When last we left Muriel Plakenstein, she was about to enter a new world. The world of Ethel Merman and the St. James Theatre and Hello, Dolly! and David Merrick. Funny thing, I am about to enter that world as well as we approach the first rehearsal for the first NYC reading of Merman’s Apprentice.
The cast is set. And what a cast it is. Klea Blackhurst is Ethel Merman. No, I mean she IS. She is younger than Ethel was in 1970, but the humor and humanity, coupled with a voice that could blow the St. James into the Hudson…well, who could ask for anything more? Klea recently killed ’em in the new musical The Nutty Professor and we are getting this girl to Broadway soon!
Opposite Klea is another powerhouse. A thirteen year old powerhouse named Carly Rose Sonenclar. When Carly was barely seven I cast her as Pearl in the NYMF production of The Night of the Hunter. She was wonderful then, but who would dream she would grow up to be Muriel Plakenstein?
Playing opposite both Klea and Carly is Michael McCormick as the legendary and Machiavellian producer, David Merrick. Merrick was so much fun to write. Although I never knew him (my collaborator David Evans musical directed one of Merrick’s last shows, Oh, Kay! and oh, does he have tales to tell!), I have read so much about him, have so much respect for what he accomplished, and also have always been amused by the way he would accomplish what he needed to accomplish.
Merrick was never above crazy press agent schemes and would do anything to keep his shows running and making money. So it was not that far-fetched for me to create the story of Muriel and Merrick and how he wanted to star her in the first all-child cast of Hello, Dolly! This was a guy who thought of putting Jack Benny in drag and having him come down the red staircase! Michael McCormick is not only currently playing Mack Sennett (another grand manipulator) in Chaplin on Broadway, but he began as a child actor in Oliver! produced by…David Merrick.
And then there are Ethel’s parents.
First there is my old pal, Tony Nominee, Tim Jerome playing Pop. I first saw Tim as one of Hal Linden’s (he starred in my first produced musical Dodsworth) sons in The Rothchilds, and have enjoyed his performances over the years in such shows as Me and My Girl and Grand Hotel. So I am thrilled to actually be working with him for the first time.
When I was Muriel’s age and found rare records like Mr. President and All American, how could I ever dream that I would one day be working with Tony Nominee and legend Anita Gillette? The girl who longed for “Nightlife” and the babe who “The Secret Service” made nervous. In fact, Anita was a Hollywood Blonde during the original run of Gypsy with Ethel Merman and has fond memories of the Merm. Now she is playing Ethel Merman’s mom. Well, a fictitiously humorous version of her anyway. After all, I never met Ethel’s parents…well, not in the flesh. When I first met Ethel Merman in the early 1980’s and she invited me to her apartment, she opened the closet door and pointed to some urns filled with ashes.
“There are my parents and my daughter.”
As Muriel would say, “wow and a half!”
Speaking of Muriel…how about another installment from the unpublished story?
Muriel had never seen anything like it. The wings, Gus called it. Backstage and the wings. Backstage at the St. James was huge and dark and full of ropes and scenery. There was Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed store with all the trap doors built right in. There was the staircase from the Harmonia Gardens in the second act. Muriel thought of all the Dollies who had come down those stairs: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers (her favorite, since she was the only one Muriel had seen), Betty Grable (her dad wanted to come back to see her, something about great legs, he said.), Martha Raye, Pearl Bailey (Muriel remembered her father saying it was revolutionary for there to be an all black cast, but Muriel knew that Porgy and Bess had done that way back in the 1930s, for heaven’s sake!), and most recently Phyllis Diller! There was even talk of Jack Benny appearing in a dress as Dolly!
And soon, Ethel Merman, the greatest of them all, the woman who bought her lunch, would be descending those stairs in that red dress.
“David! Those steps have to be sanded! For Christ’s sake, you want me to fall on my ass on opening night?”
In a flash Ethel was there beside Muriel and Gus. And with her was a tall austere man with the most serious face she had seen since Mr. Singlebutt came to dinner when she was ten and Muriel spilled the steaming baked beans on his crotch.
“David, this is Muriel uh…Muriel…what was that ridiculous last name again?”
“You’re gonna have to change that!”
“I know! I know!,” Muriel bellowed in a voice that suddenly sounded a lot like Ethel’s clarion tones.
“Say, this kid has lung power! Bet she could hit the second balcony without even trying. Might give you a run for your money, Ethel.
The voice belonged to the serious man in the dark pinstripe business suit, the kind her father only wore to funerals. The kind that didn’t fit well, except on this man with the walrus mustache, it fit like the kid gloves Muriel’s father gave her for her last birthday, the ones she loved so much that she never wore them, but kept in her bottom drawer with the things her Mom left. The things that made her cry. Muriel had to stop thinking about Moe and her Mom and toughen up.
“Muriel, this is David Merrick. He’s the producer of the show.”
Of course! David Merrick. He was the name over every title of so many of the records that Muriel loved so. David Merrick presents Gypsy. David Merrick presents Destry Rides Again. (That was a tough record to find in good condition) David Merrick presents I Do! I Do! (That was the show her father would not take her to because he felt a show with only two actors in it wasn’t worth the ticket price.) And there it was just outside. David Merrick had presented Hello, Dolly since Muriel was six years old. So was the producer the presenter? Was he giving the world a present? Well, yes, in a way, Muriel supposed he was. Presenting a present to people who loved musicals. That was who this David Merrick was.
“Well, Miss Plakenstein, Ethel tells me that you want to be an actress.”
“No, Sir,” Muriel bellowed (was she starting to sound more and more like Merman?) “I want to be a Broadway Star!”
“Well, I guess there IS a difference. I’ve worked with many the star that couldn’t act, sing or even eat with the proper fork. But they WERE stars.”
Ethel gave David a look that could kill a snake dead in its tracks.
“I didn’t mean you, Ethel. I still think your performance in Gypsy was the greatest achievement ever put on a stage. And I had the good fortune to put you on that stage.”
“Yeah, so how come that Goddamned Mary Martin won the Tony for The Sound of Music? I’ll tell you why? Cause you can’t buck a nun!”
Suddenly Miss Merman eyed Mr. Merrick suspiciously. “And I have a feeling you voted for her, David.”
Muriel loved when Ethel’s language grew salty. But Mr. Merrick only cringed. He had in fact voted for Mary Martin. He had always had a crush on the blonde “honey bun,” as he called her. Plus he had money in The Sound of Music, money that translated into more. Mr. Merrick was funny that way.
“So what are you gonna do for the kid, David? Are you at least gonna give her comps for my opening?”
“Oh, I’ll do better than that,” joked Merrick in that satanic way of his. “I’ll make her the star of the show when you leave and…”
Merrick’s face froze as Ethel guffawed with all her might, making her jowls visibly shake.
“What’s the matter, David? Did you have a stroke? You look like someone just stole half your box office takes for the year.”
“Come with me, young lady. And you too, Ethel.”
Merrick, closely shadowed by Ethel and Muriel, strode swiftly past the set for Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed store, past the Harmonia Gardens’ staircase, past the “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” train (which Muriel remembered shot out real steam from the smokestack!) out the little door on stage right and up into a tiny elevator that was so small that Ethel and Muriel both had to breathe in. Merrick pressed “3” and up they went in the rickety lift. Finally they followed Mr. Merrick into his office.
It was red. Everywhere. Red walls, red ceiling, red carpet. Red. he color of Dolly’s dress, the color of a fire engine, the color of blood. David Merrick Red!
“Jesus Christ, David,” Ethel bellowed, “This place looks like the inside of blocked artery!”
“Sit down, please,” said Merrick calmly. “Little Muriel has given me a brilliant idea!”
Well, tomorrow is the first rehearsal for the reading and I expect to take some photos and have some more tales to tell. So stay tuned all you Mermaniacs for the further adventures of Cole, Evans, Muriel, and Merman. Some real, some fiction…who can tell the difference anymore?
–Part One: The Merman’s Apprentice Log (With Stephen Cole’s bio).
-Carly Rose Sonenclar’s website.
-Stephen Cole’s website.
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-For more information write to Mermansapprentice@gmail.