Tidbits: Myths and Legends and the Girl Crazy Connections

In this month's long overdue featured artist article on Ethel Merman, we mention that Ethel's big break came in the form of George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy, which was the showcase for one of her signature songs, "I Got Rhythm." Although the original production only ran for 272 performances, the myths and legends surrounding Girl Crazy continue to this day. Now 80 years in the past, these legends seem only to grow with time. And although some of the fiction is strange, the true "connections" that sprang out of that show are enough to make your head spin.

We know for a fact that the show made headliners out of its two female leads, Ginger Rogers and the aformentioned Merman. Merman was just 18 years old, Rogers was 19 at the time, and would later become the glamorous replacement for sister Adele in Fred Astaire's act. And thus we arrive at the first legend surrounding this show, that the Gershwins retained Fred Astaire to coach the dance numbers. This is supposedly how Astaire first met Rogers; it sounds reasonable but there is no hard evidence that it ever happened.

The next bit of legend surrounding Girl Crazy concerns the musicians in the orchestra. This roster has grown to truly mythic proportions...Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Jack Teagarden were all in the pit...if you believe it. Maybe they were, but it seems unlikely that Dorsey was there. It's likely that because the trombonist was in the 1943 film version, confused writers have blurred Dorsey into the Broadway production. More believable sources -- such as the research department at the New York Times -- contend that Goodman, Miller and Krupa actually were on hand, along with Red Nichols. Supposedly George Gershwin himself conducted on opening night. Now that would be a heck of a band, wouldn't it?

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featured performance

Here's a priceless video of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland together, soon joined by Ethel Merman, who proceeds to command the stage. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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We do know of one more key individual in the history of American Popular Song who was on stage with Ethel and Ginger during the original run of Girl Crazy. Roger Edens, the man who would shape the sound for so many MGM musicals, was a last minute replacement on piano for arranger Alan Siegel, who had suffered a heart attack. Edens and Merman hit it off so well that the young keyboard player became Merman's unofficial arranger, accompanying her through a string of Broadway roles during the next few years. And when Ethel headed west to star in motion pictures, Roger went with her. Once in Hollywood, Edens impressed MGM's Arthur Freed with his arranging and playing. Freed retained Edens to work on arrangements for all types of films.

After hitching himself to Merman's rising star, Edens soon had his opportunity to pay the industry back. Legend has it that a young singer/actress was struggling through a 1935 audition at MGM until Edens took over the piano bench and coached her along. That struggling future star was none other than Judy Garland, who like Merman, relied on Edens for arrangements and pre-production practices for many years to come.

Now for the connections...

In 1940 Edens was "re-united" with one of his alleged Girl Crazy co-workers, Fred Astaire. Astaire was the lead in Cole Porter's Broadway Melody of 1940, for which Edens was the arranger. A few years later he worked with both Garland and Astaire as musical director of Easter Parade, which garnered Edens an Oscar. Edens then composed the score for Annie Get Your Gun, which had been a starring vehicle for Ethel Merman on Broadway. Producers balked at using Merman, opting instead for Garland. Judy backed out, but was reunited with Edens in a 1954 remake of A Star Is Born. That film, of course, was later remade in the 1970s as a starring vehicle for Barbra Streisand.

Back up to Ethel Merman, for whom the part of Dolly Levi was developed for the Broadway production of Hello Dolly. Merman backed out of the role, and by the time the movie was cast in the late 1960s, was considered too old to carry the film. This story, in case you're interested, is discussed in depth in this month's featured songwriter article on Jerry Herman, original composer of the show. In any case, MGM put Gene Kelly in the director's chair for the silver screen version of Dolly, and cast Streisand as the lead. Roger Edens, pianist from Girl Crazy, was called on to be musical director of the film. It would be his final project before his untimely death due to cancer.

And lest you think that these connections go nowhere, we'll gently remind you that these great ladies of American Popular Song once did a number together on The Judy Garland Show. October 1963: Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand brought down the house with a performance of "There's No Business Like Show Business."

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into the Talent Scouts - Star Search - American Idol phenomenon, please click here.