You're the Tops-- You're a Show with Merman

"Ethel Merman" by Brian Kellow
Reviewed by David Marshall James

"Curtain up! Light the lights!"

What better way to ring out the old year and sing in the new, than with THE MERM!

No brassier, brighter broad ever trod the boards of Broadway, and Brian Kellow builds a full-scale production of her life and times in this 2008 biography, now available in trade paperback from Viking.

In a manner of speaking, Merman's career fell in her lap. Her talent apparent at an early age, all she needed was exposure-- with some singing engagements under her belt, she was able to land an agent and better-paying gigs, and by age 22 was auditioning for George Gershwin, bound for Broadway in George and brother Ira's "Girl Crazy," in which she introduced "I Got Rhythm."

The year was 1930, and The Merm would remain the toast of the Great White Way through the 1970s, headlining in shows by Cole Porter ("Anything Goes," "DuBarry Was a Lady," "Panama Hattie") and Irving Berlin ("Annie Get Your Gun," "Call Me Madam").

Films, radio, television, and concerts bridged the gaps between shows, but Ethel's star never shone brighter than it did in the blocks around Times Square.

For all the ease of her professional ascension and her amazing longevity in the hyper-fickle world of show business, she never seemed to pull her personal life together.

The author details her loving, long-lived relationship with her parents, which resulted in a sort of arrested emotional development. Probably because she attained so much so soon, she turned a deaf ear to advice against dating married men.

She seemed to marry for all the wrong reasons, mostly on the rebound from a failed romance or the fear that she couldn't land someone better. Her first marriage, as well as her fourth and last (to Ernest Borgnine), were essentially over in less than one month.

Her daughter, plagued by depression, accidentally yet fatally overdosed during the 1960s, although her son helped Merman through the agonizing battle with a brain tumor than claimed her life in 1984.

She had been working steadily (although she had amassed a small fortune through wise investments) to stellar reviews, up to the time that she collapsed in her New York City apartment, almost ready to depart for Los Angeles to perform at the 1983 Academy Awards.

Not that Merman ever received an Oscar; indeed, her greatest professional loss was being finessed out of the film version of "Gypsy," in which she debuted the part of Mama Rose-- the greatest female role in American musical theater-- at age 51.

Everything that Merman had done up to that point, no matter how great, seemed to be a prelude to this role of a lifetime. And, she knew it, which factored into her turning down another plum part several years later, which Jerry Herman had written expressly for her-- a little show called "Hello, Dolly!"

One can understand Merman's reservations. She had dreamed of launching a TV sitcom during the '60s (the several pilots that she made failed). Moreover, she didn't care to be tethered to another long-term, eight-shows-per-week contract.

However, Merman would close out the record-breaking run of "Hello, Dolly!" with a phenomenal coda, six years later, by becoming the last of Broadway's hit parade of Dolly's.

To top it all off, she introduced two songs that Herman had written for her at the outset, but which he withdrew from the show because no one could handle them a la Merman.

And, no study of 20th-century American show business would be complete without a chapter on Merman.

But, you'll want to read the whole book.