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Athena Lebessis

on 17 February 2015

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Transcript of ETHEL MERMAN: "STRIPPING GYPSY," by Athena Lebessis

Merman Singing "Rose's Turn"
“The alpha and the omega of Broadway divas was born Ethel Zimmerman in 1909 and raised in the working class neighborhood of Astoria, Queens” (Kantor and Maslon 144).

“In a career encompassing cabaret, vaudeville, recordings, radio, television, films, and the concert stage, Merman dominated the American musical stage as no other performer has, yet she appeared in only fifteen Broadway productions between 1930 and 1970” (Bryan 1).


Words by: Sondheim. Music by: Jule Styne

“Rose’s Turn”

“Rose’s Turn became the most dramatic moment of Merman’s career” (Kantor and Maslon 288).

“Everything is coming up Roses”

“The song ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses,' with Merman’s powerhouse delivery, captured the terrifying depths of Rose’s ambition and introduced a phrase that passed in the English language” (Kantor and Maslon 286).

Merman had an undeniable star power as relayed through Bryan, “The Merman name on the marquee above the title was a virtual guarantee of a successful run” (Bryan 1).

“She was as different from the typical demure and accommodation Broadway ingénue of the time as the Chrysler Building was from a Bungalow for two” (Kantor and Maslon 144).

“Her appeal is bewildering to some, usually people who never saw her perform live, but her sustained popularity, which verges on beautification, comes from a basic fact: At the eye of the make believe cotton-candy hurricane that is the American musical, Ethel Merman was very simply the real thing” (Kantor and Maslon 147).

“Unfortunately, her newfound celebrity did not translate to the movies. The film industry didn’t know what to do with her, so it threw up its hands and moved on to perkier and quieter soubrettes” (Kantor and Maslon 147).

- 1930 -
Ethel starred on the Vaudeville circuit before breaking onto the Broadway scene in the Gershwin show -
Girl Crazy
(Kantor and Maslon 144-145). After hearing her voice Gershwin said: “Miss Merman, if there is anything about these songs you don’t like, I’ll be most happy to change it” (Bryan 5). This comment indicated the power Gershwin saw in Merman’s voice. Merman had the small role of “Kate Fothergill” (Bryan 5), which received high acclaim, propelled her career and led to eventual stardom.

• 1931 –
(George White) Merman “Gathered critical plaudits” (Bryan 5).

• 1932 –
Humpty Dumpty
(collaborative Team) “Merman took to the road and performed in Chicago for only two weeks before withdrawing because of throat problems” (Bryan 6).

• 1934 –
Anything Goes
(Cole Porter) Merman played Reno Sweeney. “Anything Goes brought Merman her longest run (420 performances) to date as well as superlative reviews” (Bryan 6).

• 1936 –
Red, Hot and Blue!
(Cole Porter) A critic said: “Merman reigns supreme as the exponent of a style she seems to have invented” (Bryan 6).

• 1939 –
Star in Your Eyes
– Not as substantial – “Could not survive for more than a respectable 127 performances” (Bryan 7).

• 1939-

Du Barry Was a Lady
(Cole Porter) “Producer B.G. De Sylva, realizing that the actress’ powers were then fully developed, determined that Merman was ready for solo stardom” (Bryan 7).

• 1940 –

Panama Hattie
– “Received solo star billing for the first time” (Bryan 12).

• 1943 -

Something for the Boys
(Cole Porter) “Another winner” (Bryan 12).

• 1946-
Annie Get Your Gun
– (Berlin) “With 1, 147 performances, it was Merman’s longest lasting production and the first Broadway Musical to exceed 1,000 performances” (Bryan 13).

• 1950-

Call Me Madam
(Berlin) “Provided Merman one of her best roles, that of Sally Adams” (Bryan 13).

• 1956-
Happy Hunting
“The only song from Happy Hunting that achieved currency apart from the stage is Mutual Admiration Society” (Bryan 15).

• 1959 –

“Given the meatiest role of her career, that of the frustrated, overbearing stage mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, Merman reached new heights” (Bryan 14).

Some People
Everything’s Coming Up Roses
were eminently worthwhile additions to Merman’s repertoire, but in
Rose’s Turn
she created an electrifying piece of bravura that is assured a permanent place in the theater’s annals” (Bryan 14).

“What sustained her so long in a profession noted for its short memory in the estimation of audiences given to fickleness? At the beginning and end, there was a voice, a voice so indescribable that writers exhausted the thesaurus in the attempt.” (Bryan 22).

“…not a human voice. It’s another instrument in the band”(Bryan 23).

“Broadway’s only female tenor”(Bryan 23).

“…the voice is ….thrilling and always unforgettable” (Bryan 22).

“a doll from Astoria with a trumpet in her throat” (Bryan 25).

• The next number in the show was ‘I got rhythm,’ and Merman sang it within an inch of it’s life, at one point holding her ‘money note’ for sixteen bars – almost 10 seconds. As they would continue to do for four more decades, the crowd went berserk” (Kantor and Maslon 145).

• "She can hold a note as long as the chase Manhattan Bank” (Kantor and Maslon 144).


Merman's comedic roles were enlarged (Girl Crazy- the musical that launched her career), due to her remarkable talent as relayed by Bryan, "The writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, impressed at rehearsals by Merman's native talent for comedy, continually enlarged her part" (Bryan 5).

“…The Everest of American Musical Comedy” (Bryan 26).

“…She just naturally drips comedy the way some trees drip maple syrup” (Bryan 24).

“…every line she reads is as illuminated as the most dazzling of Times Square’s electric signs” (Bryan 24).


“…a vitality that dominates… like a cyclone” (Bryan 25).

“the heartbeat of show business” (Bryan 26).

Gershwin told Merman: "Never go near a singing teacher..." (Kantor and Maslon 145)

Mama Rose (Ethel Merman) plays an ambitious stage mom - pushing her two children (June and Louise) towards a life on the stage of Vaudeville. Rose favors June in that she strives to make her (the more charismatic of the two) more of a star, leaving the shy Louise to feel unequal. Rose’s objective is thwarted through discovering that June has eloped with a dancer ultimately slashing her dream of establishing her child’s career. Suddenly, Rose switches gears and puts forth a strong focus on developing Louise into a prized act. In a sub-plot Louise has been receiving burlesque/stripper lessons and makes her debut as an erotic burlesque dancer… (Much to the demise of Mama Rose.) However, Louise becomes a star (in a different capacity), which in end highlights Mama Rose’s disappointments/crumpled dreams. Nevertheless, through Mama Rose’s brokenness she begins to assemble a life of her own.

“In 1972 she received a special Tony award for her career accomplishments, which was followed by her election to Theatre Hall of Fame” (Bryan 21).

Producer: David Merrick
Merrick was successful (through the 50s/60s) in that he was able to produce Broadway theater productions in a time when the pricing of musicals was increasing drastically. As the text reports, “In the late 1950s and early 60s, he often had at least four plays and musicals running at the same time” (Kantor and Maslon 260). Broadway musicals also had to compete with the influx of the film industry during this time.

Director: Jerome Robbins
Robbins came out of The Actor’s Studio, which would “become legendary for training a generation of performers to express a greater degree of emotional truth than the stage or film had ever seen” (Kantor of Maslon 262).

Merman wrote of him: “I called him teacher… I’d never been presented to a better advantage. I loved working with him” (Kantor and Maslon 286).

Music: Jule Styne
“He made his Broadway debut in 1947 with High Button Shoes and went on to become one of the prolific composers of the post war era, penning with such hits as Peter Pan and Bells Are Ringing” (Kantor and Maslon 284).

Music: Stephen Sondheim (Oscar Hammerstein’s protégé.)
Gypsy launched Stephen Sondheim in that it allowed him to compose work that would make it onto the Broadway Stage. (Kantor and Maslon 284).

• “The score was one of Broadway’s most snappiest and most sophisticated. Styne and Sondheim made an odd couple as collaborators, but the younger man brought out some real depth in Styne, who returned the favor by giving Sondheim the most accessible melodies of his career” (Kantor and Maslon 285).


Acting was becoming more of a focus on the Broadway theatre and the discovery of truth. When Hammerstein traveled to New York to watch the Rehearsal of Gypsy he called Merman’s performance (while singing Rose’s Turn), dishonest…“It’s the kind of dishonesty that you have to take into account in the theatre, particularly the musical theatre” (Kantor and Maslon 272).

“Gypsy announced itself as something different: it was razzmatazz for the Method-acting crowd” (Kantor and Maslon 286).

“There was a great deal of ebullient Musical comedies in the 1950s, tailored to amuse and entertain the tired businessman” (Kantor and Maslon 248).

“Gypsy brought the New York Drama Critics’ circle award for best Actress in a musical and a nomination for the Tony” (Bryan 18).

The Real Louise!
Works Cited:

Broadway: The American Musical. Dir. Michael Kantor. 2004. Paramount, 2004. DVD

Bryan, George B. Ethel Merman; A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Print

Cloud, Apsara81. Rose’s Turn; Gypsy- Ethel Merman. YOUTUBE. 2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

Kantor, Michael, and Laurence Maslon. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2004. Print.

Mavis, Danton. Ethel Merman 1972 Tony Awards; Everything Is Coming Up Roses. YOUTUBE. 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.
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