Ethel Merman scatted. Oh yes, you sinners, you scamps, you wastrels, you dissipated showtune lovers, Ethel Merman scatted. And that’s the kind of facts and figure in the fantastical channeling of the Merm also known as Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman, a one-woman concert created in 2001 by another gale force of nature, actor-singer Klea Blackhurst. For seven Saturdays through Sept. 5, Blackhurst is reprising her show in New York — at the Snapple Theater Center — and it might worth taking a moment to check out this clip:
What’s important to understand — and if you watched even half of the above clip, it’ll now be clear — is that Blackhurst isn’t doing a tribute act and even when she herself says she’s “genetically predisposed to celebrating the work of Ethel Merman,” it’s not so much channeling, really, as connecting and interpreting and reinterpreting. Of course, insofar as she’s remembered today by the non-show-queen set, Merman’s always associated with something clarion as much as clownish, the possessor of a seemingly indestructible vibrato, an incomparable ear, and a brassy attitude that didn’t exude much in the manner of shade or subtlety or nuance. Now, that characterization isn’t quite true, but Blackhurst’s act really takes the time, musically and in her patter, to explore some of the differences between the myth of Merman, the monster of Merman and the monument of Merman as a figure in popular culture. That last element is crucial: No one will ever have the kind of Broadway career Merman had, period.
For the record, Blackhurst’s resume reveals what kind of dynamo she is: the London Palladium presentation of Jerry Herman’s Broadway, a Carnegie Hall debut with Michael Feinstein in a tribute to Jule Styne. Oh, and among her CDs is a collection of Hoagy Carmichael songs, Dreaming of a Song, recorded with Billy Stritch.
Just for fun, here’s a clip of “Chicken Today” from Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, just for a little change-up:
And while there’s no video, who wouldn’t want to revisit the work of an artist willing to do “I Get a Kick Out of You” on possibly the most daring disco album of all time?:
Accompanied by the Pocket Change Trio, Blackhurst also brings sparkling new interpretations to some rarely performed obscurities, such as “Just A Moment Ago,” “I’ve Still Got My Health” and “World Take Me Back.”
And now, 5 questions Klea Blackhurst has never been asked.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
That might be it! You know, the main reason I felt it was important right away in my career to have publicists helping me was to get the message out that this wasn’t an impersonation show. That’s first thing out of everyone’s mouth: “Is this an impersonation?” Everyone seemed so put off, scandalized that someone would do a tribute to Ethel Merman: “You’re bringing on disaster!” And I was, like, wait, let me do what I want to do. Merman used to say “Broadway’s been very good to me, but I’ve been very good to Broadway” and I feel that way about Merman: “Merman’s been very good to me, but I’ve been very good to Merman.” For awhile there, I was also trying to distance myself from her. This year, the biggest gigs I’ve had was a huge orchestra concert of Annie Get Your Gun in Georgia, and soon I’m heading to San Francisco to do a big run of Call Me Madam. So now I feel that if it gets me out there working, that’s fine.
Early on the first go-round of Everything the Traffic Will Allow, Margo Jefferson of the New York Times asked me if I’d “written” this show. I didn’t write any of the music, I said. She knew that; she asked, “Did you write the parts between the music?” It was Margo’s way of acknowledging that there was a hero’s journey in this.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It’s interesting. It’s not so much the questions themselves, really, but there are a series of questions that are part of what I like to call the apocrypha of Merman: “Did you ever hear…?” or “A friend of mine said…” And they’ll just tell me these stories. I can tell immediately when they’re urban legends. And I’ve gotten really good at being able to tell what I think it relates to. Like Elaine Stritch and Jack Klugman. Now, I wouldn’t challenge either of them to their faces, but it’s that story about there being a drunk in the third or fourth row of the theater, and Merman’s singing and she keeps singing but walks off the stage, into the house, lifts the guy up, throws the guy outside into the gutter and returns to the theater and sings the last note. Stritch’s story is fabulously entertaining; this happened, she says, during Call Me Madam. Klugman says it happened while they were singing “Small World” during a performance of Gypsy. I mean, it happened twice? What, it was the same drunk? Also, Merman was really very small, she was very tiny. And I think to myself, Where was the stage manager? Where was the house manager? She’s leaving the stage, going into the audience and she’s touching someone, much less dragging someone? Really?
What I love about Merman is that we actually entertain these stories. Can you imagine entertaining these stories about Mary Martin or Gertrude Lawrence? I believe, in her first autobiography, Who Could Ask For Anything More?, she talks about an instance during the original Annie Get Your Gun in which two people were sharing something from a paper bag, got loud and boisterous, and Merman broke the wall and said they needed to be quiet or get out of there. I believe that’s the genesis of the story and that later it developed into this much more elaborate thing. People tell me great stories that I do believe are true. But somebody already had a friend who had a friend who had a friend…?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It’s not weird but I did have two friends of Merman come to the show when it was originally running — it was Tony Cointreau, who is heir to the Cointreau fortune and Jim Russo, and they took care of Merman in the last year of her life. He’s always on A&E Biography and I knew his face because I had done all this research. So they came with Ethel Merman on their shoulder, ready to hate me. I won them over and we’ve since become great friends. I also had a guy one time who told me he’d been on a stretcher at Roosevelt Hospital in the emergency room. He said he woke up in a hallway somewhere and saw this big bright light and saw Ethel Merman coming toward him and passed back out. Later he told somebody he’d seen Ethel Merman. She actually wasa candy striper at Roosevelt Hospital. She volunteered there on Thursdays for many years because she was grateful to the hospital for taking care of her mother.
4) You’ve been performing Everything the Traffic Will Allow since 2001. Since then, three new Merman biographies have come out and her disco album has been reissued. Has the resurgence of interest in Merman altered your approach to the show or how you interpret her music or singing?
I’ll tell you an interesting story about that. In 2002, midyear, I was invited to perform at this benefit at the Mark Taper Forum with Michael Feinstein and David Hyde Pierce and about a million stars. I said to the producer — I was nobody at the time and knew nothing — “Is Michael Feinstein going to play for me?” And the producer said, “No, Peter Matz is going to play for you.” Now, Peter Matz was it, he was everything — all those Streisand albums that are so iconic. He died a couple months after the concert, but we had this one rehearsal, going through what everything would be. I’m singing “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” — there’s not that much to do. But it was amazing. And I learned that whole disco album was his idea. He orchestrated and arranged it, sent tapes to her ahead of time with what he wanted to do. On the first day of the recording session, Merman sings “I Got Rhythm” and did it exactly right the first time through. And they’re like, “What are we going to do for the next four days?” They finished in a day and a half of recording, way ahead of schedule.
I’m telling you this because I think for a long time I sort of lived my life and was conducting my career under this idea that everything old would be new again. I don’t think of myself as this genius. I don’t write songs. I don’t create my own music. My take on things isn’t by material I create. But I do think of myself as a wonderful frame-maker — I go to a museum and see a Picasso and think who made that frame? You couldn’t create a career like Merman’s now, you just don’t have the Broadway stage anymore as an art form that has its pulse on the nation the way that it did in the 20s or 30s, 40s or 50s. You couldn’t have a career where you had 13 hit Broadway shows. So I think the idea of writing what you know and exploring what you love — this show, for me, was like my foot in the door. I’d been around a long time trying to get a Broadway show and I just couldn’t burst through. It wasn’t my time, my talents weren’t lined up with history. But I knew Ethel Merman. And I loved this golden age Broadway — like I said, this taking of something old and making something of it new. I do this one song with a ukulele; the joke used to be that the ukulele was the Walkman of the 20s. Now the joke is the ukulele is the iPod of the 20s. Does that answer your question?
5) Actually, yes! What was the one thing Merman would have liked to have done that you’ve done or would like to do?
She did The Muppet Show because she thought it was good exposure. I suppose if she was around, Merman would do Law & Order, which I’ve done. On the episode, I get carjacked and I do a whole scene with Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay and I get royalties for it every now and then. I believe Merman wanted to do Mother Courage. Somebody famous was going to direct it — she really wanted to do a play, basically, and never got one in. I did a Chris Durang play and, well, every time I’m in a play I’m like, When is the music going to start? Oh — here’s one. I’m a boxer: I belong to the Trinity Boxing Club downtown. It has become the way I deal with the rigors of show business. Merman never boxed, so far as I know.
6) You’re having lunch with Ethel Merman at 21 — or better yet, Per Se. What do you talk about? What are the things you’re wanting to ask her the most?
I’d ask her to take me through the opening night of Girl Crazy and tell me what that felt like to stop this show, to be no one, nobody when you went out there and somebody when the curtain came down. Did you take a subway home to Astoria? Was there a car for you? How did you get in the next day? I want to know the details of going to Gershwin’s house the next day and you’ve read none of the papers and you realize you’re an overnight sensation. This is kid who was living with parents in Queens. Was there a party? What time, exactly, did “I Got Rhythm” happen? And the other thing I’d ask her — about this, I’m not kidding. What happened in the marriage to Ernest Borgnine? I’m just so curious about it. It was over by the time the flight got to their honeymoon destination. I wouldn’t make fun of it or joke with her about it. He just released an autobiography and he’s very restrained and respectful about it. She was, for her, very diplomatic: there’s the title of the chapter, “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine,” and then you turn the page and it’s the next chapter. What’s a 32-day marriage?