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by Michael Portantiere

Everything's Coming Up Merman for Klea and for You

  • Klea-edit.jpg

    Everything's Coming Up Merman for Klea and for You

    My favorite moment in one of Forbidden Broadway's best Ethel Merman numbers came when whoever was playing Ethel stood with her feet planted center stage and brassily sang to the audience, "Don't you wish I was on Broadway now?" Of course, the answer to that rhetorical question was and is a resounding "Yes, we do!"

    The Merm has left us for that big, SRO theater in the sky, but you can get a very good idea of what made her so great now that Klea Blackhurst has brought her critically lauded Merman tribute show, Everything the Traffic Will Allow, back to NYC. Every Saturday evening through September 5, you have the opportunity to catch Klea singing the signature songs of her idol -- as well as some obscurities -- at the Snapple Theater Center. Here are some highlights of our recent phone chat.


    BROADWAYSTARS: I haven't seen your show since 2001, and I can't wait to see it again.

    KLEA BLACKHURST: Thanks so much. I've done the show all over the country and in London, so it's not difficult to conjure it back up. We had big houses for the first two nights at the Snapple. It's going really well there.

    STARS: I know you've made a lot of appearances with symphony orchestras. Do you do this show in those venues?

    KLEA: No, but over the past five years or so, I've been building up charts in preparation for eventually doing the entire show with orchestra. For example, when I did a Gershwin evening, I got fabulous orchestrations of "Sam and Delilah" and "I Got Rhythm." I also have charts for "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." Those songs are great even with just piano, bass, and drums, but there's nothing like hearing them played by a full brass section.

    STARS: "Sam and Delilah" is a real gem among the lesser-known songs by the Gershwins. I think Ira's lyrics are amazing.

    KLEA: I agree. We have a ball doing it. I get asked all the time about the line that goes, "She got into action, she showed him her cooch." People want to know, "What does THAT mean?!" I explain, "Well, the hoochie coochie was a famous dance at the turn of the century..." But that line still scandalizes today. The double meaning really tickles people.

    STARS: Among the less famous Merman numbers you perform, which ones are the biggest hits with the audience?

    KLEA: Well, it's not extremely unknown, but "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" has become my favorite Merman song, and it goes over very well. It's like any great old song; the more simple the message is, the more it resonates through the years. You can put all of today's meaning on that song, and it works perfectly. People also seem to like "Just a Moment Ago," the Roger Edens number that was added to Happy Hunting, and "World, Take Me Back," the Jerry Herman song from Hello, Dolly!

    STARS: I saw Merman in Dolly!, and I'll never forget it. I've also heard audio tapes of her closing performances in that show and in Gypsy. I assume you've heard them, too?

    KLEA: Yes. The thing that's so amazing about the Gypsy tape is how funny the scenes are. She gets laughs in places where other people don't get laughs. That joke, "Mama, why do I have three fathers?" "Because you're lucky!" -- uproarious laughter!

    STARS: On one of the Broadway's Lost Treasures DVDs, there's a clip of Merman singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" on the Tony Awards in 1972, I think. It should be required viewing for anyone who claims she couldn't act. In the final section of the song -- "Everything's coming up roses and daffodils, bright lights and lollipops, sunshine and Santa Claus" -- she comes across as really desperate.

    KLEA: I think she listened to whatever direction she got from Jerome Robbins or Arthur Laurents and wrote it down in her script with her red pen. Have you seen the clip of her singing that song for Reagan at his inauguration? When she gets to the last part, even though she changes a couple of lyrics -- you know, "Everything's coming up jelly beans" -- she gives it that same "I'm-gonna-burst-into-tears" delivery. It's very funny, under the circumstances.

    STARS: Even some people who adore Merman contend that she probably wouldn't have been great in the movie of Gypsy because her style of acting wouldn't have worked for that role on the screen, but I disagree.

    KLEA: I'm with you. It's not even about comparing the quality of Merman's performance to Rosalind Russell's, it's just the loss of what Gypsy was on stage with Merman. It breaks my heart that we don't have that.

    STARS: One last question: There are so many hilarious stories about outrageous things that Merman supposedly said and did. Which ones, if any, do you suspect are true?

    KLEA: I don't believe any of them are true, but I think all of them have roots in truth. They're like urban legends. Merman didn't really have a filter. She was so fun and so much bigger than life that no matter how ridiculous the stories about her may be, they're still believable. I just love her. We'll never have the likes of that woman again.

    Published on Thursday, July 30, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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