I was listening to the Jonathan Schwartz show the other day on WNYC in my car just when he was doing a little tribute to the musical GYPSY for its 50th anniversary.
I never saw the musical on stage, but I did see the movie with Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee and Rosalind Russell as her mother, the role Ethel Merman originated on Broadway.
I wasn’t crazy about it. By this time Russell had lost her charm for me, even though I had dug her in the movie of AUNTIE MAME not many years before. And the whole thing just seemed so contrived and over the top, including Russell.
I always felt Ethel Merman was contrived and over the top, ever since seeing her as a kid on The Ed Sullivan show blasting out some Broadway show tune, like my father shouting on long distance calls, taking the term literally.
Merman always seemed so full of herself and so “show bizzy” it put me off the musicals I had loved up until then, until WEST SIDE STORY came along and hooked me again (I know it has its faults as well, I still dig it).
But hearing Merman sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”—with those young Stephen Sondheim lyrics and the Julie Styne unlikely melody—on Schwartz’s show last Sunday, made me reconsider Ethel Merman’s whole existence in my inner life.
Where before she represented everything phony and pushy and full of itself about some stage and screen actors that makes most people not identify with the whole process, this time she represented an old and maybe soon to be no longer known side of singing on stage before microphones were used to amplify the human voice.
What always came across as over the top song belting from Merman, now came across to me as an indelible and seemingly almost impossible human feat. I could hear every vowel and consonant she sang, even in the lower registers and more softly intoned sections, in a way that made me know I would have heard them just the same in the last row of any theater she was singing in.
I was so struck by this accomplishment—to hold a tune, sing on key, annunciate every letter of a word to make it clear to everyone within earshot, and to expand that earshot to beyond what any of the rest of us might ever be capable of, way beyond, was extraordinary.
I remember my old man telling me as a kid watching the Ed Sullivan show on the little old black and white that seemed so futuristic then, that when he was a kid, if they could hear you in the last row, you were a singer.
Merman obviously personified that era, one that lasted centuries, millenniums for all we know, only to go into the twilight glow it’s in now, with barely a handful of practitioners left (it’s no coincidence Patti LaPone starred in the last revival of GYPSY in the Merman role).
Hearing her this way made Merman so much more endearing to me now, her long dead voice resounding from the distant past in a way that seemed to say, see how amazing we humans can be, me getting every single nuance of each word from way up here on stage all the way back there to you in the distant future marveling at the human capacity for triumphing over all kinds of obstacles. Hey, maybe you can overcome some too.