The Merm is a tough one for us. We love and respect her, but she's not someone we can just sit and listen to on record. Out of the context of a musical show or film, she can seem one-dimensional; "subtlety" and "nuance" were most definitely not Merman's strong points. She also seems, sometimes, to be completely unaware of her own limitations, lacking in irony, and serenely oblivious to her own self-parody. Witness this jaw-dropping 1968 appearance on The Hollywood Palace, wherein The Merm completely rewrites Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" as a melodramatic monologue involving a handsome Brazilian, roast pheasant, and champagne. French champagne. (Fast forward to 3:40.)
Was Ethel's "interpretation" the most poker-faced parody ever played, or did she really intend to be serious, even moving? We vote for the latter. Of course, this completely zany yet endearing determination to keep up with the times, while never realizing the cost to her credibility, reached its zenith with the infamous Ethel Merman Disco Album. And, as this clip from The Tonight Show demonstrates, The Merm was, once again, dead serious, sincere, and gung-ho about promoting her product.
But at the end of the day, Ethel Merman was not just a die-hard professional, but also a true talent. And talent, if properly presented, always wins out in the end. Two years before she died, Ethel appeared on The Merv Griffin Show to perform "Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello, Dolly!, accompanied by composer Jerry Herman - who, touchingly, reveals how Ethel first inspired him to pursue a career in musical theater. No "special material" lyrics; no cowbells and whistles; no bowing to trends. Just Ethel letting loose and belting it out of the ballpark.