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.
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.
“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.
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.