Yesterday, when posting the video of Mary Martin in the TV version of Annie Get Your Gun, I was pondering the reasons why she might have starred in the production rather than Ethel Merman, who lost out on her legendary Broadway role for the second time. I postulated a few guesses, and immaculate reader Greg Checketts wrote in to give the reason. I overlapped semi-correctly on a couple of the answers -- Ethel Merman was previously occupied with another Broadway show, and the casting did have a relation to Mary Martin having done Peter Pan live for television twice previously. (Greg gives a more detailed and interesting explanation, which you can read by clicking here and then selecting Comments at the top.)
Probably making it all the more annoying for Ethel Merman is because the show that she was working on at the time turned out to be a disappointing musical, Happy Hunting. But oddly, it holds a very important place in Broadway lore -- specifically because it was such an unhappy experience for Merman. The book was by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who had written Call Me Madam for her, and would soon go on to write The Sound of Music, but Happy Hunting wasn't one of their stronger efforts and kept getting rewritten. More problematic for the star was that she felt the score by first-time Broadway songwriters -- lyricist Matt Dubey, composer Harold Karr -- was especially weak. Overall, the show (basically about a mother trying to find a royal match for her daughter) was slight stuff. But, as I said, it ended up benefiting Broadway history.
And therein lies the tale.
Ethel Merman's next show was all set up to go (it likely began development in 1958), and she was famously and publicly anxious to play the starring role. What she wasn't anxious about, though, was letting the untested young songwriter do the entire score himself. She felt herself much too burned by her previous musical with inexperienced songwriters. She was fine if the fellow -- who had one very impressive credit as a lyricist -- wanted to write the lyrics to the show, but she insisted on a veteran composer being brought in.
That lyricist was Stephen Sondheim. He was disappointed in not getting to do the entire score himself -- he saw himself as much a musician as lyricist, and wanted to move past just writing the lyrics as he had for West Side Story. However his mentor Oscar Hammerstein convinced him that there was an advantage to learning how to write specifically for a star, and that there was much to learn from working with a veteran composer, who was going to be Jule Styne. Sondheim agreed, and stayed on the project -- which was Gypsy.
While theoretically it's interesting to wonder what a Sondheim-only score would have been for Gypsy, it difficult to quibble with what resulted. Jule Styne wrote perhaps his best music, and Sondheim rose to meet it with rich, wonderful lyrics. And the show ended up getting what is considered one of the great scores in Broadway history.
(There's a very odd side note to all this. For decades, I'd read what a huge flop Happy Hunting was. Merman repeatedly put the show down as disappointing blip in her career. But in tracking down the cover art above, I came across a fascinating fact that boggle me -- it actually ran for 412 performances! That's about a year, which is respectable by any standards, and might even be considered lightly successful especially for 1956. And Ethel Merman was nominated for a Best Actress in a musical Tony! She lost to Judy Holliday in Bells are Ringing.)
Performances and nominations aside, it was an unhappy experience for Merman because the show was so thin, and the score not considered memorable. (I'm not aware of Karr and Dubey writing any other shows, and certainly no other hits.) It's also remotely possible that Merman's unhappy memories about an admittedly piece of fluff was exacerbated by her knowing that she lost out again on doing Annie Get Your Gun for TV. But thankfully for Ethel Merman being unhappy with the show and, in particular, being very unhappy with the songs, Broadway got the majestic score for Gypsy by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim.
All that said, there were a couple of songs in Happy Hunting that had a very slight life outside the show, one in particular, called "Mutual Admiration Society." Many years ago, my folks had a recording of it on a 45, sung by Jaye P. Morgan and Eddy Arnold, which I always found fun, if not especially substantial. (Keep in mind I was a little kid -- so "fun" and "not especially substantial" take on their own perspective.) I went to track it down on You Tube, to see if someone had uploaded it there, and found recordings by a few other singers. But what I also found was the biggest surprise of all --
I found a video of Ethel Merman and Susan Watson (as her daughter) doing a scene from the show and leading into singing "Mutual Admiration Society." This is what's officially known as a rare treat.
(By the way, Susan Watson did not star in Happy Hunting. She did have a very respectable career. She starred as "The Girl" in the original one-act version of The Fantasticks when the show's creators were trying to raise money for an off-Broaday production, and then recreated the role when the show was done on television. Then, among many other things, in 1960 she starred as Kim MacAfee in the original production of Bye, Bye Birdie.)
But before getting to that and before Ethel Merman got to Gypsy, here first is "Mutual Admiration Society."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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