By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
It was an 18-hour drive and the original diva qualities of Ethel Merman that prompted Paul Conroy, the founder and producing artistic director of Out Front Theatre Company, to write The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular! Peach talked to Paul about inspirations, the cast, and the music of the show.
Tell us a little about the background for The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular?
Two years ago my boyfriend and I were driving back to Atlanta from Boston after spending Christmas with my family. Somewhere around New Jersey, I put on The Ethel Merman Disco Album, and I started to think “I wonder why Ethel Merman never recorded a Christmas album?” After that, I started to wonder “What if it was a Disco Christmas album?” – and two years later The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular is about to come to life on our stage. It became a natural fit to base the show at Studio 54 in 1979 (the same year that her disco album came out) because it felt like the end of a magical time. With the 80s ready to roar in and the world about to change, Ethel and disco felt like a time capsule that I wanted to preserve and share with people for the holidays.
What is it about Ethel Merman that is so inspiring to you?
I know that to most of the modern gay community, Ethel Merman is not exactly the inspiring diva that some other women may be. But to me, she is the definition of a diva; and one of the first. She made her Broadway debut in 1930 and didn’t stop performing until a couple of years before she died in 1960. Watch the clip on YouTube of her on The Judy Garland Show with Judy and Barbra Streisand. Barbra is in shock and nervous as hell to be standing next to Ethel on stage. She was loud, opinionated, funny, strong-willed and (again) loud and my hope is that in 2018 we can celebrate not just the powerful women that are making our world a better place today, but we can also honor women like Ethel who spent decades doing things her way and was a household name. She was the original belter (really), and you can see the influence from her in countless women singers and performers that have taken to stages in the years since she first came into America’s hearts (and ears!)
Tell us a little about the cast of the show?
We have a cast of 13 for this show; with performers that are still in college all the way to seasoned Atlanta actors. Casting the right performers to take on the larger-than-life characters in the show (Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer) proved to be a very fun challenge. We wanted to make sure that people could make the characters their own, while still making them identifiable to audiences. I never wanted anyone to play a cartoon version of any of the celebrities on stage, but rather make them as human as they really were.
The music plays a huge part in this show – How did you choose and arrange the songs for the show?
One of my best friends, and Out Front’s Resident Music Director, Nick Silvestri, is the person behind all of the music in this show. He has been working with an insanely talent musician (Adam Wolfe), and they have taken ten or so classic Christmas songs and made them feel right at home in the disco era. When audiences come to the show, they are going to hear some songs they know and maybe a few new ones. I really think that there is power and warmth in the collectiveness of a community knowing certain songs, and hopefully, we’ll give them a reason to dance to them too!
Anything you’d like to add?
This is our first holiday show at Out Front, and we are only in our third season! The Atlanta LGBTQIA+ community has been so outstanding in supporting all of our productions and endeavors, so I hope they enjoy this holiday gift we are wrapping up for them, and that they will keep coming back show after show for many years to come!
The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular plays December 6-22 at The Out Front Theatre Company. Tickets and showtimes are available at outfronttheatre.com.