The Playbill Vault Remembers Tony Award Winner Ethel Merman
By Megan Dekic
Legendary actress and singer Ethel Merman, who created such iconic roles as Rose in Gypsy and Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, was born on Jan. 16, 1908. The Playbill Vault revisits memorable roles from her Broadway stage career.
After achieving success as a vaudeville performer, Merman made her Broadway debut in the musical Girl Crazy, about a wealthy New York playboy whose father sends him to a dude ranch in Arizona. With music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan, the production opened Oct. 14, 1930, at the Alvin Theatre.
Merman played the role of Kate Fothergill opposite Allen Kearns as Danny Churchill and Ginger Rogers as Molly Gray. The New York Times praised the "lively and melodious show" and the musical turned Merman and Rogers into overnight sensations.
Girl Crazy has not been seen in its original form on Broadway since its 1930 premiere, but in 1992 a heavily revised version of the musical opened at the Shubert Theatre. This new version, titled Crazy for You, won the 1992 Tony for Best Musical and featured Jodi Benson, Beth Leavel and Harry Groener in the cast.
In 1934, Merman created the role of Reno Sweeney in the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. The production also starred William Gaxton as Billy Crocker and Victor Moore as Moonface Martin. Merman and the cast performed the now-classic tunes "I Get a Kick Out Of You," "You're the Top" and the title song.
The musical opened at the Alvin Theatre on Nov. 21, 1934, to rave reviews. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called Merman and Gaxton "a pair of performers who can make every note burst with vitality and every line sound like a masterpiece of wit." The show went on to play 420 performances.
Twelve years later, after appearing in the Cole Porter musicals Red, Hot and Blue; Du Barry Was a Lady and Something for the Boys, Merman starred as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun opposite Ray Middleton as Frank Butler. The musical introduced several hit songs written by Irving Berlin, including "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do."
The production opened at the Imperial Theatre on May 16, 1946, and was an immediate success. It ran for 1,147 performances and spawned two Broadway revivals — one in 1966 in which Merman reprised her role and one in 1999 with Bernadette Peters — as well as a 1950 film version starring Betty Hutton.
Her next role came in 1950's Call Me Madam, a satire on American politics and foreign affairs. Merman starred as Sally Adams in a cast that included Paul Lukas, Alan Hewitt and Russell Nype.
Directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the musical opened Oct. 12, 1950, at the Imperial Theatre, where it enjoyed a 644-performance run. Merman's critically acclaimed performance earned her the 1951 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Featured actor Nype and composer-lyricist Irving Berlin were also awarded Tonys for their work. Merman would later star in the 1953 film adaptation of the musical.
On May 21, 1959, the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy premiered at the Broadway Theatre. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed a cast that starred Merman as Rose, Jack Klugman as Herbie and Sandra Church as Louise. Merman brought her signature belt to songs like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn."
On her role as the overbearing stage mother Rose, the New York Times' Brooks Atkinson wrote: "Miss Merman, her pipes resonant and her spirit syncopated, struts and bawls her way through it triumphantly." The show was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Actress in a Musical for Merman, but she lost to another Broadway legend: Mary Martin in The Sound of Music.
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