In honor of the great lady's 105th, and just because nothing perks up a drab Wednesday like a little Irving Berlin, I thought it might be fun to survey a few off-the-beaten-track versions of one of the Merm's signature tunes. Sadly, there's no video evidence for my personal favorite, which is Tyne Daly singing a slow, slow, sad version of the song that, as she herself has said, "makes strong men weep." Still, there's a surprising variety of takes on the old chestnut. Sit back and enjoy.
First off, to get thing going on a truly surreal note, here we have the good Damen und Herren of the German Army's Heeresmusikkorps 4 in a swinging instrumental rendition filmed in a garden in Regensburg. One can only wonder what the erstwhile Israel Beilin would have made of it...
Next up, Welsh songbird Mary "Those were the Days" Hopkin warbles her way through a rather solemn version of the song, as arranged by Beatles' producer George Martin. Pretty.
Sister 'Retha's unexpected version is sadly truncated, but entirely creditable. Of any version, hers perhaps approaches the original in terms of sheer lung power.
That said, this magisterial version by tragic UK thrush Lena Zavaroni comes close. Unfortunately, it segues into one of those uncomfortable "End of Benefit Gala Finale" sway-n-sings, to "That's Entertainment," which rather undercuts the impact.
The lovely and talented Mr. Nathan Lane leads the ensemble through a spirited rendition from Kenneth Branagh's moderately awful go at Love's Labour's Lost. It's fun, but kind of lumbering.
Here's a version that competes head-to-head in terms of sheer show-biz professionalism. Rosemary Clooney had the musical chops to give it more swing than the Merm ever tried, and by 1985, when this was taped, she had the backstory to make the lyric work, too. Terrific.
Still, there's nothing like the real thing. This one's familiar, I know, but I never fail to marvel at how, for whatever reason, the Muppets bring out something tender and rather magical in the old girl, a rare occasion in her later career in which she backed off from being "Miss Birdseye," unfroze her set-in-stone arrangements, and did something a little different. The moment she gets to "the closing, when the customers don't come..." is indescribable.
Merman was a warhorse, a trouper, a star virtually from the first moment she set foot on Broadway. Few performers have ever had a clearer vision of who they are and what they do, and if the price of that, in the long run, was that moments of spontaneity and vulnerability like the above were few and far between, it meant that she had the stamina to delight audiences, night after night, in halls around the world, for decades, live and in person and generally with nothing so vulgar as a microphone in sight. It's almost impossible to imagine, in a world of spoiled divas and post-teen has-beens, the discipline and dedication it took, being Ethel Merman. Brava to her, on her birthday and always.