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Ethel’s Unexpected Appearance

When I’m in my car, thanks to its satellite radio, I’m able to listen to Sirius XM’s On Broadway station. This is a curious experience. Most of the time, the station provides an education in the mediocrity of so much Broadway music. I know this is an unfair judgment; much of the mediocrity surely arises from the lack of context.

Who wants to hear music from South Pacific or Guys and Dolls over and over again? Why ruin the best of Broadway by over-playing it? Sirius XM doesn’t do this, fortunately, but as a result, I frequently tune in to songs from shows I don’t know. Thus, I am the one to blame for the lack of context, for not seeing enough musical theater, and I should be grateful, which I am, that the station exposes me to so much with which I would otherwise be unfamiliar.

And then there are the times when I tune in to the sublime. Like last Wednesday morning, as I drove home from an early morning errand. I know that song! It’s from Gypsy. Another great Stephen Sondheim song.* But wait. I know that voice! Why, it’s Ethel Merman! And so it was.

I was transported to my childhood. First I thought it was the song’s doing. Small World. I do love that song. Then I realized that no, it wasn’t the song, it was Ethel. I had forgotten how much her voice had permeated my childhood years. My parents would attend Broadway musicals and bring home the cast albums, which my father would proceed to play all weekend on our living room’s monaural hi-fi. And of course there was the radio. Ethel was everywhere.

I can’t find a link on the internet to her singing the song. For a snippet, go to the Amazon listing of the 1959 cast album (pictured above), scroll down to the song samples, and click on #4. That’s her, in a duet with Jack Klugman — yes, that Jack Klugman, better known to a later generation for his TV roles in The Odd Couple and Quincy, who doesn’t actually appear on the snippet. For a full version of the song, but with Bernadette Peters rather than Merman, you can listen below:

I went to several musicals on Broadway in the ’60s, but none in the ’50s. In particular, I didn’t see the original Gypsy. Worse, I didn’t see any of the Gypsy revivals, each of which featured a great actress as Rose: Angela Lansbury in 1974, the surprising Tyne Daly in 1989, Bernadette Peters in 2003, and Patti LuPone in 2008. I need to make it a point to see the next one.

*I should be more precise. Stephen Sondheim was responsible for the lyrics. The music was composed by Jule Styne. I wrote here two months ago about my love for Sondheim, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and here, a year ago, about seeing a production of Sunday in the Park with George. Gypsy was Sondheim’s second musical, following West Side Story by two years. How’s that for the start of a career? (Next came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first musical for which he wrote both the songs’ words and music.)

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Categories: Music, Theater
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