It’s Ethel Merman Week at Musical Cyberspace!

I had a dream!
A dream about you, Ethel!
It’s gonna come true, Ethel!
They think that we’re through,
But Ethel –

It’s Ethel Merman week at Musical Cyberspace!

Let’s kick off by taking stock of the legend that was Ethel Merman. Was she definitive in the roles she originated? Does the legacy she left behind represent everything she was?

I’m not a particularly enthusiastic fan, but she was a legend. It’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe just by touching on two of her most famous roles. I think she must have been a brilliant Annie Oakley, although I find her much better on the later Lincoln Center recording of Herbert and Dorothy Fields and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun than on the OBCR. And, of course, there is Rose. Merman was, by all accounts, a powerhouse in Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, but she doesn’t top the incomparable Angela Lansbury in the role for me. I would still rather have had Merman than the deplorable Rosalind Russell in the film version though!

I once read a comment on an online forum that ‘Ethel Merman suffers from Elvis syndrome – she stayed prominent so long that people tend to remember her the way she was at the end of her career (old, fat, campy, voice in permanent belt mode) instead of the way she was in her prime.’ I think there is some truth to that, but even in her earlier work I sometimes find her to be so strident that it’s alienating, which works for something like Gypsy – although I still prefer many of the Roses that have followed Merman to Merman herself – but it’s something that becomes a particular difficulty in large roles that demand one’s sympathy in a more straightforward manner. And when Merman appeared on film, the problem only seems to be compounded.

So who else has thoughts to share? Head on to the comment box at any time, even if that happens to be long after this was written. I would love to hear your thoughts, dear reader, whenever you discover this site!

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10 Responses to It’s Ethel Merman Week at Musical Cyberspace!

  1. Brock Cheek says:

    My opinion is that Merman’s time was simply a different time. She wouldn’t fit in today, but in her time, she was IT. And I agree about her having Elvis syndrome.

  2. David Fick says:

    That’s only true for the early part of her career. Barring Gypsy, her career on stage from the 1950s stalled: only one other role originated after Call Me, Madam in the awful Happy Hunting, followed by roles in revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam and as a replacement in Hello, Dolly!. From the 1950s onwards, her work was based on her celebrity, which is fair enough given how she clearly had established herself. She may have been “it” in the 1930s and 1940s, but with the landscape of musical theatre changing from the early 1940s, something which accelerated in the 1950s, Merman could not find a place for herself in a world that was built more and more around characters rather than stars. Gypsy was an exception because of the kind of role she was required to play. The role made use of her strong points, for sure, but it capitalised on her latter career stridency and provided a role that wasn’t overshadowed by her celebrity because it forced her, possibly for the first time in her career, to really get to grips with what it meant to act a role in musical theatre, although it seems to be consistently reported that later in the run and on tour, she was pulling all her typical celebrity stunts from earlier in her career like moving so far upstage that everyone else had their backs to the audience. Digressions aside, I find it hard to imagine her originating any major 1950s or 1960s role apart from Rose to any satisfactory degree. By that time, musical theatre had changed just enough for her and many of her kind to be displaced by the next generation of musical theatre actresses, who performed in a style that was more appropriate for the kinds of shows that were being produced at the time.

  3. Was she as good as her legend warrants? No
    Does she deserve the legendary status? Yes

    She was a fine comedienne and she had a powerhouse voice, which when given the chance such as in songs like “Small World”, “Make it Another Old Fashioned Please” or “I Got Lost in His Arms” could also be very touching. But she lacked the feeling of emotion that Angela Lansbury or Tyne Daly brought to Mama Rose, or the realism that Betty Hutton gave Annie Oakley. But in her sphere, she was magnetic.

    • Mama Rose says:

      Sondheim wouldn’t agree with you. In his new book Finishing the Hat, he has nothing but wonderful things to say about her performance in Gypsy.

    • David Fick says:

      While Sondheim praises aspects of Merman’s performance in Gypsy in Finishing the Hat, it is inaccurate to twist his statements in the book to support an argument comparing the qualities of different actresses who have played Rose. It simply cannot be said whether or not Sondheim would agree with Dawn’s statement if his words in Finishing the Hat are to be used as evidence in regard to either point of view. Sondheim does not compare the different takes on the role by Merman, Lansbury and Daly in the book – and his register in relation to what he says about Merman’s work on the role is in any case more sophisticated than stating that it was simply ‘wonderful’.

  4. Mama Rose says:

    Sondheim may have felt that Merman was limited in ways that Lansbury wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean that he thought Lansbury’s performance was better overall. In an interview with Frank Rich a few years ago, he said that Merman in Gypsy was one of his favorite performances ever by an actress, along with Lansbury in Sweeney Todd and Bernadette Peters in Sunday in the Park with George. To suggest that he didn’t think highly of her performance would be twisting his statements to fit your views.

  5. David Fick says:

    I did not say that Sondheim thought that Lansbury’s performance was better overall. In fact, neither did Dawn: there is no mention of Sondheim in her post. I said that Sondheim did not compare them and therefore what he said could not be used to support a comparison between the actors. The only person here who is trying to use Sondheim’s words to justify a point of view comparing Merman to Lansbury is you, when you use the sentence ‘In his new book Finishing the Hat, he has nothing but wonderful things to say about her performance in Gypsy‘ to justify the statement ‘Sondheim wouldn’t agree with you’ (on the point that Merman ‘lacks the feeling of emotion that Lansbury, or Daly brought to Mama Rose’). There is no quotation in the book where Sondheim compares the emotional complexity of Merman’s Rose to either Lansbury or Daly’s Rose and it is a quotation in that vein that you would need to support your statement that Sondheim would not agree with Dawn.

    I also did not say that Sondheim did not think highly of Merman’s performance. In fact, even if he did prefer another interpretation of Rose to Merman’s, that would not change the status of his regard for her performance. (Once again, I am not saying that Sondheim did. The statement is speculative.) What I did imply is that what Sondheim says about Merman’s performance is a little more complex than merely saying wonderful things about Merman as an actress, which is true. This is evident in the tone of his writing as well as the choice of his anecdotes throughout the chapter on Gypsy. By saying that Sondheim did not compare the actresses is not the same thing as saying that ‘he didn’t think highly of her performance’. These two things are very clearly not synonymous. So the only person doing any twisting of words here, not only of Sondheim’s but also of mine, is you.

  6. Mama Rose says:

    Not really. Dawn wrote, “Merman lacked the feeling of emotion” as Rose. Technically Sondheim didn’t say anything about the other actresses in his book, but do you honestly think that he would have described Merman’s rendering of “Rose’s Turn” as having vigor and passion if he believed that her performance was unfeeling? That quote in itself proves that Sondheim wouldn’t have agreed at all with what Dawn just posted on the matter.

  7. David Fick says:

    No, you’re wrong here once again. All you have done is misquoted Dawn and thereby changed the entire meaning of her words. Dawn did not write “Merman lacked the feeling of emotion” as Rose, she said that she lacked ‘that Lansbury, or Tyne Daly brought to Mama Rose’. There is a world of difference between these two statements. Stating that Lansbury and Daly were more emotionally complex than Merman is not the same as saying that Merman was unfeeling. Therefore, your argument is based on a fallacious reading of Dawn’s post and does not prove whether or not Sondheim would have agreed with her.

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