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As far as classic Broadway performers go, Ethel Merman is not an unfamiliar name. A Broadway regular since the 1930s, Merman originated such iconic roles as Reno in Anything Goes, Annie in Annie Get Your Gun, and Mama Rose in Gypsy. She was featured in over fifteen Broadway productions and eighteen films throughout her life, not to mention a variety of television appearances and concerts. Her powerful belt and classic vibrato made Broadway history. Undoubtedly, she is just as relevant and notorious now as she was fifty years ago.
But have you ever listened to her? She’s not very good. At least by today’s standards. Ethel Merman has an incredibly powerful, very unique sound, but admittedly, it is fairly grating, stays in a limited range, and doesn’t have the basic technique that is required at even the earliest of Broadway auditions today. Now before the Merman fans jump to her aide, berating me for my youth and lack of classic Broadway knowledge, I do not mean to critique the superstar. I think she is an important part of Broadway’s history and I love listening to the original Gypsy soundtrack! She has a style and a presence; I will not argue that.
That being said, I’ve been thinking about Broadway standards and how they have developed throughout the 20th century. Back in the early days of Broadway, yes, you had to be talented. But more than anything, you had to be loud. Theatres did not have the state of the art amplifying technology that every New York theatre boasts today. If you were on Broadway, singing over a ten piece orchestra and reaching all the back corners of a packed theatre, you better be able to belt it out. There was less focus on range or technique, because what was necessary was the volume and the attitude. Ethel Merman undoubtedly had the presence, the attitude, and the lung capacity of a star; thus, she became one. She was different, and that was interesting.
But in the Broadway of today, that doesn’t cut it. Today, actors are expected to have years of acting, dance, and vocal training, be able to hit seven high C’s in a row, and belt out an aria while doing the splits. If you can’t do that, the producers will find someone who can. Since we now have access to microphones and sound equipment that will perfectly amplify even the smallest sounds throughout a one thousand seat theatre, vocalists must be perfect. Because everything they do can be heard. And there is a line of actors waiting for someone to mess up and give them a shot.
I’m not sure whether there are more people interested in performing now and so the competition is more intense, or everyone has gotten more talented since the early 1900s, or whether what the producers look for in a star has simply evolved. I suppose theatre is constantly changing, so the talent pool must be changing too. But whatever has changed, I know that the actors of the 1930s are nothing like the actors of today.
Old Broadway was about presence and attitude and power. New Broadway is about perfection. Ethel will always have a place in Broadway’s heart and will forever be remembered for the star that she was; however, if she were to audition for a production today, I’d imagine she’d be out the first round.