Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman

Synopsis

Broadway star Ethel Merman's voice was a mesmerizing force and her vitality was legendary, yet the popular perception of La Merm as the irrepressible wonder falls far short of all that she was and all that she meant to Americans over so many decades. This marvelously detailed biography is the first to tell the full story of how the stenographer from Queens, New York, became the queen of the Broadway musical in its golden age. Mining official and unofficial sources, including interviews with Merman's family and her personal scrapbooks, Caryl Flinn unearths new details of Merman's life and finds that behind the high-octane personality was a remarkably pragmatic woman who never lost sight of her roots.

Brass Diva takes us from Merman's working-class beginnings through the extraordinary career that was launched in 1930 when, playing a secondary role in a Gershwin Brothers' show, she became an overnight sensation singing "I Got Rhythm." From there, we follow Merman's hits on Broadway, her uneven successes in Hollywood, and her afterlife as a beloved camp icon. This definitive work on the phenomenon that was Ethel Merman is also the first to thoroughly explore her robust influence on American popular culture.

Excerpt

Appearing on The Perry Como Show in 1957, Ethel Merman complains to her soft-spoken host, “Every TV show I’m on makes cracks about my voice. Just once, I’d like to go on a show where they considered me to be a lovely, delicate, feminine dame.” “You don’t need to yell,” he replies. So the two decide to sing a song quietly, “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin’ Along.” The duet is quite touching, and a twinkle dances in Merman’s eye. She seems relaxed with Como, pleased to be singing this way—in her voice there is no harshness, no punched-out notes. But as they near the end of the number, Ethel decides to go back to being Ethel Merman, feigning frustration about bottling it all up. Like a kid, she pleads, “Oh, come on, let me belt!” Como literally stands back as Ethel lets it rip, ending the number with volume and a bang. After the audience laughs and applauds, the overhead boom mike is lowered into the TV frame. It is shattered, with wires and springs sticking out from all sides.

Ethel was correct: nearly every TV appearance she made drew cracks about her voice, and that big voice has arguably overshadowed all other facets of her persona and performing skills. Ethel Merman was the unrivaled star of a steady stream of musical comedy hits, from Girl Crazy in 1930, through Anything Goes, Panama Hattie, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Gypsy, to Hello, Dolly! in 1970. Among the dozens of songs she introduced were “I Got Rhythm,” “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” “Anything Goes,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” For almost half a century, Merman reigned over Broadway not just as its queen but as its queen during its period of greatest achievement, the golden age of musical theater. She worked with royal talents, including George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim, performing some of their best work. Porter even said, “I’d rather . . .

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