I am a big fan of of two women of power – Ethel Merman and Rita Mckenzie. I can’t remember when I had such a great time interviewing anyone as when I just interviewed the sassy and hysterically talented Rita McKenzie, who will be singing lots of songs Ethel Merman made famous - this Saturday, January 21st at 8 PM – at The Music Center at Strathmore - in Ethel Merman’s Broadway starring Rita McKenzie.
Joel: Have you ever performed at Strathmore before?
Rita: No I haven’t. This is brand new.
How did you get booked into Strathmore?
I don’t know. I have a booker. (both laughing). I hear it’s a very prestigious place.
It’s beautiful and it has perfect acoustics. She might actually break glass there (if there is any there).
Hey you know I can’t wait to do that! That’s funny! I certainly love to sing, so and if those acoustics are amazing I am going to have a blast.
I can’t wait to see what you sound like in there. I think I’ll sit in the back.
Well there you go! That’s a good idea!
I’m a big fan of yours.
You know if there’s someone I sound like – it would be Ethel Merman (big laughs!).
That’s what I hear.
I was able to do the show in The Hall of Presidents in the Capitol. The reason I mention that is that you guys are very close to Washington. The only place there that I can say that I performed there for sure is on the steps of the Capitol at the 4th of July PBS spectacular in The Hall of Presidents –and this is up there with everything.
That sounds very monumental.
Well, Ethel Merman was monumental. People looked to her – as people do these days – just to know that everything would be alright, especially during the depression and WWII. Even today, we look to our stars to for a ‘feel-good’ type of a thing. They knew that when Ethel was on that stage that they would be well taken care of. That’s what her appeal was. You heard that when she was on the radio and on her old records. As soon as they heard that clarion voice they’d say, “There’s a gal who knows what she’s doing!”
Here’s a woman who never missed a performance.
No, she never really did. I tell you – I don’t miss performances either. I don’t have an understudy in a show because we don’t have anyone who could really do this show and sing all those songs – not that I’m so special – but I’ve trained myself to do it.
This voice is not easy to do.
No it’s not -But you know – I said to myself that there a couple of things that if I learned them I’d be alright. One: is to hold a note for 16 measures in the “I Got Rhythm” set and then everything else would be easy. It is a lot of fun to do – as there are a lot of fun moments in the show to do – and I don’t sing all 20 standards from Annie Get Your Gun – but I certainly sing many numbers and you get a full evening. There a nice orchestra – I have seven costume changes, so it’s all fun, and visually interesting
I can’t wait to see the seven dresses
The main thing about those seven dresses is that – as Ethel would say – I have a main ‘get up’ and there are things put on this costume – there’s a gown involved and everything – and all this takes place real quickly. You don’t want to look at the same thing for an hour and forty-five minutes.
I haven’t been there for a couple of years and I’m looking forward to coming back to the East Coast. I’m from the East Coast – can you tell?
Yes I can! From where?
From New Jersey! All the great artists come out of New Jersey. From Northern New Jersey - Wood-ridge. It’s not a city – it’s a town – right across the river from NYC. You can’t see the Statue of Liberty, but you can see the Skyline from the top of the hill where I was raised on.
It looked like a foreign country because I was raised in an Italian family and rarely went into the City to do stuff. So it was and it wasn’t.
You have this Irish name with that Italian family. How did that happen?
McKenzie is a stage name. I changed my name in 1980. A psychic in Salem, Massachusetts said, “Get rid of that last name! Make sure the last name has three syllables and adds up to eight in the numerology.” I thought, “What is she talking about? She said, “Go figure it out, and that’s what we did.” It took a year to figure out and to figure out what the number meant and to find a name that was suitable.
In fact, I was doing an act in NYC at the time and we put it into the act and people would write in give me names, but this one comes from an HBO movie – literally from the credits at the end.
So that’s where the ‘McKenzie’ came from. That’s so amazing. It’s a little ‘tsidrayt’ but it makes sense.
So did you always sound like Ethel?
No. I don’t believe I did. I believe that when I got on the stage there was an essence of energy that people would say, ‘You remind me of a young Ethel Merman.” And I think what they meant – and I know what I was doing at that time – and I was petrified – and the best thing to do when you are scared is to just ‘push it out there.’ And that’s what I did and that’s what I’m known for.
My regular voice is like Melissa Manchester. All through high school I was in a ‘pop-girl’ group. That’s what I wanted to do in my life, but my parents said, “No, you are not doing that!” But I did go to an all-girls high school where there were no boys allowed, and the girls had to play the boys’ parts. I ended up playing King Arthur in Camelot and Cyrano, and those kinds of things – but I didn’t think anything of that, because that was what you did in those kinds of schools – so that’s all I was interested in. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” The nuns literally picked me out of the class and said, “You’re going to do that!”
By the time I was out of high school – I kinda liked it, and I said, “This would be great to do! And my parents said, “No it wouldn’t!” I ended up getting an education and teaching school. I said, “This is good, and I have an audience.” And I had fun doing that too.
How long did it take you to perfect ‘that’ voice?
I took voice lessons in NYC after I taught school, and I had a little child, and I would come down for the day and study in NYC at the HB Studio, and my parents realized that I was very interested in doing this. Rita Gardner was the teacher in the class, and the first time I sounded like Ethel Merman was in her class. You had to sing an audition number in order to get into the class and I did, and she said, “If Ethel ever dies – you’re it!” And I said, “God help us please! Well, that’s a wash! She was still alive and I thought, ‘Who wants to sound like Ethel Merman? Are you kidding me right now? So I dismissed it.
And then I got into a production of Gypsy about two or three years later and I did Mama Rose, and that was the first time I was compared to a young Ethel Merman. And I said, “Here it comes again!” And Ethel died in 1984, and my partner Chris Powich, who wrote the show, said, “We should do a tribute to Ethel Merman.” I was auditioning for a Broadway musical at that time and they like my voice, but they weren’t so keen on taking an unknown, with no credits. So Chris said, “Let’s do the tribute in NYC and maybe people will hear about it.” I said, “I would rather do anything but to do that.”
And he convinced me and we went up to Lincoln Center to do some research and the first thing I found out about her was that she was very shy. And I thought, “Oh, Wow! And OK! She didn’t look shy to me but that makes some sense to me.” Some people can do that on the stage and then when they go to a party and when they are one-on-one they can be shy. And then I learned that she was a very good mother to her children and a very good daughter to her parents. ‘Wait a minute – that I like!” I come from a good Italian family and I’m a good daughter – and I had a child, so I said, “You know what? I could like this woman!” The more I learned about her – the more I liked her. I said, “Well maybe we can do this.”
So we ended up doing a cabaret act in Don’t Tell Mama in NYC. The place is still there.
I know. I always go there when I am in NYC.
In the back room they do acts back there. So I came down – I’m from Connecticut – I was living with my family at that time – and I auditioned – and the Irving Berlin section you will see in the show – is all we had written at that time. And I sang “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and they said, “You’re in!” They gave us six months, and in September we were booked in that club. And then we thought, “Now we have to do something.” We did it in the club for the first time and a few people came, and then we took it away and took it to a theatre in Rhode Island and we had been active in theatre in Connecticut and Rhode Island and we knew the owner of the theatre and we said, “We want to bring this show and we want an audience’s reaction and we don’t want to skew it, and we want regular people in that audience. So I think we charged $10 a person, and put flyers up everywhere – we worked really hard – and we did it Thanksgiving weekend in 1989, and sure enough – people loved it! So we then brought it back to Don’t Tell Mama and they liked it and then they said we’ll bring you back and that’s what happened. That room sat 50 people and then we were packed after that.
The there was a place called The Ballroom in NYC back in the 80s. It was a chicchi club. I will never forget it – they came and took me off the stage. After the performance this gentleman came over to me and grabbed my hand and told me to get off the stage and told Chris and me to get into his limo and they drove us down to the Ballroom and we watched Jack Jones and they told me they wanted me to do the show there.
And then we had submitted our show to The American Jewish Theatre for one night. And we got a call and they said, “We don’t want you for one night – we want you for a run.” And we were like “Really?” We were off and running then. We went to San Francisco. We went to The Pasadena Playhouse. We wrote a two-act version of the show. It’s always been rewritten, retooled and reworked. As recently as this past January, we did a run out here, and we changed the section about her daughter and her son. And we are constantly adding and subtracting and doing whatever we need to do. I like that because it remains fresh.
We have a lot of fun and that’s the reason to do this. I would not want to do something that wasn’t a labor of love. The audience sees that I love being there and that’s important. I’ve been to shows where they are basically sleeping through the show, and you say, “Oh Lord!”
I may have studied at HB, but that’s not where I got my real education. I got it from Don Knotts. I got it from Steve Allen. I worked with these people, and I would always stand at the side of the stage and watch them because this is where you learn your craft. And in summer stock, I watched people who were way better than me and in regional theatre. I did what I had to do. And you can always learn from other people – and that’s where the education starts.
If I were teaching a college course I would teach basic things – that when you leave college – it’s just the beginning. You know nothing really.
Ann Miller was one of my best friends towards the end of her life. You asked me how I got booked, and my booker introduced me to Annie and we became best friends. The thing I loved the most about her was she would say to me, “Now Rita, what you are doing now is the best thing you have ever done.”
I love that!
‘And what you will be doing in the future will be even better.”
She sounded a lot like Merman.
Yes she did. “I don’t have a good voice,” and I would say, “Annie you have a great voice!” She didn’t think she had a good singing voice.
She had a very powerful voice.
Very powerful and I when she did Follies at Paper Mill Playhouse she was great.
I saw her too and she showed people a lot.
She did. And she was a great gal. A real Texan. I was remodeling my house and she came over and looked at my closet and she said, “This is not big enough for two people. Get his clothes out of here!” I just looked at her and loved her.
She was sassy like the Merm.
These were the women of that generation – women who were one-of-a-kind, more so than we are, more so than my generation who were taken care of by their parents. Annie’s generation – there was no taking care of. There was the depression and there was WWII, so they grew up very quickly. 18 and 19 year-olds were adults, because they had to handle adult things so they formulated opinions very early in their lives as opposed to people who are young for the rest of their lives. She always wanted to know what was going on. I was very lucky to get to know her and very lucky to have gotten to know any of the people that I did get to know. It happened by accident because I never dreamed I would be out here in LA, and I never dreamed I would be involved in Hollywood in any way. It’s been a tremendously wonderful experience.
There are two things that I have been lucky to have done that I would have never been able to do if I wasn’t doing this show. One of them was to be at the end of the WWII celebration in London – they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. At that point my Dad was still alive and he was so proud of me for doing that. And the other thing was that I was able to go to Antarctica. Sounds a little weird that I would do that – but I was on a cruise and that was the very first one I had done, and I was a headliner and they wanted me to do the show when we got to Antarctica and they had a big ‘Ice Ball’ and they wanted be to do the show for that. These are wonderful experiences that you can’t top these kinds of things. The show has given me a life that perhaps I wouldn’t have had. I feel very fortunate about it.
Now let’s talk about Ruthless The Musical. How many times have you done it?
We did that for nine months in 1994. As a matter of fact, The first night we had off was the earthquake. We all went out for drinks and two hours later the earthquake hit. Ruthless and the earthquake are embedded in my mind. But it was a lot of fun to do. I didn’t have a lot to do – But I had that great song “I Hate Musicals” to sing.
Just a great number. A great number. I loved being in the show because the character sounded like Merman.
I just watched it on YouTube (see below) and I popped in my cast CD and you are right – you sound like Merman in the song.
Everybody wants to try to do that number. Joel Paley who wrote the play part of it and Marvin Laird who is a wonderful Musical Director and Joel directed the show. I worked with Joel again when I produced the female The Odd Couple with Barbara Eden. When we went out again I said, “We have to have Joel Paley.” He’s a terrific director.
The other show I admired was Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood by the singer Sam Harris, which has some really wonderful music.
Why do you think Ethel Merman is still so popular today?
She had a good persona. I really think that those people who are ‘one-of-a-kind’ last. When I was thinking about doing Merman, I watched Al Jolson.
When I was a kid I was the biggest Jolson fan.
She is popular because she introduced great songs by the great composers that are so ingrained in the American Tapestry. “There’s no Business Like Show Business.” That’s a song they play everywhere, and although the younger generation doesn’t know where that came from or who introduced it. They know that song.
The other reason I think she endures is because when you hear her – when you put in a CD – you say, “Who’s that? Now there’s a girl who knows what she’s doing!” There’s something about a person who has energy – people want to be attached to that positive moving energy. That’s why I think she endures. There never was and there will never be anyone like her.
What I admired the most was Ethel’s perfectly clear diction. You could understand every word she said or sang.
So do I but for me it’s more rounder, Hers was piecing and it pierced the inside and outside of the theatre – it was that kind of voice. And she had that voice since she was three years-old.
But her voice was much sweeter when she was younger.
She tried to imitate the women singers of the day, and then she finally found her footing, and when she became who she really was – then she became famous. Interesting how when we are young we say, “Well you know – I just want to be just like him or her or that.” When we get older we say, “I have to be myself.” When you become yourself you become the best you can be.
You see all these kids today sounding alike like on American Idol.
They all think that that’s the ticket. There were a lot of people who wanted to sing like Ethel Merman but they couldn’t do it. She knew it was truly a gift. She didn’t take a singing lesson. She didn’t rest her voice. She didn’t gargle with lemon and honey – whatever they do.
What do you do to rest and protect your voice?
I don’t do any of it either. I just get a lot of rest. I believe that if I get at least eight hours a day of sleep that my voice will be clear. After a show I don’t go out – and she did that too. When you are doing a Broadway show for eight performances a week – like she did – you can’t. If the show is wrapped around you – you cannot be that foolish. And she wasn’t. And when I do a run I don’t talk.
What I mean is I won’t get on the phone and talk for hours. I keep myself low-profile and have my maltese at my side, and that’s the end of that. And he’s very quiet.
Are there any roles you haven’t played that you’d like to play?
I have never done Dolly, so I would love to play Dolly.
I can’t believe you haven’t played Dolly. Come on.
Really! I’ve done Anything Goes. I’ve done Gypsy. I’ve done Annie Get Your Gun – I think I should do Dolly.
I hate it too! What I do is what Robert Morse did in Tru. Of course it’s Ethel Merman and I never met Ethel Merman – it’s Rita McKenzie overlaying myself over the character of Ethel Merman. It’s the Ethel Merman I think is the Ethel Merman. I believe the men do it better. They have it down. I can’t compete with them, but I have the stamina to do 20 songs. Do you know what I mean?
Yes I do.
Sometimes people say to me, “I didn’t know Merman was so much fun!” You know – maybe she wasn’t but my Merman is – because this is what Ethel Merman means to me and to the writers of the show. So this is the Ethel Merman you see and people say that I look like Ethel Merman – but I don’t really look like her.
How long does it take you to become Ethel Merman?
A half-hour. What people don’t understand is that it’s the eyebrows and the eyelashes and it’s the big red lips.
And do you wear a wig?
I sure do! I have a wig made by Paul Huntley who has done many Broadway shows. It’s a very special wig. And the costumes were made by the company that made the costumes for Wicked. Understand – we’ve upped the ante some! It’s a classy act!
How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been doing this since 1989. It’s been a while but it’s been in so many resurrections of the show. And before I did the first show people gave me film clips to watch but I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to navigate through the person. I did read all her books.
What about the ‘blank pages’ in her autobiography that is “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine’?
We do address that in the show. You know Look Magazine wrote a lot of articles about it and they put it in a book and I found that book – and a lot of the things I say about her are taken from that because she told the story herself. And some of the things we say – she never said.
But should have!
But it’s in the same cadence and people say, “Look at that!” It’s a lot of fun!
Where is the show going after Strathmore?
I go back to LA, and then the Lawrence Welk Theatre in Escondido, CA. My grandparents adored Lawrence Welk, and I remember that if I became a girl-singer on the Lawrence Welk show – that’s what they would want me to do. And I can’t wait to see the museum. It will really be a hoot!
So is it going to be cold in Bethesda?
I think we’ll be alright.
Well, I’ll bring my furs. I’m not going to throw them out!
Oy vey! Can’t wait to see you on Saturday!
I always come out after the show so I’ll see you then.
Can’t wait to meet you, Ethel, and the furs.
Watch Rita McKenzie perform at The Capitol Fourth in 1995.
Watch Rita McKenzie perform “I Hate Musicals’ from Ruthless the Musical.
Watch Rita McKenzie perform as Ethel Merman on the 2009 Jerry Lewis Telethon.
Watch Rita McKenzie sing “Phoebe Overheard,” from Sam Harris and Bruce H. Newberg’s musical Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood.
Watch Ethel Merman sing, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from the film musical of the same name.