Murray Schumach wrote Ethel Merman’s New York Times Obituary and wrote this: “Beginning in 1930, and for more than a quarter of a century thereafter, no Broadway season seemed really complete unless it had a musical with Ethel Merman.” When, among a cast of thousands your absence is felt, then you are a force to be reckoned with, and Ethel Merman was that. Many consider her the leading Broadway musical performer of the 20th Century.
Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, New York on January 16, 1908. Her father was a German Lutheran and her mother a Scottish Presbyterian but she was baptized Episcopalian. As a child Ethel loved to sing while accompanied on the piano by her father, who adored her. They were very close.
Ethel’s singing career began while working as a secretary for a brake company in Queens. Eventually, she became a vaudeville star and played the most prestigious of all the vaudeville places, The Palace Theater in New York City. In 1930 she was cast in George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and was third billed in the show. However, her rendition of “I Got Rhythm” was the most popular part of the show and by the end of that year Ethel Merman was the toast of Broadway and would remain so for more than a quarter century. Of her opening night performance of “I Got Rhythm” Ethel Merman said, “…by the time I held that note for four bars the audience was applauding. They applauded through the whole chorus and I did several encores. It seemed to do something to them…when I finished that song, a star was born. Me.”
After her success in Girl Crazy, Merman became the favorite of such masters as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jule Styne because by her doing their material it was guaranteed to be performed flawlessly. Irving Berlin said of her, “You give her a bad song, and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song, and she’ll make it sound great. And you’d better write her a good lyric. The guy in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every syllable.” Despite all this, it wasn’t only the writers or composer that adored her work. As Schumach wrote in her obituary, “Her delighted customers knew that when the ”belter” strode onstage, turned her round eyes on them, raised her quizzical eyebrows and opened her wide mouth, they would get full value wherever they sat. She needed no hidden microphones. Equally important, they knew that when they bought tickets for a Merman show – usually well in advance – she would be there, her face beaming, strong arms churning, regardless of snowfall or flu epidemic. Her health was as legendary as her toughness and outspokenness.”
When Ethel Merman first walked on a stage singers never used microphones and it turned out that this gave her a great advantage in the years that followed. Although, by all accounts it wasn’t merely being loud that did the trick for her, it had a lot more to do with her God-given talent and style, proven by the fact that she never received any singing lessons. In fact, Broadway lore holds that George Gershwin warned her never to take a singing lesson after seeing her opening reviews for Girl Crazy. He alluded to the fact that although she did everything wrong it all came out right. Merman herself never tried to analyze her singing style and was quoted as saying, “I just stand up and holler and hope my voice holds out.” Or, “Even if I don’t know how I get the effects I end up with, I do have sense enough to know that I do all right. I’d be a dope if I didn’t know that. I’d be even dopier if I changed the way I did it.”
Among Ethel Merman’s most memorable shows are Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and Dubarry Was a Lady, and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. However, Merman’s most revered performance (and her favorite) was in Gypsy as Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Rose, which I’ve heard people say is the greatest role ever written for the musical stage. Merman introduced “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Some People,” and ended the show with the wrenching “Rose’s Turn,” gaining standing ovations for her work. Ironically, this role – the one that brought her so many accolades also brought her the biggest professional disappointment of her career because she did not get the role in the movie version of Gypsy. Instead, the role was given to Rosalind Russell, and an infuriated Merman was quoted as saying: “I know her sort, I can’t say…but it rhymes with ‘witch’ and you’ll find her sort in a kennel” (a line from THE WOMEN, in which of course Russell appeared). Merman decided to take Gypsy on the road and trumped the motion picture as a result.
By the time Ethel Merman’s Broadway career all but ended in 1959 (though she officially didn’t retire until 1970) after her huge success in Gypsy she had done 13 musicals, nearly all of them hits. She’d won the 1951 Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance in Call Me Madam, a role she reprised in the film version).
Merman didn’t enjoy the same popularity on-screen that she had on stage although she made fourteen movies, some of them based on her Broadway triumphs. She reprised her roles in Anything Goes and Call Me Madam, however film executives would not select her for screen versions of either Annie Get Your Gun or Gypsy, her two most popular shows. I don’t know the real reasons why she was passed over but I’d’ve loved to see her as Annie or Rose even if on film.
There has always been speculation, however, as to the reasons why Merman wasn’t chosen to play the roles she made famous. One of these was that her over-the-top stage persona didn’t quite fit on the screen. Others have said that after her behavior on the set of Walter Lang’s THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954), which was considered somewhat egomaniacal, Jack Warner refused to have her in another of his motion pictures, thereby giving the role in Gypsy to Russell when the time came.
Aside from the various movies Ethel did she also had her own radio show and scored a huge national success in 1953 in a television special teamed with Mary Martin, perhaps the only Broadway musical star who matched her stature at the time. Merman and Martin were competitors on Broadway for the love of audiences but off the stage they were good friends and enjoyed working together.
Ethel Merman was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1983 and died several weeks following surgery at the age of 76 in 1984; she had been planning to go to Los Angeles to appear at the Oscars that year.
On February 20, 1984 Ethel Merman’s son held his mothers ashes as he rode down Broadway. He passed the Imperial, the Broadway and the Majestic Theaters where Ethel had performed. Then, a minute before curtains went up, all the marquees dimmed their lights to honor Broadway’s greatest star. Audiences knew it. Actors knew it. Other luminaries knew it. And she knew it. So, I find it appropriate to end this brief biography with a quote listed on Ethel’s obituary, just as I started – only this quote was one of her own and she said it toward the end of her life. It goes – “Broadway has been very good to me – but then I’ve been very good to Broadway.” There’s nothing more to say.