by Linda Amiel Burns
Ted Sperling and cast of great singers celebrate The Ethel Merman Songbook at the 92nd St Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series in Everything’s Coming Up Ethel
When Ethel Merman lost the Tony in 1959 for her portrayal of Mama Rose in Gypsy to Mary Martin for Sound of Music, she is quoted as saying “well you can’t buck a nun!” That says a lot about this brassy, sassy, remarkable and one of a kind Broadway legend who was born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in 1908 in Astoria, NY.
Ted Sperling, served as the Artistic Director and charming host of “Everything’s Coming Up Ethel: The Ethel Merman Songbook” on April 16-18 at the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricist Series. In his notes, Ted says that “Ethel inspired the greatest songwriters of Broadway’s golden age to write their best material for her, and that Gershwin and Porter, who lived in the rarified world of Manhattan penthouses and Venetian palazzi, would be so enchanted by this former stenographer from Queens, says volumes about Merman’s unstoppable talent.”
This is the award winning Ted Sperling’s seventh L & L Program, and for the Merman show he put together an incredible group of musicians: Jeffrey Klitz, Music Director on piano (Ted also joined at times on the second piano and vocals), Jeremy Clayton on Woodwinds, Cenovia Cummins on violin, Kevin Kuhn on guitar, Peter Donovan on bass, and Warren Odze on drums. The cast of singers couldn’t have been better or more suited to the material: Lindsay Mendez, Julia Murney Emily Skinner, Clarke Thorell and NaTasha Yvette Williams.
Ethel Merman was a phenomenon and began her Broadway career at a time when there were no microphones. She “loved to sing” and starred in 14 Broadway shows, most were giant hits. Ethel even performed in a successful Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1966, twenty years after the original production opened. Lindsay opened with “I Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy and was able to hold that famous 16 bar note that made Ethel famous in 1930. Lindsay also nearly stopped the show with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy.
NaTasha turned Kaufman Auditorium into a revival meeting with her sensational hand clapping rendition of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from Anything Goes and showed a different side as Annie Oakley with “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” from Annie Get Your Gun. Emily Skinner showed off her beautiful vocals with “I Get a Kick Out of You” and then sang the dynamic “World, Take Me Back,” written especially for Merman when she went into Hello Dolly at the end of the 6 year run. Clarke and Emily sang a brilliant duet of “You’re The Top” using many of the funny and obscure lyrics. Then he and Julia acted out “It’s De-Lovely” from Red, Hot & Blue to perfection.
Every song was well chosen to demonstrate Merman’s versatility and most are standards today. A lovely moment was when the cast harmonized on Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” that brought out it’s poignant sentiment. Berlin was famous for his “double duets” i.e. each performer singing their own song and then both of them singing it together in counterpoint. The best example is the well-known “You’re Just In Love” from Call Me Madam, which was sung by NaTasha and Emily. Then Lindsay and Clarke performed “Old Fashioned Wedding” which was added for Merman’s revival in 1966 of Annie Get Your Gun. Ted said that at rehearsal, he had the brilliant idea to have all four singers sing the different songs together. It worked beautifully and was lots of fun to hear them sung in unison.
The show closed with the entire cast joining in on the show biz anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and indeed there was no singer like Ethel Merman and no other series like Lyrics & Lyricists that has been entertaining and teaching audiences for nearly four decades.
Photos: Richard Termine
“I Have Confidence” Rodgers After Hammerstein
May 21-May 23 with Ted Chapin – Artistic Director
With Ben Crawford, T. Oliver Reid, Betsy Wolfe, Karen
Ziemba and Larry Pine.
Visit 92Y.org/lyrics or phone 212 415-5500.