By Peter Filichia –
Are you one of those musical theater enthusiasts who can’t stand Ethel Merman?
You don’t need analyzing. It is not so surprising. Every entertainer throughout history, no matter how beloved by millions, manages to leave some people cold and others hot with anger. These non-fans are often at a loss to explain why they don’t respond the way so many others do. “I just don’t get it,” is a commonly heard complaint.
You get it, you get it. You just don’t like it.
And that can include The Merm, too. Yes, you know that she was a presence on Broadway for a whopping 16,985 day span, starting with her galvanic debut on Oct 14, 1930 and ending with the concert she did with Mary Martin on May 15, 1977. You may also know her from her marriage to Ernest Borgnine, which lasted .001884% as long.
What you also know is that you find her voice strident. True, it can be exciting, but it’s too forceful to ever be warm. Even Klea Blackhurst, who has done a tribute show about Merman – and whom she loves dearly — says “Ethel’s records were not make-out music.”
Perhaps you don’t respond to that that funky little vocal dip Merman often did. Take the Gypsy recording: “Goodbye to blyew-berry pie” she announces to the world at large. “Put your fyeeet up,” she urges Mr. Goldstone. Is Herbie exempt from all this? Nope: “You’re gonna not at uh-olllll get away from me.”
In Happy Hunting, Merman played the mother of a grown daughter, portrayed by Virginia Gibson. Together, pressing cheek-to-cheek, they sang the show’s hit song, “Mutual Admiration Society.” Gibson left the musical before the run was over and never did another Broadway show. Could it be because she was driven crazy by having The Merm less than an inch away singing the word “Myewwwww-tual” six times a night and twelve on matinee days? As Senex sang in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “It’s possible.”
And if you’re one of those Mermanphobes who’s avoided buying her recording of Call Me Madam – still spuriously called the “original cast album” by Decca Broadway – here’s good news: you can now hear Irving Berlin’s 1950-51 Tony-winning score, through CD or digital download, on what RCA Victor had more honestly called “the original show album” without a single affected vowel (or any consonant) from Ethel Merman.
Our story starts when RCA Victor decided to put up the entire $250,000 to bring Call Me Madam to the stage. Who could blame them? Merman’s last Irving Berlin score was Annie Get Your Gun. Now she’d play Mrs. Sally Adams, a great party giver modeled after “Hostess with the Mostest’” Perle Mesta (1889-1975). Just as Mesta was appointed by President Truman in 1949 as Ambassador to Luxembourg because of her social skills, Sally Adams would be sent by Truman to Lichtenburg in 1950.
Never heard of the place? The show acknowledged that it was “laid in two mythical countries. One is called Lichtenburg. The other is the United States.” It also took pains to admit that “neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams nor Miss Ethel Merman resemble any person living or dead.” But everyone knew that Mesta must have been who bookwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse had in mind.
So RCA put up all the money, but that still didn’t get them Merman. She had a recording contract with Decca, which wouldn’t loan her out to any other recording company.
This was a big blow. RCA was going to pull out all the stops and make this its first original cast album on this new format called “the long-playing record.” But Decca wouldn’t budge, so RCA was left with no choice: it would do an album with the entire original cast minus Merman. Dinah Shore took her place.
This album has been unavailable for most of the last six decades. Now it’s making a welcome return, and those of you who are less than enthusiastic about Merman will view this one, as Dinah Shore sings, “The Best Thing for You.”
Dinah who? If Shore is remembered today, it may be because of her 1970s cougarish relationship with Bert Reynolds, who was twenty years her junior. Long before him, however, she’d had a successful recording career from 1940 through 1960: sixty-two records that had cracked the Top Twenty: four at Number Three, three at Number Two and four at Number One.
One wonders how nervous – if at all – Shore was at taking on Merman’s role. She certainly sounds at ease, partly, of course because she knew her way around a microphone. Thus, as Mrs. Sally Adams, she sounds lovely and possessed.
Now you’re saying, “But that’s not the point, my friend. An original cast album should reflect the characters. Merman is much more convincing as the rough-edged Mrs. Sally Adams who’s one of the girls who’s one of the boys.”
To be sure: our first choice would have been a Call Me Madam album with all fifty-two cast members and not fifty-one.
But that didn’t happen. Decca later retaliated with Ethel Merman: 12 Songs from Call Me Madam. And while she doesn’t do five of them, the album still comes across as a Merman studio album rather than a recording of a great big Broadway show.
Even the arrangements are done in a pop style. In the middle of “Marrying for Love,” a pianist takes over and riffs a bit until Merman resumes singing. Dick Haymes, playing Kenneth Gibson, the staffer that Sally takes under her wing, croons with no attention to character. You’d never suspect that the role would win a Tony for Russell Nype, who of course appears on the “original show album.”
Did he feel as if he were betraying Merman when doing the 11 o’clock number, one of Berlin’s most famous songs? It wasn’t a part of the musical when the show began its tryout; Merman was the one who demanded of Berlin, “Give me a number with the kid.” The songwriter responded with a quodlibet in which Kenneth at first began to “wonder why” he heard “singing and there’s no one there.” Merman explained it all to him: “You’re not sick: you’re just in love.” Without Merman’s insistence, Nype wouldn’t have had this song, which was obviously a vital component to his landing a Tony.
What’s really interesting is what happens at the end of “Can You Use Any Money Today?” in which Sally is so smitten with Lichtenburg’s head honcho Cosmo Constantine that she’s willing to fork over any U.S. funds that his country might need, no-questions-asked. And should Uncle Sam not have any money left, Sally sang, “You can have mine.”
Lyricists will tell you that ending a song with a vowel is better than ending it with a consonant, because the vowel is easier to hold as the band plays on. Berlin nevertheless chose “mine” as the last word of his song. Now – did Merman or Shore hold the note longer?
You’ve guessed Merman, because holding a note for an inordinate length of time became her trademark from the moment she sang “I Got Rhythm” on opening night of Girl Crazy. But while The Merm holds “mine” for seven seconds, Shore makes it to ten. She’s still singing even after the orchestra stops. Did she feel she had something to prove here?
Ultimately, the Shore recording of Call Me Madam serves the show better. It starts with an overture (the Decca does not). At 46:49, it offers ten more minutes of music than Merman’s disc, uses the original orchestrations and includes some dialogue. You also get co-star Paul Lukas, the first person to have won an Oscar who later appeared on a cast album.
The 1952 Pal Joey revival went through a similar dueling-discs release. There were a few other instances here and there when an original cast album found itself without one of its cast members, such as Columbia’s release of Oh Captain! It had to use Eileen Rodgers instead of Abbe Lane, because the latter recorded for RCA Victor, which in 1958 wasn’t any more gracious about loaning out a recording artist than Decca was in 1950. Perhaps the company was still angry about what happened with Call Me Madam.
We’re all pretty grateful that this exclusive-artist ban was discontinued as time went on. Executives finally agreed that an original cast album should have every member of the original cast, and never mind who records for whom.
Otherwise, what would have happened with Funny Girl? Given that Barbra Streisand was signed to Columbia when Capitol got the rights to the show, which of Capitol’s female recording artists would have been Fanny Brice on the near-original cast album?
None would have been, to quote another song from Call Me Madam, “Something to Dance About.”