Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday marked the birthdate of the actress/singer/dancer Ethel Shutta (pronounced Shuh-tay), born in 1896, immortalized as the person who introduced the Stephen Sondheim favorite “Broadway Baby,” in the 1971 musical Follies. By then she had experienced a long up-and-down career that began when she was a child in vaudeville, carried on through radio; on Broadway in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 and later opposite Eddie Cantor in Whoopee! (a role she recreated in the film version); and culminating with her swan song (literally) in the aforementioned Follies. She was seventy-six-years-old on its opening night; the oldest member of the company. And from the first day of rehearsal she killed it every time she opened her mouth to sing the song. In fact, “Broadway Baby” was never a true solo, but part of a trio of songs with Shutta’s originally set as the middle one. But the audience response was so strong that Fifi D’Orsay singing “Ah, Paris!” had to be moved to the middle spot so the montage would finish with the appropriate build. Shutta told a friend of mine once: “Fifi never got over that.”

Ethel Shutta as Hattie Walker in Follies (1971)

Ted Chapin’s wonderful memoir, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, is a chronicle told from his vantage point as a college-aged “gofer” on the original production. In it, he reports how when auditioning actors for the show, Harold Prince and Joanna Merlin (its director and casting director) were focused on finding anyone with a connection to the heyday of the the Ziegfeld Follies. With Shutta, they were handed a gift, as she was the one holdover from a previous incarnation of the show that was, at one time, to be produced by Stuart Ostrow (1776, Pippin). Not one to take anything for granted, Chapin tells of how Shutta wrote Joanna Merlin a four-page thank you letter, which stated how happy she was to be cast because she thought her career was over.

It’s one of the reasons why her “Broadway Baby” works on so many levels. Ostensibly, it’s supposed to be the song this old lady once sang as a young chanteuse, so now all its youthful optimism is colored by whatever came between her twenties and seventies. Shutta was totally in on the joke, but there was something about the way she sold it that still held onto that optimism — natural to both her nature and her character. She never wanted to stop working. There was a period where a drinking problem ended her career for a time, but she fought back. Her fingernails always clung to the ledge of show business until her dying day, not far from a period where she was working on the daytime soap Ryan’s Hope (which is not credited to her on IMDB, unfortunately — something I’m sure she would have hated).

Ethel Shutta as a Broadway Baby for real (circa early 1930s)

With theatre as ephemeral as it is (though getting less so now due to the sophistication of video techniques and airing shows like the recent Broadway revival of She Loves Me in movie theatres), unless you saw Ethel Shutta in the original Follies you really don’t know what she was doing while she sang “Broadway Baby.” A person could be driven crazy by her antics at the live performance she gave at the one-night only “Sondheim Tribute,” thankfully recorded and produced on what was a double-record-set back in 1973, and known to Sondheim aficionados as the “Scrabble Album.” Crazy, because there’s no video to go along with what she’s doing that is getting screams from the audience!

For those in attendance on this memorable night, among the glittering array of notables who saluted Sondheim, it was an old lady in orthopedic shoes knocking it out of the park early in the evening that gets one of the largest ovations of them all. Whatever bits of business she was doing, it sends the audience into hysterics. I would listen to Shutta sing this song over and over and over as a teenager, trying to recall what she did when I saw her do it the one time I saw Follies, but I never could.

A few years later, I was directed in a college production by her son, Charles Olsen, and I can’t recall now how I came to discover his mother was Ethel Shutta (and of course, forever would refer to Olsen as “a Broadway Baby’s Baby”). But the first thing I know I asked him was, “Were you at the Sondheim Tribute?” and when he nodded yes, I asked “What the hell was she doing?” And he smiled and said, “Everything she’d learned her whole career.”

She died three years later. In show biz parlance, she went out on a high. And now, thanks to YouTube, you can see what it was I tried to imagine all those years by way of this clip from a dress rehearsal at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles, where Follies went after it closed on Broadway. What Ethel Shutta does here is something that can’t be taught. It’s organic and intrinsic and completely original. Check out what she does on the words “greasy spoon,” but quickly… it’s so subtle you may miss it the first time around.

It all begins at the 5:23 minute mark:

And personally, I can never get enough of her movements — what was once called “eccentric dancing.” I could watch this footage forever. Enjoy.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming in January from Griffith Moon Publishing.