Here we are, casting our first public New York City reading of a new musical fable, Merman’s Apprentice, a new musical fable…Book and Lyrics by Stephen Cole, Music by David Evans. For the umpteenth time in over two decades of writing musicals, I am once again at the beginning. Every musical ends with a curtain call, some in blazes of glory and some in…not. But every show begins a different way.
‘Merman’s Apprentice’ began with Ethel Merman.
Ever since I first heard the Broadway Cast recording of Ethel Merman in Gypsy (yet another musical fable), I was hooked on her voice and persona. I must have been twelve years old. Fast forward a decade or so, when miracle of miracles, I meet and befriend Ethel Merman. She was everything I had ever dreamed…big, loud, vulgar (in the best way), funny…but also warm, vulnerable, loyal, and a real friend. Oh, the wonderful parties we would have! I would play rare videos of Ethel singing…short subject musicals from 1930, rare films, super-rare kinescopes and tapes of her TV appearances from the 50’s, 60‘s, 70s, and 80’s. Ethel would plant her butt in the middle of my living room carpet and sing along or comment (“I was married to Mr. Borgnine then.” “My voice sounds so tinny. I sound like Ann Miller”) and then after the entertainment, she would take us all (10 or 12 of her dearest pals) to dinner. These soirees went on at irregular intervals during the last couple of years of Merman’s life, in fact until a brain tumor felled the mighty ‘Merm.’
Over the years, I often thought about the real Ethel and how delightful and vulnerable she could be. Several years ago I was commissioned to write a family musical called Merlin’s Apprentice. Joking around, I said, “I’d rather write Merman’s Apprentice!” Suddenly a “boing!” went off. At first I wasn’t thinking of a musical, though. Merman’s Apprentice began as a short story about twelve year-old Muriel Plakenstein running away from home to be a Broadway star.
In fact it began something like this…
Muriel Plakenstein had run away from home at last. The Double L train had been her escape for a long time now, but this time the trip from Canarsie to Manhattan would be permanent. While most twelve year-olds were safe in school, Muriel was deciding whether to change trains at Union Square or at Eighth Avenue. Muriel was not like most twelve year olds. It’s like everyone said about her, “she’s older than her years.” And Muriel wanted to be a Broadway Star. She could sing. Boy, could she sing! And she was loud too! She could imitate anyone on any of her cast albums. One day she was Carol Channing hitting the lowest of bass notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the next she was John Raitt hitting the highest of highs in at the end of “Soliloquy” in Carouse” (the Lincoln Center version from the RCA record club her mother belonged to). Muriel didn’t care if she sang the men’s songs or the women’s, as long as it was a musical.
Her little friends hadn’t always understood Muriel. This was 1970 and not one of her little chums even knew what a My Fair Lady was. Muriel was different. From the time she saw her first Wizard of Oz on TV she knew. And when her dad brought home the cast album of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (one of his co-workers bought it by mistake, thinking Marilyn Monroe was in it…now what was THAT about?) she was totally hooked and cried, wheedled and begged for the money each week to buy a new record. When she was eight or nine, she even cut school and took three busses to find a rare copy of What Makes Sammy Run? with Steve Lawrence. Muriel was determined one day to BE Steve Lawrence. Or Carol Channing. Or even Bernice Massey.
Oddly enough, among all the cast albums was a soundtrack. For those of you who don’t distinguish between the two (and most record stores are guilty of this horror) Soundtracks are only the tracks from the MOVIE versions of the great shows. These were distained by Muriel, as she knew that most of the voices in the movie versions of shows were dubbed anyway. She could see their lips moving one way and hear the voices singing another. Muriel was shrewd. But there it was, buried in a closet, the soundtrack of Gypsy. Muriel liked it a lot although she didn’t know who was singing for whom. To her ear sometimes the women singing most of the songs sounded good and sometimes she didn’t. She tried to compare her voice on that record with her voice on another recently acquired recording of her Broadway musical, Wonderful Town, but didn’t have two record players to play them side by side, so the experiment went untested.
One day she turned on the radio and heard one of those songs from her record of Gypsy. But it wasn’t the voice she was used to. It was something unbelievable. Like a trumpet call with the clearest words shooting out at her and an emotional charge the likes of which Muriel never had heard before. The announcer announced that this was the Original Broadway Cast of Gypsy starring the great Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman!
Muriel had seen her on TV a couple of times. On reruns of The Lucy Show or That Girl. (She would watch these in the mornings on the occasions she played sick and got out of school). But Muriel had never heard her sing like this. The next time Muriel’s father took her on one of their Thursday jaunts to the Green Acres shopping center on Long Island, Muriel begged, pleaded, and wheedled five dollars out of him and bought the record. When she got home she played it through the huge stereo headphones that covered half of her head. Muriel was hooked. Forget about Channing, Lawrence (Steve not Gertrude) or Raitt. She just HAD to be Ethel Merman.
And on that sunny June day in 1970, Muriel Plakenstein (she would have to change that!) watched as the stops in Brooklyn gave way to the darkness of the tunnel that connected the old world with the new one. And as the old train clanked and sputtered along underground, she dreamed.
In her knapsack were two-dozen reel-to-reel tapes that she had made of her favorite albums. She couldn’t very well take the records themselves nor, unfortunately could she bring the enormous reel-to-reel tape deck that her father had bought her for her twelfth birthday. She would send for them later. When she was settled in her new and glamorous apartment. Just having the tapes with her made her feel better.
The fact that Muriel had only $8.49 on her didn’t deter her at all. Soon she would be the world’s first twelve-year-old Broadway Star and the money would come rolling in. But she would have to be frugal for the few days it might take to make it big.
Now, don’t imagine that Muriel didn’t know what she was doing. Muriel had her copies of Show Business and Backstage. These newspapers had all the listings of what was auditioning, who was interviewing…the works. Muriel was not some little amateur. Hadn’t she wowed them last summer at the bungalow colony in the Catskills when she sang the entire Bench Scene from Carousel by herself? Without any accompaniment, thank you very much! And when she did her encore of the reprise of Show Business from her newly bought LP of Annie Get Your Gun (the Lincoln Center version) didn’t everyone cheer? Of course they did! ‘A Little Merman’ they called her. Muriel was so happy then. And now she was about to embark on the rest of her life.
After changing trains at 8th Avenue, she got off at 42nd Street. Muriel finally emerged into the light of 44th and 8th (her father had shown her how to sit in the front of the train so that you came out two blocks higher than the stop). As she came out of the subway the marquees of 44th Street hit her right where she lived. But the one right in front of her eyes was one that had been there for what seemed like her whole life: Hello, Dolly!
Hello, Dolly! was like an old friend to Muriel. It was the first show her father took her to see. She had been seven years old. 1965. It was the year her mother died and Muriel’s dad was really trying to be both a mom and a dad. And he wasn’t even really that good at either. But every Saturday he dutifully took Muriel into the city and they went to Radio City and saw the movie and the show. The Rockettes bored Muriel and she thought the shows were so stupid. The movies were usually fun and Doris Day seemed to star in all of them.
One December Saturday afternoon, though, the movie at Radio City looked boring and the on stage attraction was the Nativity! Or the ‘Navity’ as Muriel called it. Well Moe Plakenstein wasn’t about to expose his little girl to that! “Jesus Christ! No way!” So they wandered the streets for a while and before long found themselves on 44th Street in front of the St. James Theatre where the marquee announced Ginger Rogers in Hello, Dolly!
Muriel: “Why don’t we see that movie?”
Dad: “That’s not a movie. It’s a show.”
Muriel: (Begging, pleading and wheedling) “Well, why can’t we see it? I want to see it! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease!
Dad: “Let’s see what the prices are.”
Well, it seemed that for three dollars (which was Muriel’s father paid for movies most of the time) you could sit way upstairs and so Muriel’s dad grudgingly bought them two tickets and began the climb up the flights and flights of stairs to the last balcony (there were two or three) of the theatre. They were given little magazines that were called Playbills and Muriel held on to hers like it was gold. She held it so tightly that to this day there is a tear where her thumb and forefinger grabbed it. And when the lights went down and the orchestra played, she knew she was home.
And now all these many years later, here she was outside that very same theatre that started it all for her. Except that this time Ginger Rogers’ name was gone. Emblazoned over the ‘Hello and the Dolly’ this time was’ Ethel and Merman.’ Oh my God! There it was!
Muriel had never even dared to hope to see Ethel Merman in a Broadway Show. Hadn’t she heard with her own ears and seen with her own eyes when Ethel Merman was on Johnny Carson? Didn’t she hear her proclaim, “No… No more Broadway. Now it’s time for just me. Now it’s time for Ethel?” Or some such thing. But here was her name in red and white. Muriel’s heart beat faster and faster as she pulled out her money from her pocket to count it for the twentieth time today.
Maybe Muriel could buy a ticket and see Ethel. This very day. But no. Today was Thursday and there were only matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday.
And Muriel supposed that ticket prices must have gone up since those early days. They might even cost four or five dollars now.
And Muriel needed to conserve her resources. A girl had to eat didn’t she? And just then Muriel’s stomach started to rumble. Muriel was hungry. It was almost noon. But before Muriel could even begin to think about where she might get some lunch, she heard the voice:
“Don’t be an asshole, Russell. We’re going to Sardi’s and that’s the end of that!
Muriel had been looking down on the ground when she heard the voice. When she looked up there in the living and fire-breathing flesh was Ethel Merman. Most of Muriel’s friend’s wouldn’t know this woman with the big red hair from their mother’s hairdresser, but Muriel was not like the others. Muriel knew that Ethel Merman was the ’First Lady of the American Musical Theatre.’ Muriel had looked her up at the Canarsie branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She had been in so many Broadway Musicals that Muriel had to memorize them:
GIRL CRAZY GEORGE WHITE SCANDALS TAKE A CHANCE ANYTHING GOES RED HOT AND BLUE STARS IN YOUR EYES DUBARRY WAS A LADY PANAMA HATTIE SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS ANNIE GET YOUR GUN CALL ME MADAM GYPSY …the names ran through her mind every night as she drifted off to sleep. She had memorized them like other kids memorized their multiplication tables. Muriel knew what was important. There was one that Muriel kept forgetting though. But the library never said anything about Hello, Dolly! And yet there was her name and here she was!
And out of the mouth of Muriel’s dream come true came, “Move your ass, Russell. I’m not eating alone!” Muriel didn’t know who Russell was, but she saw him cower, nod and move his ass as Merman stormed down the street toward Sardi’s. Muriel followed behind them at a respectful distance. As they approached the restaurant a slightly crazy and disheveled looking man jumped out from a doorway and pushed an autograph book in front of the great star’s face. She automatically whacked it with her right arm and sent the autograph book flying into a puddle in the gutter. Those clarion tones proclaimed: “No autographs! Get the fuck out of my way!”
Muriel’s mouth fell open. Not since her father broke his arm falling down the stairs after slipping on the foldout slipcover of I Had A Ball” (which Muriel found in a flea market in Paramus, New Jersey for one dollar, thank you very much!) did Muriel hear such language.
Muriel was astounded! Muriel was astonished! Muriel was thrilled!
“Wow!” said the little girl.
“What did you say?” said the big loud voice. Muriel turned around thinking that it must be someone else she was shouting at. But no, Merman was talking to Muriel.
“I said ‘wow!” “That’s what I thought you said.” “Are you really her?” Muriel asked with the kind of innocence that only she possessed (at least on 44th St. in front of Sardi’s!)
“This kid’s cute, Russell. She kind of reminds me of…never mind.”
To Muriel “Russell” seemed very tall. Muriel found out later that Russell was one of Ethel’s friends and, although he was too old for the part, was appearing with her in her new production of Hello, Dolly! For now, he was just this amazingly tall and handsome man who wearing horn rimmed glasses like her Dad wore before he got the contact lenses. Russell also seemed kind.
“Let’s take her to lunch,” bellowed Russell in a voice that sounded a bit like Merman’s. Muriel wondered if they were related, but before she could even form that question in her mind, the great Merman had said, “Sure why not come on kid you look hungry Vincent you look wonderful great haircut how’s the wife table for three!”
And in a flash Muriel was sitting at a red banquet at the best table with a view in the best room of the best restaurant Broadway had ever known.
Ethel: “So what’s your name?”
Muriel: “Muriel Plakenstein.”
Ethel: “You’re gonna have to change that!”
Muriel: “That’s what I told my Dad.”
The waiter brought three large menus to the table but Ethel shooed them away. “Bring us the Actor’s Menu,” she bellowed at the waiter. After the waiter was out of earshot (was that possible?) Ethel continued. “Just because you star in a show doesn’t mean that you’re made of money or that you should waste it. Vincent has a perfectly good menu with lower prices that’s made for starving actors.” Muriel never knew that. Muriel was learning.
The actual eating of the lunch was a blur to Muriel as she was too busy listening to Ethel and Russell talking. Muriel would be able to remember nothing of the cuisine, but every word that was uttered was emblazoned in her memory forever. Once in a while Ethel would ask Muriel her opinion on something and Muriel would answer to the best of her ability. Ethel always smiled and nodded as if Muriel really knew. Muriel wasn’t nervous at all and seemed to be in her element.
Finally, desert was discussed. Ethel was astounded that Muriel just wasn’t keen on anything dessert-wise.
“You don’t want ice cream,” Ethel blared. “You don’t want chocolate cake! What the fuck DO you want?”
“I want to be a Broadway Star,” replied Muriel, with a smile that could melt the already melted butter that the waiter took away.
And before Ethel and Russ could register a reaction, Muriel launched into a clear, clean and shockingly accurate imitation of Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam:
“You don’t need analyzing, it is not so surprising that you feel very strange but nice!”
“Wow, Ethel,” exclaimed Russell, “she sounds just like you. But young!”
As Ethel and Russ (for this is what Muriel was asked to call them from now on) exited the restaurant into the blinding sunlight of 44th Street, Muriel was sad. It’s not that she wasn’t happy and grateful for the delicious lunch or excited about meeting her idol and Russ. It was that she now realized that it was over. Why do wonderful things go so fast and end so soon and school seems to take forever? Muriel had pondered this question before. But never outside of Sardis on the way to dropping Ethel and Russ off at the stage door of Hello, Dolly!
Muriel was silent as they walked up the street. Ethel and Russell were muttering under their breath, but because of Ethel’s loud voice, Muriel heard a few scattered phrases:
“Who the hell cares what they think? Merrick won’t be there!”
“Who cares about the stage manager?”
“Taking an earring at Lamstons is NOT stealing, for God’s sake!”
“Then it’s settled!”
Muriel’s ears perked up most at the line about taking something not really meaning you were a thief. Muriel had kind of taken things too. Well, not exactly taken…all right she had switched a couple of price tags on records so that she could get two (or three) instead of one. When her father asked she would tell him there was a big sale at Sam Goody’s. The truth of it was that Muriel had found a roll of 69 cent stickers on the floor of the store one day and has been using them ever since to keep her record collection up to date. So Ethel and Muriel had stuff in common. Neat and a half! While Muriel pondered this, she didn’t realize that the other parts of the whispered (and shouted) conversation would change her life forever.
There they were: the two tall ones and Muriel in the alley and right in front of the stage door of the St. James Theatre. Muriel put her hand out to shake theirs and say goodbye, but no one took it. Ethel just said, “come on kid, you’re coming to rehearsal with me!”
Muriel couldn’t believe her ears, but she knew that if she obeyed the clarion tones she was going to be in for the time of her life.
Stay tuned to this spot for more tales of how a short story and my real life combine to become a new musical fable having its first New York reading on October 4th. For more information write to Mermansapprentice@gmail. And visit my website.
Stephen Cole is an award-winning musical theatre writer whose shows have been recorded, published, and produced from New York City to London to the Middle East and Australia. His Off-Broadway musical After the Fair (music by Matthew Ward; winner of 5 Dallas Theatre Awards for it’s world premiere including Best New Play or Musical) was nominated for the Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Best Musical and was subsequently produced in London to great acclaim. The original cast CD featuring Tony Award winner Michele Pawk won several awards.
The Night of the Hunter (music by Claibe Richardson) won the prestigious Edward Kleban Award and was produced in San Francisco where it was nominated for several Bay Area Theatre Awards. The musical has subsequently been produced in NYC as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006 and in October 2010 at Lyric Stage in Dallas featuring Davis Gaines, Julie Johnson and a 24-piece orchestra. Hunter was given a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the CD has received rave reviews from the press including Billboard Magazine, who called it “the best CD of a new musical ever!” The CD also won the prize as best new musical on CD from the German music critics. The award-winning concept CD features Ron Raines and Dorothy Loudon and was the recipient of a German music critics Award.
Saturday Night at Grossinger’s (music by Claibe Richardson) has had successful runs in Dallas (Starring Gavin MacLeod), LA and Florida. Broadway legend Chita Rivera toured in his show Casper (music by Matthew Ward…this also played Australia) and Hal Linden and Dee Hoty starred in the world premiere of his musical adaptation of Dodsworth (music by Jeffrey Saver). Stephen has been represented Off-Broadway with the hilarious Piano Bar at the Triad.
In 2005, Stephen and composer David Krane were commissioned to write the first American musical to premiere in the Middle East and the result was Aspire, which was produced in Qatar. Their amazing and hilarious cross-cultural experiences resulted in yet another musical about the creation of the show entitled The Road to Qatar, which was produced to rave reviews at the Lyric Stage winning Best New Play or Musical from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Drama Critics Forum and off-Broadway at the York Theatre. The original cast CD is available from Jay Records.
Krane and Cole also wrote a short movie musical entitled The Wheel Goes Round that was accepted and shown at five International Film Festivals including The Big Apple Film Festival in NYC. Saver and Cole’s new musical Time After Time had its world premiere in Feb. 2010 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse under the direction of Gabriel Barre.
Other produced shows include Merlin’s Apprentice (Music by Matthew Ward) and Rock Odyssey (Music and Lyrics by Billy Straus), which had 2 successful productions at the Adrienne Arscht Center Miami and will be produced annually there for the next ten years.
Stephen is also a published author with four books to his credit including That Book About That Girl and I Could Have Sung All Night, the Marni Nixon Story, Noel Coward, and Charles Strouse’s memoir Put On a Happy Face.
Besides writing 20 years worth of all star Drama League Benefits, Stephen most recently wrote and directed My Heart Belongs to Mary, a cabaret tribute to Mary Martin. Stephen is the recipient of a Gilman-Gonzales Falla Commendation for musical theatre. He was also named one of Variety’s 50 Creatives to Watch – 2000. Liz Smith in her syndicated column has called Stephen’s lyrics “brilliant and gifted.”
As a producer, Stephen presented Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, David Hyde Pierce, and many others in an 80th Birthday Tribute to John Kander. Stephen has also released a series of CD’s entitled Mermania! on Harbinger Records. These include never before released selections sung by his favorite star and friend, Ethel Merman.
Stephen Cole’s website.
Loved this article! Okay, I wrote it!
Wonderful article, Stephen. I hope some producer is out there with a cheque book ready to buy a production for you. Congratulations….from a fan!
Stephen, Many thanks for the invite to the first reading of MERMAN’S APPRENTICE. I worked with Ethel on her concert tours and knew her well. I loved her for the same reasons you did. She was real. Dick Kieling, now in his late 80’s was a great lifelong friend of hers. I got to know him a year ago and have had all of those video clips moved onto DVDs for him. He now lives in the Veterans’ Home in Yountville, CA. He has amazing stories and I knew Ethel well enough to know they are true. I don’t know how you got my name, perhaps through Klea, but I wish you a Big Fat Hit (read Gusher) with the show. It is time for it! Thanks again for asing me, I truly regret that I have to be in CA on the 4th of October. I am forwarding your website and the invitation to Dick Kieling. He can’t talk about without crying. He has stories about her anonomous generosity that have brought me to tears. Jack