Ethel Merman is widely known as the first lady of the Broadway musical. But to Irving Berlin, she might have been known as something a little less kind.
Merman was larger than life, a gargantuan personality that worked against conventions of the musical theatre performer. For starters, she was not professionally trained, never having taken a singing lesson. And she did what virtually no one in theatre does today – sing songs using the traditional Italian vocal technique “Bel Canto,” or in other words, without a microphone.
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) of San Francisco is bringing forth a celebration of Merman’s music and technique to the Geary Theater beginning Wednesday, July 8th. The US premiere/pre-Broadway run of the show, entitled “Call Me Miss Bird’s Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman,” is a tribute to the Broadway star, as well as the many composers who wrote her most famous standards. Written by Jack Tinker and directed by Frank McCarty, the show features Denise Wharmby, a native of the Australian state of Tasmania and a Bay Area resident. Wharmby is tasked with bringing forth Merman’s songs in the same style, which includes singing the songs with no artificial amplification. The revue includes 30 of Merman’s biggest hits spread among a cast of four, including the standards “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “I Get A Kick Out of You” and “Anything You Can Do.”
Merman had a career that spanned from 1930 until 1982, two years before her death in 1984. The title of the show comes from a story that exemplifies Merman’s headstrong personality.
Merman was in rehearsals for the 1950 musical “Call Me Madam,” with music and lyrics by famed composer Irving Berlin. A stipulation Merman made before rehearsals began was that there would be no changes to the songs less than a week before opening. Yet Berlin tried anyway, giving her new lyrics for the tune “The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball.”
When Berlin went up to her to give her the changes, she said clearly, in a tip of the cap to the frozen food giant, “Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”
Graham Clarke, artistic director for Acoustic Voice of Australia and the show’s musical director, has worked with Wharmby for a number of years, most recently taking part in an acoustic tour with her in Mexico in 2014. At the end of that tour, they explored the possibility of continuing their collaboration based on the tour’s success.
Theatres were scoured throughout the country to identify those that met the show’s specific technical specifications, and Clarke was thrilled to find that of the 25 spaces that were explored, only two did not fit their needs.
The Geary Theater was one that certainly did. The Geary has the distinction of being the oldest theatre in San Francisco, re-opening in 1910 as the Columbia Theater after being leveled by the famous 1906 earthquake. It has been known as the Geary since 1928.
Clarke remembers when it was discovered that the Geary would work. He calls the Geary a “magnificent space,” referring to the building’s height, dome and timbre.
“We were literally walking into the space, Denise would sing the chorus, and I would walk to the back of the theatre where the management, technical director and sound engineers were,” said Clarke. “They were so enthusiastic and so supportive. We went back to the theatre and said, ‘Look, this show just seems like a perfect fit.”
Clarke has certainly dug deep into the world of Merman, who was a star in a very different era. For starters, Merman never quit her day job. According to Clarke, Merman would sing at New York City nightclubs late into the night, and sleep under her desk while co-workers would cover for her the next day.
For those in the theatre who are too young to remember the pinnacle of Merman’s Broadway reign, people might only know of the Merman caricature. The big trills are something of a Merman signature. Even Merman parodied herself notably in the 1980 comedy movie “Airplane.”
Clarke never wanted Wharmby to do the Merman parody. Rather, he has watched her shape her portrayal of an artist, the rare talent who went on to become a Broadway legend.
“Merman was somebody who inspired composers such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin,” said Clarke. “It was clear that she was their inspiration.”
Merman is a woman larger than life, with plenty of stories being shared by those who knew her. The show explores many of those and attempts to separate fact from fiction.
“There are a lot of legends around things Merman has evidently said as you would expect from a life in the theatre,” said Clarke. “What the script has done is dig into that, looking at where those legends come from, as well as looking at the woman behind the legend.
“What did it take for her to deliver eight shows a week year in and year out through a 52-year career? That is phenomenal. This show looks at these things and celebrates the music that was written along the way.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco presents “Call Me Miss Bird’s Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman”
Produced by Acoustic Voice of Australia
Written by Jack Tinker
Directed by Frank McCarty
July 8th – 19th
The Geary Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $20 – $65
For tickets and other information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org