TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Like No Business I Know

As the new DVD of their work on the Ford 50th Anniversary Show proves, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman were stars of the first magnitude. logo
It seems strange today to imagine a time when theater was truly integrated into the national consciousness. Today's Broadway actors are hardly known outside New York theater circles, in the 1940s and '50s, theater still held enough cultural sway to grant its stars national recognition. Of those stars, few matched the luminosity of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. While we have cast recordings of many of these glorious women's triumphs, those too young to have seen Martin and Merman live know precious little about their styles of performing and the talent, energy, and (most importantly) charisma that made them the greatest of the greats.

So the DVD release of their performances on The Ford 50th Anniversary Show of June 15, 1953, conceived and staged by the great Jerome Robbins, is to be applauded. Though the disc has only six chapters and though it runs at scant 27 minutes, it's perhaps one of the most essential video recordings that a musical theater lover can have in his or her library.

Merman kicks things off by herself, trumpeting Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and backed by just such an ensemble; it's an energetic, fun performance of the catchy tune. This is followed by "Mademoiselle From Armentières," with Merman, dressed as a soldier and carrying a rifle, joined by a chorus of similarly costumed men singing comically of their exploits in France. The number itself is nothing memorable, but when Merman ends up downstage center, she displays a grin so wide and joyous that her love for performing beams through. She has left behind definitive audio performances of many songs and shows, but few tell you as much about Merman as this moment.

Martin makes her first appearance in "The Fashion Show," or "The Shape." She doesn't speak or sing in the skit but it gives her a chance to demonstrate what a resourceful, sophisticated, hilarious comedienne she was. Goaded on by two announcers to cure her body's "contour delinquency," Martin's character makes a series of valiant attempts to stay fashionable in a number of years including 1903, 1914, 1925, and 1937. Constantly adjusting, pulling, and unzipping various parts of the formless black dress she's wearing, she morphs into each year's idea of the well dressed woman, looking perfectly period in each getup, until she's driven to a mad frenzy -- and eventually to exhaustion -- by the utilitarian fashion trends of 1953.

Martin and Merman then join together in a true oddity: a vaudeville-style pantomime to a recording of "Your Folks and My Folks," recorded in 1925 by Billy Jones and Ernest Hale. Dressed as two dapper chaps, they lip-synch the original duo's comic quips and sung lines, again demonstrating their flair for comedy. And when the recording skips at the very end of the song, they sing themselves offstage in their own voices.

Finally, there's The Medley. After each sings a signature tune ("There's No Business Like Show Business" for Merman, and "A Wonderful Guy" for Martin), they plant themselves on stools and belt their way through some 29 other songs, almost all of them standards. While M&M are closely identified with a few of these ("You're Just in Love," "I Got Rhythm," and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"), they also perform less expected numbers like "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," and "I'm in the Mood for Love." Sometimes, they act out a little playful rivalry, but each woman projects such a commanding presence that to declare either one the "winner" would be pointless. The true winner is the viewer. It's clear that the studio audience adored the women and what they were doing. You will, too.

Tagged in this Story