09 January 2008

Ethel Merman

In Merman’s New York, a secretary could become a superstar.

Ethel Merman sounds like nobody else, and even if you don’t like her voice — many people don’t — you sit up and pay attention when she sings. Those bright vowels, those popping consonants, the sheer hugeness of her sound, the force of her vitality sweep everything and everyone else aside. If you let her, she’ll set the sky on fire for you. If you don’t let her — too bad. She’s going to plant her feet square on that stage, stare straight ahead, and sing, regardless. “Stand back, world! Get offa my runway.”

My friend and former colleague Brian Kellow set himself a daunting task when he chose to write Merman’s biography. After all, Brian is roughly my age, he arrived in New York only shortly before I did, in the early 1980s, when Merman was on her deathbed, and he grew up even farther than I from the theaters of Broadway where she reigned supreme for four decades. He didn’t witness the stage performances of an artist whose best work, it is universally held to be true, was in musical comedy before a live audience. For kids in the heartland, like Brian and me, Merman existed primarily as a reputation and an occasional guest star on TV; cast albums and The Muppet Show can’t give us a complete understanding of her work. But Brian is features editor at Opera News, and opera fandom requires a certain amount of archival detective work that’s precisely suited to the task at hand.

We can’t know exactly what Maria Malibran or the castrato Senesino sounded like, but we can refer to contemporary descriptions, and we can examine the scores they sang to get an idea of their voices, their range and flexibility. By examining the theaters in which they performed, we may even get an idea of the size of their voices. By looking at photographs, we can piece together the blocking and gestures of Maria Callas (for example) in her greatest roles, though there’s film documentation of only one, Tosca. Some opera fans immerse themselves so thoroughly in this material that there’s no telling them they didn’t attend the performances of their favorite singers, and they use their notions of long-lost artists to belittle current-day performers. “Oh, Renée Fleming is good, but she’s no Giulia Grisi.” You can’t really argue with that kind of statement, which is the intent behind it.

Brian doesn’t have to go that far to reconstruct Merman’s work. She left plenty of recordings, film and television appearances, and many of her colleagues are still around to help fill in blanks in our knowledge. Brian diligently contacted them all, making wonderful discoveries, meeting memorable characters, and getting great yarns in the process. And he turned up terrific artifacts: Merman on Evening with the Pops, we know, but Merman on the Sha-Na-Na show?! He manages to give the reader a sense of what it must have been like to sit in the audience when Merman sang — he even manages to build tension and suspense when describing opening nights, even though we know perfectly well how the story will turn out. It makes for exciting reading.

But it’s wistful reading, too, because, much as we’d like to, we can’t witness those performances. They’re lost to us, and so is the Broadway where Merman sang. She starred in shows by some of the greatest songwriters in history: George Gerswhin (Girl Crazy), Cole Porter (Anything Goes), Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun), each of whom tailored the material to suit her zesty personality and her enormous instrument. “I Got Rhythm,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “Anything Goes,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” all were written for her. The King Lear of women’s roles in musical comedy, Gypsy, was created for her: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Rose’s Turn.” They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

With Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope in Porter’s Red Hot and Blue

For today, as Brian observes, shows are designed so that any big-name star, regardless of personality, can step in for a four-month run. With microphones, a performer doesn’t need a powerhouse voice, and with diminished expectations, in fact, she doesn’t even need to sing: “Melanie Griffith in Chicago? Great!” (And maybe she was, but for reasons that would make no sense to Merman.) Other shows, amusement-park attractions like Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King, don’t require stars at all; the audience goes to see the same show the neighbors saw four years ago, and it doesn’t matter who’s lurking behind those masks.

Brian doesn’t use Merman to clobber contemporary Broadway stars over the head. He doesn’t need to. Besides, it would be cruelly unfair to attack them. Even the current stars with what passes for star-personality these days (Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters, each of whom has inherited Merman roles; Nathan Lane, who’s inherited Zero Mostel’s) — they’re not stars, not in the sense that Merman was a star. They can’t be. Because as an artistic medium, Merman’s Broadway no longer exists.

She rubs a lot of people the wrong way — still, twenty-four years after her death. She was big, brassy, elbows out, smart-alecky. Like a lot of New Yorkers, like New York itself. In her way she was as iconic a representative of her town as the Statue of Liberty. The city used to celebrate people like her. Broadway was only one temple to the cult of feistiness and drive, to individuality and outsize talents. The whole town used to be that way, or so we like to think.

Who could ask for anything more?

Brian Kellow and I, and people like us, used to sit in our living rooms thousands of miles from Manhattan, and play original cast albums until we learned every note of every song. We bought into an image of New York, a place where the pavements were alive with dancing, where hearts and voices soared higher than skyscrapers, where sex and sass and smarts were prized and rewarded. New York was where you’d be welcome no matter how weird you were. Anything was possible there, we knew. Maybe it was an idealized image, but it was a good one, something to for the city to aspire to. While the rest of us clung to the hope of it as a means of escape.

We worked our asses off to get to the Emerald City, and when we got there, it turned out to be Kansas after all, or close enough, and closer every day. Brian concludes his biography with a little meditation on the city’s changing character — its increasing lack of character, its resemblance to every other place. Merman wouldn’t recognize it, and it wouldn’t know what to do with her. The Little Merman, maybe, but Merman in The Little Mermaid? I don’t think so.

There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway, the saying goes, and one of those lights is mine.