“The Muppet Show” and Broadway

When I was young, I was an avid watcher of The Muppet Show. I loved the Muppets in general, but this variety show was my favorite of them all and I enjoyed watching reruns . I was even ad avid watcher of the 1996 reboot Muppets Tonight! which failed to recreate the success of the original. Sure, I’ve seen the films and TV specials and other series and I’ve liked them, but this one was always my personal favorite. The Emmy Award winning show’s foundations were in vaudeville and music hall, with very special guest stars each week (this show made Rita Moreno an EGOT). The backstage shenanigans were complemented by the show-within-the show, which featured regular sketches and songs.

As I got older I started to realize that a lot of these guest stars, as well as the material which they performed, came from the world of musical theatre. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but the show was highly influential in my early growth as a theatre person. I also still remember that it was the first time I ever saw Bernadette Peters in my life. Here are just a handful of those performances.

Julie Andrews and the gang sing The Sound of Music’s “The Lonely Goatherd”


Jean Stapleton (Bells Are Ringing, Funny Girl) sings one of Irving Berlin’s famous quodlibets “Play a Simple Melody” with Fozzie Bear.


Another Berlin quodlibet – and one of the more offbeat Muppet performances: Tony nominee Cleo Laine (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) sings “You’re Just in Love” from Call Me Madam with the Swedish Chef.


Ethel Merman sings a rather tender version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to Fozzie after his comedy act has bombed. The number transitions onstage for the Merm’s trademark finish.


Last but least is “Just One Person” from the musical Snoopy, which played off-Broadway and London in the early 80s. It was sung on this show by Bernadette Peters, but became closely identified with Muppet creator Jim Henson. When he died suddenly in 1990, the song was performed on a Muppet special that dealt with his death and also by his colleagues at his London memorial service.



Mama’s Got the Stuff

There are certainly a variety of recordings of Gypsy on the market for discerning cast album collectors. Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose in 1959, Roz Russell scored the 1962 film adaptation. Angela Lansbury breathed life into the original London and first Broadway revival in 1973 & 74, respectively. Tyne Daly starred in the 1989 revival; Bernadette Peters in the 2003 revival and of course Patti LuPone in the recent 2008 production. Oh, and Bette Midler made the 1993 made for television adaptation. So even if you don’t count the horrendous Kay Medford studio cast album, that’s a lot of Gypsy.

If there is any one argument to be had, it’s over which actress is the definitive Rose. Every one of these leading ladies has had their share of vociferous champions as well as detractors. It’s just the nature of the beast. When it comes down to it, there are two recordings of Gypsy I listen to repeatedly: the original Broadway and original London albums.

Tyne Daly’s album is marred by the powers that be who insisted she record the score while suffering from laryngitis (don’t let the album – which Tyne herself has disowned – fool you: a trip to youtube shows you what a marvel she was in the part). I don’t feel that the most two recent albums fully captured what made Bernadette and Patti’s performances indelible (and the tempo and energy on the latter is surprisingly lacking). The two soundtrack albums offer very little in terms of musical enjoyment, unless you’re a fan of Lisa Kirk or Bette Midler.

While I love the London cast album for Angela Lansbury’s truly stunning turn as Rose, the recording of Gypsy to end all Gypsy‘s is the original Broadway cast recording with Miss Ethel Merman. The album was recorded May 24, 1959. As was the tradition for most musicals at the time, it was recorded on the first Sunday after opening. It was released a mere two weeks later and has been a must have for Broadway fans ever since.

The original album is definitive for three reasons: Ethel Merman, Milton Rosenstock and Dick Perry. Merman was a force of nature in the part, and though people have looked back on her performance as lacking, she is electrifying on the album. Rosenstock was the musical director and I’ve yet to hear a better Gypsy orchestra. Dick Perry was the second trumpet player on the show who became an in demand player for many musicals as a result of the showstopping improvisation during the overture. Styne insisted on Perry for the pits of many of his subsequent musicals and can be heard on the cast albums of Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping and most prominently in Funny Girl where he was the Cornet Man. Gypsy is widely considered to have the greatest overture in musical theatre, and its first recording has never been bettered.

There is also something about the way Goddard Lieberson recorded these big scores for Columbia records in the late 50s and 60s that is just so satisfying. While Lieberson took liberties with false lead-ins and endings and rarely recording dialogue, his albums are some of the best ever produced. He had a knack for producing and helped make Columbia the leader in original cast recordings, when show music was at the height of popular culture. Once he retired in the 70s, Thomas Shepard, who produced the remastering of this recording, became the leader over at RCA. But in terms of how it was recorded – everyone was in a large room and the performances were big and theatrical, truly capturing what it was like to hear the score in the theatre. There was a kineticism that is lacking on most contemporary cast albums. This energy is especially evident on Lieberson’s recordings such as Gypsy and for my money, the greatest cast album of a musical ever made, Mame.

In honor of the show’s 50th anniversary, Sony Masterworks has reissued the album in a brand new edition (its third CD release). The new release is pretty much the same as the ’99 release, with the noted addition of three tracks: a publisher’s demo of “Who Needs Him?” from 1959, Michael Feinstein’s brief interview with composer Jule Styne about working on the show and “Gypsy Rose Lee Recalls Burlesque.” The latter is one of those novelty items that has to be heard to be fully appreciated. The liner notes are reprinted verbatim from ’99, with the addition of a few new paragraphs that comment on the continuing popularity of the show, mentioning Bernadette and Patti in the process.

In lieu of a jewel case, the new release is in one of those trifold cardboard slimline cases, with an insert for the liner note booklet and another for the CD itself. The case itself recreates the original LP artwork, the liner notes recreates the collage of photos used for the LP reissue and first CD release. One in particular that I’ve never seen before but is a rather fun shot of Paul Wallace recording “All I Need is the Girl” with Sandra Church.

If you already have the ’99 Gypsy, the new release isn’t really necessary unless you’re a purist, such as myself. To those who don’t have it, I resist the urge to ask you what you’re waiting for and instead offer you links from which you can purchase it.

The Great American Musical Turns 50

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of what Walter Kerr called “The best damn musical I’ve seen in years.” The musical, based on the memoirs of that memorable ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, opened at the Broadway Theatre on May 21, 1959 (after a mere two previews) to great reviews and a memorable star turn from the irrepressible Ethel Merman. Arthur Laurents, in what would be prove to be his last credible success as a musical theatre librettist, contributed arguably the finest book in American musical history. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, and at the insistence of Ms. Merman, Jule Styne wrote the music. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed. The show, which opened in New York just following the 1958-59 cut-off, would be trounced in the 1959-60 season by The Sound of Music and Fiorello! in what is so far the one and only Best Musical tie in Tony history. Merman famously lost the Tony to Mary Martin, headlining the more crowdpleasing Sound of Music, with the infamous quip from Ethel: “You can’t buck a nun.” The musical play ran 702 performances in NY before Ethel Merman went out on national tour. This original cast album is a must-have for any musical theater lover. There are a lot of people who insist that Merman’s performance is subpar (many of whom didn’t actually see it, but I digress); however she delivers an electrifying performance on the album. She is ably supported by Sandra Church, Jack Klugman and Maria Karnilova as Tessie Tura. With all due respect to all other recordings that have come along, I don’t think the orchestrations by Robert Ginzler and Sid Ramin have ever sounded better than they do here. (Though let it be said, all recordings of Gypsy are required listening). Also, it’s only right to mention Dick Perry, a favorite of Jule Styne’s, who rocks out the improv section on the overture like none other. Perry also played on the original cast albums of Subways Are for Sleeping and Funny Girl, serving as soloist for “Cornet Man” and even receiving billing for it. His credits include several other big 60s musicals, as well as trumpet player in the original “Tonight Show” band.

I currently own the 1999 Sony release that cleaned up the album and restored part of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” The album included previously unreleased demos of songs from the score, including some cut numbers, an early version of “Some People” and a combination of “Mr. Goldstone” and a tender “Little Lamb” sung by Ethel. On May 5, the original cast album will be re-released yet again by Sony Masterworks in a new 50th anniversary edition. This new release includes all material on the 40th anniversary release, but will also include an audio clip of Michael Feinstein interviewing Jule Styne, as well as a track on which Gypsy Rose Lee herself looks back on burlesque. Yes, I’m seriously considering the upgrade. Also, Masterworks is planning a similar 50th anniversary release of The Sound of Music this fall.

Something you don’t see everyday…

Here’s Ethel Merman and Susan Watson performing “Mutual Admiration Society” from the former’s musical Happy Hunting on the 1963 sitcom pilot episode of Maggie Brown. The series, about a widow trying to raise her daughter while running a nightclub next to a Marine Corps base was never sold. Here’s a taste of what the show was like:

Life Lessons from the Merm

All the following quotes have been credited to Ethel Merman. Some of them quite choice. I can’t say for certain whether or not she actually said all of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised… I offer them for your enjoyment. 

– Always give them the old fire, even when you feel like a squashed cake of ice.

– Any audience that gets a laugh out of me gets it while I’m facing them.

– As far as dramas are concerned, it’s considered passe for playwrights to turn out anything the average person can understand.

– At a flea market I always head for the junk jewelry table first.

– At one time I smoked, but in 1959 I couldn’t think of anything else to give up for Lent so I stopped – and I haven’t had a cigarette since.

– Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I’ve been very good to Broadway.

– Christmas carols always brought tears to my eyes. I also cry at weddings. I should have cried at a couple of my own.

– Cole Porter had a worldwide reputation as a sophisticate and hedonist.

– Cole Porter wrote Anything Goes and four more hits for me.

– Eisenhower was my war hero and the President I admire and respect most.

– I am known to be able to take care of myself when I become angry. I don’t mince words.

– I attend surprisingly few shows. The type of theater that is popular today just doesn’t appeal to me.

– I can never remember being afraid of an audience. If the audience could do better, they’d be up here on stage and I’d be out there watching them.

– I don’t like to read. The only things I read are gossip columns. If someone gives me a book, it had better have lots of pictures.

– I have plenty of invitations to go places, lots to do. If I’m not working, I go to have my hair taken care of and work at needlepoint.

– I preferred delivering my performance in person. I liked to be in control. You couldn’t be in films.

– I take a breath when I have to.

– I was born in my parents’ bedroom on January 16. The World Almanac says it was 1909. I say it was 1912. But what difference does it make as long as I feel 33?

– I was lucky enough to have the songs in my first show written by George and Ira Gershwin. Then Cole Porter wrote five shows for me.

– I wasn’t straining at the bit to become a movie star any more than I had plotted to get out of vaudeville and into Broadway musicals.

– I work as often as I want and yet I’m free as a bird.

– People who retire fall apart. As long as you’ve still got it, use it.

– I wouldn’t change one thing about my professional life, and I make it a point not to dwell on my mistakes.

– I wouldn’t trust any man as far as you can throw a piano.

– I’ll pat myself on the back and admit I have talent. Beyond that, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

– I’ve made a wonderful living playing that theatrical character – the professional brassy dame.

– I’ve never cooked. I can’t do much more in the kitchen than make a cup of tea and some toast.

– I’ve never suffered stage fright. That fascinates people.

– If I feel in need of sleep, I just open a book or turn on the television. Both are better than any sleeping pill.

– In my case, things have pretty much been handed to me.

– Legend has it that when God created me, he gave me a big distinctive voice, a lot of boldness and no heart.

– Mom and Pop were proud of my popularity, but from their point of view, show business was no way to make a living.

– Mom claimed that I could carry a tune at 2 or 3 years of age. Maybe she was a little prejudiced.

– Music, in the past few years… anything singable or understandable is square.

– My beloved Mom and Pop always rated tops with each other, and that’s the way it will always be.

– My career at Warner Brothers consisted of one musical short subject. I was running around in a bear skin. Very chic.

– My father taught me to read music and play the piano-but not well, even though people have said that I’m a natural musician.

– Of my four marriages, the one to Bob Levitt is the only one I don’t regret.

– Once I had all the attention, all I had to do was deliver.

– The slapdash way producers used to assemble a show seems a little unbelievable when we talk about them now.

– There have been people who have tried to take advantage of me. They want to be linked to me just because I’m Ethel Merman.

– There’s such a thing as theater discipline. One player doesn’t appropriate another’s inventions.

– When I’m asked how to succeed in show business, I always say I haven’t the foggiest.

– When you are in deep conflict about something, sometimes the most trivial thing can tip the scales.

– There are lots of show tunes left to do.

– You can’t buck a nun. (Losing the Tony for her Rose to Mary Martin’s Maria von Trapp)

– Call Miss Bird’s Eye 1950, this show is frozen! (being presented new lyrics for Call Me Madam)