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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 …

At the end of the play, you’re another day older

21 Feb

Unlike me at her age, my younger daughter does not want to be a professional actor when she grows up. She’s too interested in too many things to make that a priority. That said, she adored being in her high school’s musicals and plans to audition for shows in college. She loves the camaraderie, the costumes and the commitment to ensuring the audience has as good a time as the performers. This was never more evident than her junior year, when she played the title role in Hello Dolly: eight costume changes, huge production numbers, four sets of lovers coming together by show’s end, lot of color and smiles and red feather headdresses. What a delight!

Then they announced the show for her senior year: Les Misérables — the polar opposite of delightful. It’s an ambitious choice for most professionals, much less high schoolers in an affluent suburb with only a fleeting acquaintance with poverty. What’s more, they decided to give the major roles to girls who hadn’t had a featured part before … and last year’s Dolly Levi was cast as this year’s Whore #2. (“Do you at least get the lyric, ‘Bit of skirt – she’s the one sold her hair’?” I asked hopefully. “No, Mom, that’s Whore #1.”)

For those who need a brush up, the three-hour musical is based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel about justice versus mercy against the backdrop of the unsuccessful 1832 Paris uprising in support of the poor (not the French Revolution — honestly, people, pay attention in world history!). The show debuted in 1985 and took the world by storm, with any number of theater kids belting out “On My Own” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in their showers for years to come.

However, this show is kind of a hard sell these days. While many are eager to quote Hugo’s message of hope — “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” — as the moral of the show, it can also be boiled down to: Don’t dream of love or you’ll end up a dead prostitute/ street waif. Don’t dream of a better future because you and all your friends will die. Don’t fight for your principles because nothing ever changes. And oh, don’t get too fond of anyone because only two main characters are still going to be breathing at the end of the show.

There have also been more parodies and jokes than true fandom lately. That was kind of true when it first debuted. Back in the late 1980s when the wicked parody show Forbidden Broadway was at its best, it had a whole Les Miz medley featuring the actress playing Fantine complaining about the dreariness of the setting after a career of tap dancing in flashy costumes and styled wigs: “There was a time when shows were fun …” The 2012 movie version was derided for casting non-singer Russell Crowe as Javert, and despite Anne Hathaway earning an armful of awards including an Oscar for playing Fantine, the following year was marked by articles like “The Most Annoying Celebrity of 2013,” “Why do people hate Anne Hathaway?” and “Do we really hate Anne Hathaway?

Then there was Diner Lobster:

With all this snark out there, where did that leave this suburban high school production in 2020? Despite weeks of nerve-wracking rehearsals and a bout of flu nearly sidelining Jean Valjean the first weekend, they came through with a solid show infused with a lot of heart. The vast majority of these kids will never suffer the pain, desperation and injustice their characters faced, but there they were by the dozens, sharing the stories of those who were pummeled by life yet kept fighting for their children, their society and the chance that goodness will prevail. The experience of walking in their characters’ boots will stay with them, I am certain.

And, my daughter was a consummate pro, changing from nun to factory worker to hooker and downtrodden Parisian with great aplomb as a featured chorus member. She did what I could never have done in high school: set aside any prideful grousing about what the musical isn’t to focus on what the musical can be: moving, collaborative, and even a bit humbling.

Thankfully, she left the snarkiness to theater professionals like me:

See you on the flip side …

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