Ethel Merman was the best of the Broadway belters. What’s a belter? She’s the lady who comes out in the middle of the first act, plants her feet squarely on the stage and sings her song (preferably a raucous and stirring number) both louder and with more excitement than anyone in the show. And for 40 years you could always rely on “The Merm” to deliver the goods. When she retired from Broadway in 1970 she left people wondering if they would ever hear that sound again.
Fast forward to 2011. You CAN hear it again. Rita McKenzie and I wrote Ethel Merman’s Broadway because we missed experiencing those classic Broadway musical moments. This show brings back that old Merman magic. New theatergoers can find out just what that magic is all about.
The idea for Ethel started when I was working at Paramount Pictures. I read an article in Variety about movie producer Lester Linsk’s plans to film a biography of Merman’s life. I knew who could play the young Merman – my long-term friend, Rita McKenzie. With a little telephone detective work, I called Miss Merman, then in her late seventies, at her Manhattan hotel room. After introductions were made I very innocently asked, “Who’s going to play the young Merman in the movie?” Without hesitation she replied, “Why I am, of course!” Oh… I skirted around that subject and we exchanged pleasantries. And I wished her good luck. Well, it was a thrill to talk to the lady herself. This was just two years before she died.
Some years later I remembered the encounter when Rita and I were creating a new show to bring to New York. I suggested adding a Merman medley and the conversation stopped. Rita said, “For twelve years people have been telling me I remind them of Ethel Merman. There’s only one Merman. So let’s move on. And, besides, I always wanted to be Julie Andrews!” I wasn’t going to let the point go. “Alright then, forget the medley. I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t we write a musical based on the life of Ethel Merman?” Rita said, “Better yet, why don’t we go on a vacation?”
But we read the bios, saw the films and TV clips, listened to all the cast albums we hadn’t heard and started putting things down on paper. We discovered she was a lot more than just loud. We had a framework – Hollywood was making a movie about Ethel’s life. Our Ethel wasn’t so happy about that. She was going to make sure it was told her way. Also, I wanted to integrate some of the songs with her life story. For example, the first date with her husband-to-be was a perfect time to sing “I Get A Kick Out Of You”.
I was even starting to convince Rita that this might work. When we included the section in the show where Ethel inspires Irving Berlin to write all the Annie Get Your Gun songs (“Irving, anything you can do, no one does better.”) we knew we were on the right track.
As we continued to collaborate, Rita would read the lines aloud. She’s one of the funniest people I know. If the lines didn’t sound right with her inflections, they were out. When she came up with her own lines, you could be sure they had the right rhythm. (That’s right, she’s got rhythm.) Finally, the libretto was finished, rehearsals were done and we were ready to face the music.
Our first tryout was at Don’t Tell Mama, the cabaret club in New York City – a very successful run which led to engagements at New York’s Ballroom cabaret. Next came theatrical engagements at the Pasadena Playhouse, as well as San Francisco, Boston, Miami and countless cities nationwide. Also, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, Atlantic City and the American Jewish Theatre in New York – all leading up to the Off-Broadway production at the John Houseman Theatre on Manhattan’s Theatre Row. In 1994, Tokyo was in the middle of Merman Mania (go figure). We did two tours of the country that same year. And that brings us to the historic El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood in 2011.
We also adapted the show for Symphony Orchestra concerts. Rita has performed this version nationwide – with orchestras ranging from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Cincinnati Pops, to the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center.
Rita McKenzie is also a television and movie actress based in Los Angeles, but her theatrical roots grow deep. She is preparing the big step to Broadway for this show! She says she owes it to Ethel and to the theatrical community who loved, hell, adored The Merm. It’s her chance to bring back the thrilling sound and spirit of the original “Broadway Baby” – the Incomparable Ethel Merman! Sung by (if I do say so myself) the Incomparable Rita McKenzie!
Christopher Powich (Co-Writer and Director of Ethel Merman’s Broadway)