DIVA TALK: A Chat with "Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa… and Me" Author Tony Cointreau, Plus Randy Graff Is Well-Made in Brooklyn

By Andrew Gans
07 Mar 2014

Merman in Hello, Dolly!

Question: Did you get to see her when she did Hello, Dolly!?
Tony Cointreau: Oh, opening night of Hello, Dolly!? Oh my God! The audience went bananas. Now you know in Dolly, Dolly arrives on a trolley with a newspaper in front of her face. Well, when she lowered the newspaper and the audience saw Ethel Merman, it was pandemonium. They went completely bananas. And, you know what she told me later, she said, “You know? After 30 years on Broadway, that was the first time that I ever lost my concentration.” And, she’d had some ovations in her day, but that threw her. It really, really threw her. And then one of the greatest evenings in the theatre that I can remember, ever, was May 15, 1977, when she and Mary Martin did a concert benefit for the Museum of the City of New York, and they closed down part of Broadway; it was madness. But those two dames up there, the way it was staged by Donald Saddler, was so brilliant, and every time Ethel did a song, she just knocked everyone’s socks off. I thought the roof of the Broadway Theatre was gonna blow off. It was really exciting.

Question: She was friendly with Mary Martin, right?
Tony Cointreau: They were very good friends. When Ethel became ill, she was supposed to go and stay for a few days with Mary in California. Of course, she couldn’t, she didn’t, ultimately, but they were really good pals. You know, they didn’t step on each other’s toes either. I don’t see Mary doing Ethel’s shows or Ethel doing Mary’s shows. And Ethel always had one line when she was asked, because everyone tried to build a feud between them, and Ethel always said, “Oh, Mary’s okay if you like talent!”

Question: Did Merman talk much about her Broadway experiences with you? Did she talk about her decision not to do anymore stage shows after a certain point?
Tony Cointreau: After Gypsy she didn’t want to do it anymore. She’d been doing it for 40 years then. Then Hello, Dolly! came along, and Jerry Herman wrote the show for Ethel. The greatest disappointment of Jerry Herman’s life was when, and I got this from the horse’s mouth — there was Ethel and Jerry and David Merrick and Jimmy and me, and we were all sitting together and they recounted the story of when they, Jerry and David Merrick, called Ethel up, and said, “Ethel, we have your next show.” And she said, “Sorry, boys, I’m hangin’ it up.” And from then on, she did television shows, concerts with the symphony, and she loved everything she did. Everything she did was the most exciting thing – doing the “Love Boat” was as exciting to her as Gypsy. She was a little girl from Astoria, a secretary and a great star all at the same time.

Question: She left you a lot of memorabilia…
Tony Cointreau: I have it all, yes. Scripts. We even have her ashes, we have her daughter’s ashes, her mother’s ashes, her father’s ashes, and the father of her children’s ashes.