Book &Lyrics by Stephen Cole
Music by David Evans
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Big, brash, vulgar and most of all loud, they simply do not make stars like Ethel Merman anymore. Frequently imitated but never equalled, Merman’s Broadway career spanned an amazing five decades and included her originating the lead roles in four musicals that are still frequently performed today (Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam and Gypsy). By today’s standards her performance style is rather startling and over-the-top but her legacy lives on through her many recordings and film and television appearances, as well as this new show that makes ‘The Merm’ a central character in what is described as (like Gypsy before it) “a musical fable”.
Set in 1970, 12 year old Muriel Plakenstein has grown up as a fan of Merman’s recordings and decides to go to New York to meet her, something she manages this quite easily as Merman is about to embark on a limited run as the lead in Hello, Dolly! Befriending Muriel, Ethel takes her under her wing but famed producer David Merrick sees Muriel as a way to manipulate Ethel into a longer run as Dolly.
The plot is a fictional story set around real people and events. Writer Stephen Cole was actually friends with Merman but this is no rose-tinted eulogy. Instead much humour is milked from Merman’s many foibles including her loudness, her vulgarity and her advanced aged. An example lyric goes thus:
In 1930 when she got her start,
There were no mics but she tore it apart
“Some guy in China said he heard me fart”
Yes, she can project that far
Cause she’s a Broadway star!
Cole’s lyrics are often hilarious and the gags come thick and fast. In fact several visits are required to this CD just to catch up with all the clever jokes (although a prior knowledge of Broadway lore helps enormously). However Cole can also switch to more tender moments as in the melancholy Little Bit where Merman sings of her dead daughter.
Unfortunately the music of David Evans does equal Cole’s excellent work. Evens has a tough task of not only matching Cole’s words but also invoking musical memories of Merman’s hit shows. This of course means trying to write music like Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and Styne – a tall order indeed. Sadly Evans’ music is neither particularly evocative of these nor very memorable – a problem that makes what could have been a great musical only a good one.
The small cast are all excellent particularly Klea Blackhurst whose Ethel is eerily accurate while never tipping over into parody. Also 12 year old Elizabeth Teeter impresses as Muriel, easily matching Blackhurst in style and bravado.
Overall this recording is reminiscent of an extended sequence on a Forbidden Broadway album – very funny while it lasts but hardly something to stick in the mind. And that certainly ain’t Ethel.