No performer of the 20th century made a greater impact on the American musical theatre than Ethel Merman, who made her Broadway debut in 1930 in Girl Crazy and then went on to star in George White's Scandals; Take a Chance; Anything Goes; Red, Hot and Blue; Stars in Your Eyes; DuBarry Was a Lady; Panama Hattie; Something for the Boys; Annie Get Your Gun; Call Me Madam; Happy Hunting; Gypsy; and Hello, Dolly!.
She originated some of the musical theatre's most beloved roles, putting an indelible stamp on such characters as nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, U.S. Ambassador Sally Adams, and the unstoppable stage mother Rose. With her booming, crystal-clear voice and a natural gift for comedy, she became a favorite of both audiences and composers, nominated for Tony Awards for her performances in Gypsy and Happy Hunting and winning the Tony for her work in Call Me Madam. She also received a Special Tony Award in 1972. Ethel Merman died February 15, 1984.
As Broadway remains temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed like a great time to look back at the career of this truly original artist. Enjoy these show-stopping performances while much of the country is asked to #StayatHome.
"After I've Gone" from Be Like Me
In this 1931 short film, listen to the purity of the voice of a 23-year-old Merman, who also demonstrates that the joy of performing, one of her trademarks, was evident from the very beginning.
"I Got Rhythm" from Girl Crazy
Merman made her Broadway debut in 1930 in the George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, and the song that launched her career was "I Got Rhythm," which she delivers with great verve on this 1956 TV broadcast.
"You're the Top" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" from Anything Goes
In 1934 Merman created one of her many roles still performed today, nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in the Cole Porter classic Anything Goes. In the 1936 Paramount film version, Merman and Bing Crosby have great fun with Porter's "You're the Top," which can be seen below. About 20 years later, The Colgate Comedy Hour presented a shortened adaptation of the musical, with Frank Sinatra, Bert Lahr, and Merman, who is seen here belting out the second act showstopper "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." And a bonus: some exciting footage of the original—although it's without sound, one can almost hear the great star (probably the only time anyone would say that about Merman).
"Ridin' High" from Red, Hot, and Blue
Merman sent another Cole Porter score soaring in 1936 when she joined Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope in Red, Hot, and Blue. She would add another upbeat tune to her extensive repertoire, "Ridin' High," performed here over 40 years later with seemingly no less gusto. Hard to watch this performance without smiling.
"Do I Love You," "You Do Something to Me," and "I Get a Kick Out of You" by Cole Porter
1939 brought Merman another Cole Porter musical, Du Barry Was a Lady, which cast the Queens native as Mme. La Comtesse du Barry. In this TV appearance, Merman offers a Porter medley that includes Du Barry's "Do I Love You," plus "You Do Something to Me" (from Fifty Million Frenchmen), and one of her Anything Goes signatures, "I Get a Kick Out of You." The quintessential interpreter of Porter, this medley demonstrates Merman was equally at home with an emotional ballad—simple, pure, thrilling.
"There's No Business like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun
Irving Berlin provided Merman her next big hit, Annie Get Your Gun. In fact, sharpshooter Annie Oakley was the only role that Merman would return to on Broadway, in a 1966 revival produced by Music Theater of Lincoln Center. The musical comedy was chock-full of songs that would become standards, none more so than "There's No Business Like Show Business," which was not only a Merman signature but one for the entire entertainment industry. Here, she belts out the classic like few others could do.
"The Hostess With the Mostest" from Call Me Madam
Hot on the heels of Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin provided Merman with another hit, Call Me Madam, in 1950. In fact, U.S. Ambassador Sally Adams would be the only musical theatre role that would win Merman a Tony, and one of only two parts that she got to preserve on the silver screen. Below the Merm is "The Hostess With the Mostest" in the 1953 film version of Call Me Madam (she won a Golden Globe for her performance).
The Ethel Merman-Mary Martin Duet
The legendary 1953 vocal duet between then-reigning musical theatre stars Merman and Martin celebrated Ford Motor Company's 50th anniversary, the highlight of which was Merman and Martin’s exciting 13-minute duet medley, which can be viewed below. The 30-tune medley includes "There’s No Business Like Show Business," "A Wonderful Guy," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines Nellie," "I’m the Sheik of Araby," "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along," "Melancholy Baby," "You Made Me Love You," "Mississippi Mud," "I Cried For You," "I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles," and many more.
"Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy
Because the classic musical gets produced so often on Broadway and regionally, the ultimate stage mother Rose may be the role for which Merman is best known today. Unfortunately, she didn't get the chance to preserve her Tony-nominated performance on the silver screen, but she did perform many of the songs from the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score on TV throughout her career. During the run in Gypsy, Merman appeared on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall to perform what would become her ultimate signature tune, the musical's first act finale.
The Ethel Merman-Judy Garland Duet
In 1963 the woman synonymous with Broadway musicals and the woman synonymous with classic film musicals joined forces for a spirit-raising duet on the latter's short-lived TV show. Unsurprisingly they sound terrific in everything they lend their glorious voices to, but the most exciting may be the show-stopping duet from Call Me Madam, "You're Just in Love."
"Some People" and "People"
Merman made dozens and dozens of TV appearances over the years, singing a mix of songs from her own career and others that she took a liking to. This 1966 pairing of two Jule Styne songs—one from her own run in Gypsy and the other from Funny Girl—is particularly exciting and builds to a full-voiced climax.
"Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello, Dolly!
In March 1970 Merman stepped into the title role of the Tony-winning Best Musical Hello, Dolly!, the final Dolly of the show's original Broadway run. Merman finally had the chance to sing the Jerry Herman score that he had written especially for her voice. When Merman joined the company, Herman reinstated two songs that he had cut from the score, "World, Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window." Over a decade later, she raised the roof with the first act finale, "Before the Parade Passes By" on a 1982 TV salute to Broadway… And, some bonus footage: Merman and Herman celebrate Hello, Dolly! becoming Broadway's then longest-running musical in 1970.