Rita McKenzie couldn't escape Merman's voice

February 23, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

When Rita McKenzie was growing up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, she equated Ethel Merman with the Statue of Liberty.

"She was sort of like a national treasure, at least to my generation. Yet we didn't pay too much attention to her," recalls Ms. McKenzie. "She was a fact of nature. You knew she was in every Broadway show. I thought to myself, 'Wow, she's kind of loud,' and went on . . . I wanted to be Julie Andrews."

Unfortunately, Ms. McKenzie turned out to have Merman's voice.

"Ever since I can remember, that was my voice. People always said I reminded them of Ethel," the singer explains in a recent telephone interview. She is presenting four performances this week of her "Ethel Merman's Broadway" concert, with Erich Kunzel and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"I tried to work very hard in my career not to sound like her, because I thought that would be a stigma, you know what I'm saying?" explains the performer, who calls herself "a late bloomer" because she began serious singing only after marriage and kids.

She never even saw Merman perform in person.

"But then again, I didn't get to the Statue of Liberty until about five years ago with my son," she says, emitting a booming laugh that sounds a lot like the Broadway diva.

Ironically, she won an early part because of her Merman-esque voice.

At a tryout for a regional production of "Gypsy," Ms. McKenzie sang for the part of Mama Rose, which Merman made famous on Broadway.

"I was too shy to even ask if I got the part, so my husband asked the musical director. He said, 'Of course she got the part, she sounds just like Ethel Merman!' " the singer relates, with that big laugh again. Still, she resisted the similarity -- until Merman's death in 1984, at age 75.

Having had some success in local and regional theater, Ms. McKenzie was putting together a cabaret show with a friend and collaborator, producer Christopher Powich. He suggested she add a few Merman signature songs in tribute to her passing.

"He said, 'Rita, people will not hear this music quite that way anymore, unless you get up and do it.' "

Mr. Powich wrote a script for a cabaret show, "Call Me Ethel," in which Ms. McKenzie would play the brassy Merman, and he persuaded her to perform it in clubs.


A more elaborate show soon followed: "Ethel Merman's Broadway." It played successfully off-Broadway and subsequently went on tour.

In the show, Ms. McKenzie sang much of Merman's Cole Porter/Irving Berlin repertoire.

She acted, too, portraying the star talking with an interviewer interested in making a movie about her life.

The singer also performed a Merman tribute at a pair of galas commemorating the 100th anniversary of Cole Porter in 1992, including one with Mr. Kunzel and the Centennial Orchestra. That led to a collaboration for guest concerts, such as this week's series in Baltimore.

In the concert performance, Ms. McKenzie sings Merman's familiar songs and speaks briefly to the audience as herself.

Do not call her tribute an "impersonation."

"Oh, God, no, are you kidding?" she protests. "No, no, no, that's the worst thing you could call it. You can't impersonate somebody for an hour and a half in a live theater. People would walk out. Lots of drag queens do that, you know what I'm saying?"

She asserts she merely sings in Merman's style.

In fact, according to Mr. Kunzel in a letter included in publicity materials, "I would say she sounds better.

"She has a huge voice, sings very well in tune (something which the great Ethel did not always do) , and she had good diction and artistry to go along with it," he contends.

Ms. McKenzie is more modest. "You know, she had this piercing voice, you could only listen to it so long. I'm trained, so I think it's a little easier on the hearing."

Ms. McKenzie just returned from a tour of Japan with "Ethel Merman's Broadway," and says she found audiences surprisingly familiar with the American theatrical institution. "The people could not speak English, most of them, but they are just discovering the '50s. Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, all those shows are on television, and Ethel was a guest star on many of those shows," she relates.

In Japan, the crowds were people under 30, she says, but in this country "most of the people who come to my shows are in their 50s or more."

Did Ms. McKenzie ever meet Merman? "I've met her children and I've met her grandchildren and I've met friends of the family. But I would never, never, never, never want to have met her when she was alive," she asserts. Merman's family members have been appreciative, even awed by her show, the singer says. "But if someone were like me but younger, I would not be thrilled to meet that person."

Ms. McKenzie says she will probably continue to perform her Merman tribute, but has moved on to new things. She had a role last fall on the short-lived Fox network series "Daddy Dearest" and is currently involved in pilot productions, about which she declines to be specific.

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