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!