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by Michael Portantiere

    Ethel Merman with Sandra Church and Jack Klugman in GYPSY; photo from BROADWAY MUSICALS: THE 101 GREATEST SHOWS OF ALL TIME, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers


    You may have noticed that some people who have a stake in revivals of classic musicals feel it necessary to trash the stars and other aspects of the original productions. Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? I'd be a fool to give you a reason, but I can report that some theater pros are very upset by this practice.

    Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard) recently raised eyebrows when she described Ezio Pinza, the opera star who played Emile de Becque in the original Broadway production of South Pacific, as a "fat old geezer." This is quite a surprising statement, considering that Pinza was far from obese and was regarded as a sex symbol even in late middle age, when he starred in the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece. In fact, there was a very funny joke about his romantic allure: Guy from out of town who looks a lot like Pinza visits New York during the run of South Pacific. Everybody he encounters mistakes him for the great singer, but the guy keeps repeating, "I'm not Ezio Pinza." "I'm not Ezio Pinza!" "I'M NOT EZIO PINZA!!" Then a gorgeous, naked young woman shows up at his hotel room one night and says, "Oh, Mr. Pinza, I'm your biggest fan. I want you to make love to me right now." And the guy starts singing, "Some enchanted evening..."

    One would have thought Pinza's rep was safe -- but then, one would have thought the same thing about Ethel Merman's iconic portrayal of Rose in Gypsy. So you can imagine the reaction of some staunch Merman fans to the fact that the souvenir program for the current Broadway revival of the classic musical, starring Patti LuPone, includes a piece by Mark Shenton that quotes negative comments on The Merm's performance by Stephen Sondheim, the show's lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, author of the book and director of this production.

    As per Shenton, "Arthur Laurents...recalled the difficulties of getting [Merman] to act. 'Ethel Merman was a voice, a presence, and a strut, not an actress,' he says in his autobiography, Original Story. Sondheim is said to have described her 'Rose's Turn' as 'a talking dog' [sic], since it was performed to counts. Laurents gave her stage directions for her speeches: 'slower,' 'softer,' 'louder,' 'faster,' 'starting flat, then building.' As he says: 'An actress would have broken pencils furiously crossing them out. Ethel quoted them if any of her line readings were questioned.'"

    This little paragraph has not gone down well in certain quarters. Brian Kellow, author of an acclaimed new biography of Merman, offered his thoughts as follows: "Merman owns that part in a way that no one else does, and this seems to pose a problem for both Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. I don't know why, because she was a huge part of what put Gypsy on the map. You'd think they'd be grateful to her, but they certainly don't appear to be.

    "It's true that Merman wasn't a trained actress in the way that Patti LuPone is," Kellow allows. "But I get a little uncomfortable when I hear Laurents -- for whom I have the utmost respect -- talk about how they've gotten closer in this production to the real dramatic intention of the show. Gypsy is the strongest musical I've ever seen, but it's not and was never intended to be Mourning Becomes Electra. There are a lot of joke set-ups and snappy one liners in it. Without question, Merman was a first-rate comedienne, and she really put those over. You know, every time one of Laurents' shows is revived, he gives all these interviews talking about how the new star is so much better than the person who originated the role. It was the same when they revived The Time of the Cuckoo and he trashed Shirley Booth as compared to Debra Monk. I think it's hucksterism. He's just trying to get people to buy tickets to the revival."

    Ethel Merman and Erving Harmon in GYPSY; photo from BROADWAY MUSICALS: THE 101 GREATEST SHOWS OF ALL TIME, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

    The very idea that Ethel Merman's performance in Gypsy needs to be defended by anyone may seem ludicrous, but Bob Ullman -- a retired press agent whose credits include the original production of A Chorus Line, and who worked with The Merm late in her career -- is happy to do so. "I did five shows with Merman," he tells me, "and she was the greatest musical comedy star of the century. Nobody will ever have the kind of career she had, because she had the greatest composers of the time writing shows especially for her.

    "Gypsy was directed by Jerome Robbins, and he got a performance out of Merman the like of which she had never given before. The show did for her what The Glass Menagerie did for Laurette Taylor, but Arthur Laurents didn't like her. As for Sondheim, he's a genius, but that doesn't mean his opinion of Ethel Merman is more valid than anyone else's. I saw Merman in Gypsy and I don't feel I have to say much about her performance, because all you need to do is play the fucking record. It's absolutely amazing. Anyone who does that role should have to listen to the record first."

    I'll leave the last word on this subject to Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini: "Every time I see Gypsy, as much as I love the current performances, I always hear Merman's voice in the lines, even though I didn't see her in the show. I really do think there's something of her in the script. She was so married to the role. People say Merman wasn't a great actress, but I don't believe that's true. She didn't act angst, like we're used to seeing in the contemporary theater; she did something else, but it was still truthful and real. Of course, she also had one of the great voices of the 20th century. It was like a trumpet. If I could go back in time and see any performance in any show, I would pick Ethel Merman in Gypsy."

    Tuesday, May 06, 2008 at 9:53 PM | Item Link

    Michael Portantiere comes to BroadwayStars with more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for such media outlets as TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has also contributed articles and reviews to AfterElton.com, Playbill, and Stagebill, and has written notes for several major cast albums. Additionally, Michael is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several notable websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.)
    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Michael Portantiere:

    07/13/2010: Presidential Material

    07/04/2010: Hardy Boy

    06/29/2010: High School Stars

    06/21/2010: Falling in Love Again

    06/17/2010: A Meeting of the 'mos (and Their Friends)

    For a listing of all features written by Michael, click here.