was making room for a rapidly growing new industry: television. She made herself a mainstay on various television variety specials.
Her late-career crown jewel arrived in 1959 in Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. Originating the role of Mama Rose, a character described by Frank Rich as “Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear,” Merman reached new heights as an actor, putting her entire bag of old tricks to work, and finding new ways to captivate and terrify an audience. Gypsy also gave Merman one of her greatest songs: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Perhaps the quintessential Merman song, it’s a thrilling anthem of survival — fierce, shrewd, spiteful survival — in the package of a jubilant, old-fashioned showstopper. Gypsy was her final original Broadway production.
She made a few more stabs at a film career, including roles in the well-remembered It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), as well as a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun and, in 1970, closing out the legendary original production of Hello, Dolly! (the only time Merman replaced an original star). Merman spent the 1970s on television specials (including The Muppet Show), in concert appearances, and, near the decade’s end, experimenting with disco. She suffered a stroke in April of 1983 and died almost a year later on February 15th, 1984. She was 76.
Ethel Merman built a career on a larger-than-life, inextinguishable buzz. She was a lifelong Republican, was married four times, swore like a sailor, and experienced scores of disappointments and tragedy along with her nearly unrivaled success in her career. And now we journey into an imagined Christmas special in 1979, alongside some of the great eccentric icons of the era: Capote, Jackson, Warhol, Summer. Merman’s name and brand are synonymous with camp, as are the glitzy extravagances of Studio 54 in the late ’70s. But why Merman? And why Christmas? Why now?
Well, perhaps it’s the joy of it all: few performers visibly relished their time onstage as Merman did. She wore an unabashed affection for her work, and that happiness was contagious for her audiences. This joy finds a natural partner in the inherent hope and melancholy in Christmas specials. As the holiday season approaches and so does the end of the year, it’s only natural that we find time to reflect, the mourn for our mistakes or our missed opportunities, to look ahead to the future and our aspirations, to remind ourselves to be present and surround ourselves with our loved ones. It also helps that Merman stands out as a powerful figure in 2018, a strong, unwavering woman who unapologetically grew older and marched to the beat of her own drum. In the last couple of years alone, the American people have gotten really good at killing their heroes — there’s something deeply touching about the character of Jimmy meeting Ms. Merman and finding her to be every bit as delightful as he had hoped.
We’re nearing the end of a tough year. Come in from the cold, grab a drink or two, and embrace camp, joy, hope, and melancholy. Embrace the spirit of Merman, and be sure to take it with you when you leave. From everyone at Out Front Theatre Company and The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!, have a wonderful holiday season.