Beyond the Merm | Playbill

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Special Features Beyond the Merm Chatting with Ethel Merman and, now, Vernon Duke aficionado Klea Blackhurst.
Klea Blackhurst
Klea Blackhurst

While Klea Blackhurst may be best known for invigorating the legacy of Ethel Merman with her MAC Award-winning cabaret tribute, Everything the Traffic Will Allow, these days the redheaded chanteuse is shedding some long-deserved light on one of the Merm’s contemporaries, composer Vernon Duke.

Though the name may be unfamiliar, the tunes won’t be. “If I start the first line of a Vernon Duke song,” Blackhurst says, “chances are you could finish it.” With such standards as “April in New York,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “Autumn in New York,” what’s most intriguing about Duke’s catalogue, says Blackhurst, “is that all these songs were not only from Broadway shows that failed, but were spectacular failures.” Based on her cabaret show—which she’ll reprise Aug. 28 and 29 at the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub—Blackhurst’s sumptuously sung and beautifully arranged new CD, "Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke’s Broadway," will be released by Ghostlight Records on Aug. 16. And, while it features the aforementioned classics—“it would be perverse,” Blackhurst says, “to not include them”—the CD also discovers seven other gems from the composer’s canon.

“Doing a Vernon Duke tribute was not the most logical step after the Merman show,” Blackhurst admits. But after singing some of his songs in a 2003 centennial tribute to several composers, inspiration—along with a key supporter—took hold of Blackhurst. “It was during the Cabaret Convention, and the day after we did the birthday show at the Algonquin, I saw Andrea Marcovicci at Town Hall. She said, ‘Klea, you’ve got to expand this. Because Vernon Duke deserves you, and you deserve Vernon Duke.’” So impressed with Marcovicci’s generosity and advice, Blackhurst set out on a quest. Sorting through hundreds of Duke songs, Blackhurst admits, “I love the detective work. Like, when I started working on the Merman show,” she says, “I didn’t know cabaret. I didn’t know that’s what I was getting into. I was just sick of not working! But the experience of creating the show was so exciting.”

Not surprisingly, Blackhurst unearthed two songs from the 1944 Duke flop Sadie Thompson—originally written for Ethel Merman. “She quit after five rehearsals,” Blackhurst says, having discovered Merman’s own archival notes about her brief experience in the musical version of Rain. In a case of creative differences, Merman reportedly told lyricist Howard Dietz, “Either that lyric goes or I do.” Dietz stonewalled. Merman walked. And, June Havoc stepped into Sadie Thompson for its 60 Broadway performances, while Merman moved on to Annie Get Your Gun.

With a total of 17 box-office duds to Duke’s resume, Blackhurst laments what could have been his hit. “You know, Merman never had a flop. If she’d have stayed in Sadie Thompson, might she have made it a success? We’ll never know.” Meanwhile, Blackhurst, who will headline a production of Red, Hot & Blue at San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon Theatre in September, is giving listeners a taste of what could’ve been—singing two songs from Sadie on the CD. When recording those numbers (“Poor as a Church Mouse” and “Sailing at Midnight”), Blackhurst confesses, “Yes, she was there. I obviously have this great connection to Merman. And, though I don’t want that to be my whole life,” she laughs, “I guess a part of her lives on now in a different way in this record.”

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