Everything’s coming up neuroses: surviving quarantine with Ethel Merman

19 May

My younger daughter is a high school senior. Cue the sympathy.

I listen to David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun show on SiriusXM about every week. During his three-hour slot, the lead singer of the New York Dolls and erstwhile actor puts together an exceedingly eclectic mix of everything from classical to calypso to jazz, blues and rock and roll. These programming often has a theme based on the time of year or current events and string together titles and lyrics accordingly. For instance, Mother’s Day may feature Queen’s “Tie Your Mama Down.” Last year’s Halloween show featured Sheldon Allman’s hysterically weird “Children’s Day at the Morgue. Early in the pandemic, the theme seemed to be, frankly, death. By unfortunate coincidence, he featured a Bill Withers tune and John Prine’s “When I Get to Heaven” – and both musicians passed away a few days later.

Since then, I believe Johansen aims to be less doomsday and more resilient. As proof, this week’s show kicked off with Ethel Merman blaring, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the original cast album of Gypsy. I was housecleaning at the time and promptly started lip synching into my Swiffer.

If I am asked to do the Facebook challenge to post the top 10 most influential albums of my life, Gypsy will be one of the first ones up. Debuting in 1959, its brassy score by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is one of the most thrilling in all of Broadway history, much of it due to Merman’s indelible performance as Mama Rose.

In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross, Sondheim said he and his collaborators didn’t believe she could act because of the roles she’d played throughout her career that were essentially an excuse for her to belt one song after another. They wrote “Roses” in the style of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the showstopper from her 1934 hit, Anything Goes, so she could just park and bark. “And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act,” Sondheim admitted.

No kidding. Just listen closely.

The first half of this Act 1 closer is a rousing ego booster from Rose to her shy daughter Louise: “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great!” But as the song progresses, Rose senses that Louise – who she is pressuring to take over the family vaudeville act, now that her sister June ran off to escape her mother’s relentless control – is not up to the task. To convince Louise – and herself – this will work, she tells her:

You can do it. All you need is a hand.
We can do it. Mama is gonna see to it.

Merman falters on “Mama” but recovers quickly to exclaim, “Curtain up!” singing as if her cheerleading had never stopped. Yet she nearly loses it again as she slows slightly, casting around for happy images – sunshine and Santa Claus, bright lights and lollipops – to distract from the panic of likely failure. The orchestration starts to clash against itself, the fear thrumming against the fearlessness, until she hits the final notes, clear and sure as a church bell:

Everything’s coming up roses
For me and for you

This is a chillingly perfect song for moms in quarantine these days. We are trying to hold it together to keep our kids happy and hopeful, despite all we have to manage and all the news to the contrary. We’re aiming to be optimistic when not one damned thing is sure about the future. And no matter what, we are going to get our kids through this, through love, faith and determination.

And music – always music.

See you on the flip side …

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