Original Cast Recording
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Many a man has purported to be Show Queen, but every one of them knows that the true Queen of Shows was Ethel Merman.
And while some Mermaniacs can talk for hours about her voice, her presence and her charisma, they might fall silent when asked a certain question:
Can you imagine Ethel Merman making nice with a child?
Considering the brassy, no-nonsense persona that The Merm established early on in her illustrious career, we might assume that she would take to children like a duck to butcher. We can much more easily picture the legendary star taking one look at any little girl or boy in front of her and then droning out of the side of her mouth, “Go away, kid – ya bother me.” After all, Merman’s most famous role – Madame Rose in Gypsy -- made her a less likely candidate for a Mother of the Year trophy than Miss Hannigan.
And yet, take a look at the kinescope of the CBS broadcast Panama Hattie that Merman did on Nov. 10 1954, fourteen years after she’d opened it on Broadway. Once again, Merman plays Hattie Maloney, the owner of a nightclub in the Canal Zone who’s about to marry a previously married man. Alas, part of the package is Geraldine, his eight-year-old daughter. Now that Hattie must become a de facto stepmother, she wants Geraldine to like her. Too bad that one of the first lines out of the kid’s mouth is an insult on what Hattie is wearing. (Frankly, the kid has a point, but that’s another story.)
We’d expect Merman to eat such an offensive child for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as a midnight snack. But that’s not how Hattie handles it. Watch Merman sing to the girl “Let’s Be Buddies” and you’ll see a tough cookie completely letting down her guard and letting the kid know that being her friend and ally is genuinely important to her. The sincerity and bald emotion filling her face convinces the girl and you that Ethel Merman did have a maternal side.
All right, let’s for the moment trust Stephen Sondheim’s opinion (although we don’t have to) that Merman wasn’t much of an actress. Under those circumstances, then it’s Merman and Merman alone, isn’t it, who’s reaching out to bond with a young girl, showing how much she needs the connection?
That brings us to Merman’s Apprentice, the terrific new musical with book and lyrics by Stephen Cole and music by David Evans. In case you can’t see Panama Hattie (Hey, DVD companies! Let’s get on the ball!), Cole and Evans will convince you that Merman could care about and – yes – love a child.
Granted, the girl whom Merman meets in 1970 – one Muriel Plakenstein -- is unlike Geraldine, for she’s now-and-forever always adored Merman. Although the star was then close to starting her fifth decade of fame, she still wasn’t immune to the love and attention from a fan – especially a young one. Who wouldn’t go crazy for a girl who knows you did Girl Crazy forty years after the fact?
The two meet shortly after Merman had assumed the role that illustrious producer David Merrick had wanted her to originate six years earlier: Hello, Dolly’s Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker who’s intent on seeing Horace Vandergelder, the Merchant of Yonkers, married off (to, in fact, her).
It’s a great role that any Broadway Baby would want to play – and that includes Muriel. Starring her in this great, big Broadway show may sound far-fetched, but you know David Merrick. (Oh, you don’t? Then read Howard Kissel’s The Abominable Showman and you’ll soon see that Cole’s plot makes perfect Merrickian sense.)
So it’s all here: Merman the Star, Merman the Grand, Merman the Nice – and Merman the Profane. No, she was not unfamiliar with those four-letter words that Cole Porter had her sing about in Anything Goes; thus Stephen Cole hasn’t been above putting them in Merman’s known-to-be-potty mouth. Well, if you knew Merman like he knew Merman … (In fact, Cole indeed did, for he struck up a friendship with the star late in her life; the result was a very nice mutual admiration society.)
Cole also has The Merm come down to brass tacks when she’s asked about Mary Martin, who for years was her sole rival to the title of First Lady of the American Musical Theatre. The Merm’s opinion on one part of Martin’s life may be controversial or accurate; you decide.
When you listen to an original cast album, some of its songs have you absent-mindedly tapping your foot. Others command your full attention and concentration, making you very much aware that your foot has advanced to stomping your foot and that your head is bobbing in time with the music, too. Only the best songs, however, make you leap from your seat, spur you to join an imaginary ensemble and dance away with a mixture of precision and abandon. Such are the melodies of David Evans.
You may need two or three hearings (which you’ll gladly give) before you realize which famous Merman standards Evans has homaged – because his music is so good it stands on its own. Once you do catch those George Gershwin blue notes or Cole Porter red-hot ones, you’ll give out with a smile.
Actually, chances are that a smile will never leave your face when you listen to Merman’s Apprentice – especially considering its two leads. Luckily, Klea Blackhurst, New York’s finest Merman impersonator (or, shall we say, Mermanator?), is on hand. Year ago, when Blackhurst started channeling Merman, she knew from the outset that replicating the legend’s voice would not be enough; that’s why she’s always provided with us the star’s entire as-big-as-Broadway personality.
In a world where child performers can be excruciating, you’d have to search long, far, high, wide and low to find a better one than Elizabeth Teeter. And in the tempus fugit category, Anita Gillette, who portrayed the daughter of a character Merman was playing in 1960 (June to her Rose near end of Gypsy’s Broadway run), now assumes the role of Merman’s mother.
So let Merman’s Apprentice return you to the days when a musical could have a restaurant full of waiters salute a once-faithful customer by staunching singing that “it’s so nice to have you back where you belong.” For isn’t it nice to once again have a show that sounds as good as a Hello, Dolly-era musical?
--- Peter Filichia
- OPENING / LIVING OUT LOUD
Merrick, Muriel, Teacher, Principal, Train Conductor and Subway Riders
- A BROADWAY STAR
Muriel, Merman and Autograph Hounds
- ALL ABOUT ETHEL
Ethel, Muriel and Goldie
Ethel and Muriel
- MERRICK DILEMMA
Ethel, David, Muriel and Marvin
- BETTER THAN LIFE
Ethel, David, Muriel, Marvin and Goldie
Ethel's Mom and Pop and Muriel
- LISTEN TO THE TRUMPET CALL
- MERMAN'S APPRENTICE
Ethel and Muriel
- LITTLE BIT
Ethel and Muriel
- MEET THE KID
David, Ethel, Goldie, Marvin, Muriel and Reporters
- I MISS CANARSIE
Muriel and Mom
- TAKING THE VEIL
- NOW YOU'RE GONNA SING
- I REALLY LIKE IT
Muriel and Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Muriel, David, Ethel and Company.