Friday, August 28, 2009

Merman and the Broadway Indelibles

I recently went to see a one-woman show about Ethel Merman, the great Broadway musical comedy star. It was a lot of fun to listen to a few of the songs she made famous and to hear of some of the old stories that burnished her legend. For instance, did you know that she premiered in George and Ira Gershwin's hit Broadway musical Girl Crazy in 1930 at the age of 20, introducing the song I Got Rhythm? And even if you did know that, I’ll bet you didn’t know that George Gershwin was conducting in the orchestra pit on that show’s opening night and that among the musicians in the band that evening were – are you ready for this? – Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Glenn Miller!

One of Ethel Merman’s great distinctions is the unique stamp she left on certain roles. Even today when you think of those roles you think of Merman. In two cases, I think, she gave definitive, unforgettable performances: As Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and as Mama Rose in Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. It is arguable that no other Broadway star has left such a memorable imprint on two great roles. Here is my list of the top ten performers who are indelibly associated with a particular role in great Broadway musicals (no films please). I invite you to critique, add, or subtract, in other words, to offer up your own list. By the way, I have even attempted (foolish man that I am) to put these roughly in the order of the strength of the performer's identification with the role in question. The stronger the association of the performer with the role and the show, the higher he or she appears on the list.

1. Yul Brynner as the King in The King and I

2. Robert Preston as Harold Hill in the Music Man

3. Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl

4. Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly

5. Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady*

6. Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof

7. Ethel Merman as Mama Rose in Gypsy**

8. Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun**

9. Vivian Blaine as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls

10. Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific

*Is anyone thinking that Richard Burton as Arthur in Camelot should be included (who learned from Harrison how to perfect the talking/singing that became a kind of trademark)? It's a tough call, but I have omitted him primarily because Camelot itself does not really compare, to my surprise, to these other musicals in terms of popular success (873 performances) or for being as widely or as fondly remembered. By the way, I don't really get this, as I love the show, but these are the facts and my sense. Hey, do you think the appalling movie adaptation from the mid-60's had a negative impact on the collective memory of this show?

**Some of you may be thinking that Merman shouldn’t be on this list at all, because Patti Lupone recently gave the definitive performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy and Bernadette Peters a few years back turned in the ultimate performance as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. You may have a point, but this is a post, for heaven’s sake, about Ethel Merman, so delete her only after careful and respectful consideration.


  1. Your list is terrific. I'm not sure I can think of others who deserve to be in the top ten, but I'll throw out two for your consideration:
    Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees
    John Raitt in Pajama Game

    As long as you mentioned Patti, I'll throw in Patti Lupone in Evita. And since I'm still thinking about Anita the singing pigeon, if you are willing to consider a supporting role, Chita Rivera in West Side Story. Of course, the memory of Lupone and Rivera is less vivid because (unlike Raitt and Verdon) they we not cast in the film versions.

  2. This is a great list and interesting that all are from before 1970, I think. Here are a couple of others though I'm not sure which of the above I'd be willing to drop.
    Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle: I know, to most she's Maria in TSOM but we're talking Broadway here.
    Joel Grey as the Emcee in Cabaret

  3. As many of theatre lovers I LOVE the musical South Pacific . It is my favourite ever...I've seen it in New York and next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tickets via:
    So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.