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This Day in History: Broadway legend Ethel Merman dies
On 15 February 1984, singer Ethel Merman dies of natural causes in her New York City apartment, aged 76. Unlikely a Broadway star – as she missed the needed both looks and dancing skills then favoured – she managed to be one of the biggest stars the American stage ever produced, a legend both in her own time and beyond it.
Ethel Merman had a powerful vocal instrument, or better said in her New York Times obituary: “She needed no hidden microphones,” a performer who connected with live audiences in a way that only comes along once or twice in a generation.
Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, in 1908, Ethel Merman premiered in George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, her first Broadway Show.
It was reported that Merman brought down the house with her performance of the now-classic “I Got Rhythm,” at one point holding a high C note for 16 bars while the orchestra played on and the crowd roared.
Of the performance that electrified the rapturous audience that night, Merman herself later said, “It seemed to do something to them, not because it was sweet or beautiful, but because it was exciting.” Legend has it that Gershwin himself rushed back to greet Merman after the curtain closed, telling her, “Don’t ever let anyone give you a singing lesson—it’ll ruin you.”
Gershwin was not alone among legendary Broadway composers in his praise for Ethel Merman. Irving Berlin, who wrote the song for which she may be most famous—”There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun—said of Merman, “You give her a bad song, and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song, and she’ll make it sound great. And you’d better write her a good lyric. The guy in the last row is going to hear every syllable.”
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