The original playbill fromGypsy
If there is one activity that I miss not getting to do in this life, it would have to be seeing Ethel Merman performing on Broadway. Alas, I am not of the correct time period to have done so, but happily You Tube makes it possible to see some glorious snippets of the woman known as “The Biggest Star on Broadway.”
I have recently had the pleasure of reading a Merman biography by Geoffrey Mark, and am currently working my way through Ethel Merman: A Life by Brian Kellow. I am on the lookout for what makes performers entertaining, and any tips that could be applied to cabaret performance, and so I bring you a few tidbits that I have gleaned from these sources.
Some facts I did not know about Miss Merman:
- Vivian Vance, Ethel of I Love Lucy television fame, was Merman’s understudy on Broadway.
- Ethel Merman played Lola Lasagne on the Batman television show in 1967
- Ethel got secretarial training, on her parents’ request, so that she would have something to fall back on should perfoming not work out. She enjoyed typing, and never employed a secretary throughout her life, but instead would type up her own responses to her fan mail.
The first action that Miss Merman took that I noticed is that she had a very good sense of self—of who she was. She was herself when she was onstage and performing, and this might have been a little much for people to take when she was offstage at times—the same could be said, I suppose, for Judy Garland as well.
The next thing that Ethel did was that she was exposed to entertainers early in life, and this helped to shape how she performed. She was born and raised in New York, and was an only child from a close family who loved her, and the feeling was mutual. Her family took her to see vaudeville shows when she was young, and as Geoffery Mark states, “Female singers like Fanny Brice, Blossom Seeley, Helen Morgan, Sophie Tucker and Ruth Etting were her inspiration. Certainly, she was exposed to the work of Al Jolson, the only person critics claimed she might have imitated. She was fascinated by the music and the energy of the performances . . .she absorbed the work of all the stars that had come before her and then amalgamated it into something totally original.” (14)
Further, Ethel developed a style of performing that was uniquely hers. When she first sang her trademark number, “I Got Rhythm,” she sang the first chorus, and then there was an instrumental of the second chorus, over which she held a sustained Ab. The way she performed the song was also noteworthy for its style and energy (Marks 29-30). What she did, according to Marks, was, “While singing the words, Ethel was everywhere, moving about the stage, shaking her fingers, clenching her fists, rolling her eyes. As she started to hold the note, she opened her sparkling eyes as wide as they would go, and with both index fingers she alternately pointed into the air to the rhythm of the orchestra. At the same time, she moved her eyes back and forth looking at each pointed finger as if she was a surprised as the audeience as to what was going on. The presentation was unique, electric and stunning. The audience was spellbound (30).
After her first performance of “I Got Rhythm,” Geoffrey Mark relates that, “ . . . George Gershwin ran up to her dressing room located on the fourth floor. ‘Ethel, do you know what you’ve done?’ he asked. Ethel just shrugged her shoulders and started chewing on a new piece of gum. ‘Never do that number any other way, and never go near a singing teacher!’”(30). Gershwin would sometimes sneak into the theatre during a performance and take over at the piano when they got to the “I Got Rhythm” number, because he loved the number and loved her performance of it (Marks 30-31).
My thoughts on what Ethel did~
This is the thing: it sounds odd, reading about this event that happened so long ago, that this would actually go over with an audience. It sounds overacted, over the top. But of course, performers are big in musical theatre performance style. This was the first time audiences had ever heard the song, or seen Merman on a Broadway stage—it was a first for them, and they loved it. She took what she did well, which was singing loudly, but with great comic timing and stage presence, and made that song and that performance her own.
This can be applied by cabaret performers today. Figure out what it is that you do well in performing, and play that aspect up. I have heard this same sentiment, worded in different ways, from a number of excellent performers and mentors, and it can be scary to be yourself on stage, because the thought is always, “What if they don’t like me?” But in order to bring a unique performance to life, this is what it takes. It is true that some may not like your performance, but there will be some that do, and frankly they are much more important than the others, because they help to encourage you as you develop and grow as a performer. It has been hard for me to learn that I am enough, not that I can’t learn and grow but that I do bring everything I need to every performance in order to make a mark in the show, but it is true, and it is true for every performer, which is why cabaret and theatre is always so interesting to take part in. And why it is so disappointing and boring to see a performer trying to just imitate someone else, just as it is in real life to watch someone who is not comfortable with who they are try to be someone they are not.
Here is a favorite clip of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin performing together. This is from the Ford 50th Anniversay Show, which was on CBS and NBC on the evening of June 15, 1953. This is from the famous duet that Ethel and Mary performed on that enchanted night, and they are both beyond amazing in this—sublime is not too strong a word to describe what is happening here. You can see part two, which will have a link after the first video is done playing—enjoy!