Blog posts

Ethel Merman’s Scorched Earth version of “Tomorrow” from <I>Annie</I>

Ethel Merman’s Scorched Earth version of “Tomorrow” from Annie

Music, Television

Just in time for Christmas, Stargayzing is gifting its readership by rescuing Ethel Merman’s obscure Sesame Street Christmas performance of “Tomorrow,” the old warhorse from Annie, from the clutches of obscurity. Though Broadway’s biggest star was, in 1978, just six years away from singing the great eleven o’clock number in the sky, Ethel lived to work. The Merm lived to work, turning in a hysterically memorable late-period cameo in Airplane! and a hysterically campy late-period Love Boat appearance, along with fellow show biz vets Carol Channing, Ann Miller and Della Reese?) On Sesame Street, our girl is in excellent form. Smartly dressed in a mink swing coat, sassy boots, and the gigantic late-period Aqua Net helmet we all came to love, the only tell that Merm is getting on in years are the enormous bags under her eyes. These curious reservoirs of herniated fat are so large they could conceivably hold every understudy Ethel ever tortured by a failure to miss a performance. Ever.

Ethel Merman old
Here Ethel demonstrates her jaunty walking step

This performance offered Merman an opportunity to bring back her he old persona for a drive: the tough, flinty broad who walks around Sesame Street like Rosie O’Donnell addressing her staff. Then, of course, there is the voice: Merman’s weapon of mass destruction vocal sound, an instrument so large that it navigates the melody like an ocean liner doing a k-turn, is remarkably unchanged here, a fact that may be a consequence of never having been ,a thing of beauty or nuance in the first place.

Ethel Merman, Sesame Street, Lesley Uggams

“You gotta do what Ethel does—you gotta outlast ’em!”

The good folks at Sesame Street didn’t stop with the singer and the song; they wanted narrative. They created dramatic backstory, and from what I can surmise, Oscar the Grouch did something that has just wiped out the Christmas spirit up and down the street, leaving all of the regulars plus guest stars Leslie Uggams and Imogene Coco listlessly staring off as hurricane Ethel blows in. The dialogue is not only awful but at times rather illogical, such as Merman’s assertion, “I’ve known some grouches who were real gems, but do I look depressed?” The group answers as once, “Are you kidding?” but I would have said, “Bitch, why didn’t you tell those Sesame Street writers that it is confusing for the kids to describe a ‘grouch’ as a ‘gem.’ Hell, it even confuses me and I’m grown.”) Once Ethel susses out the situation and throws around a few insults (“Imogene, whats a matter? You look like an idiot”), the Merm decides to approach the neighborhood’s mass depression with a song. This strategy will not strike even a casual viewer as a total surprise.Ethel Merman weird face

To this desultory gathering of Sesame Street depressives, Ethel brings her dependable A-game. Never a delicate instrument, Ethel’s voice was all about massive scale and maximum impact. In 1978, Ethel’s voice was still as efficient a killing machine as it was in the 1930s. Taking aim on the lovely set decorated for Christmas, Merm launches into the Strouse/Charnin standard with the intensity of a category five hurricane and proceeds to do to Sesame Street in 1978 what Godzilla did to Tokyo in 1956. It is exhilarating to watch the effect the famous Merman vibrato has when aimed at an already unstable and disoriented Imogene Coca, or the Uber-professional and always up-for-anything Leslie Uggams, clearly determined to smile and stand her ground no matter what. Meanwhile cast regulars Bob and Maria have their own challenges coping with Ethel getting up in their faces. Was it the voice or the breath? We may never know. I am saddened that no muppets were included and, therefore, sacrificed in the path of Merman’s raging gale. Perhaps Big Bird could have survived the performance, but he’d have a harder time convincing  people this number actually exists than he did proving the existence of Mr. Snuffleupagus.

It is one of my personal missions to protect great performances from a very real risk of being forgotten. I feel like I got to Merman’s “Tomorrow” with just seconds to spare. My Christmas wish is that inside every Stargayzer is a forever home for Ethel Merman.

You may will also enjoy:

Carol Channing: “Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday”

Dorothy Squires: From Toast of London to Vexatious Litigant

The Night Elton John Told Elaine Stritch “This is Your Song”—and She Kept It

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *