Theatre yesterday and today



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Today marks the 124th birthday of the actress/singer/dancer Ethel Shutta (pronounced Shuh-tay), born in 1896, and immortalized as the person who introduced the Stephen Sondheim favorite “Broadway Baby,” in the 1971 musical Follies. She was seventy-four-years-old on its opening night; the oldest member of the company. Enjoy this stroll down memory lane in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

By age seventy-four, Ethel Shutta had experienced a long up-and-down career in show business 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, James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s musical about a theatre being demolished and its “first and last reunion” on its stage before “in a burst of glory, it’s be a parking lot.” For all involved it was clear from the first day of rehearsal on Follies that the match of singer to song was perfection personified. And even though “Broadway Baby” was never designed as a true solo, but part of a trio of songs with Shutta’s originally set as the middle one, the audience response was so strong from the get-go that a change needed to be made. Fifi D’Orsay singing “Ah, Paris!” had to be moved to the middle spot so the montage would finish with the appropriate build and close out with “Broadway Baby.” Shutta once told a friend of mine that “Fifi never got over that.”

Ethel Shutta as Hattie Walker, a “Broadway Baby,” 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. In Shutta’s case 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 a song this old lady once sang as a young chanteuse with all its youthful optimism now colored by all that 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 a youthful optimism while also filling it with a wry cynicism. Shutta was one of those types who loved being on stage so much that she never wanted to stop working. This was true when her career was put on hold for a while during a time she struggled with a drinking problem, but she fought back. Her fingernails always clung to the ledge of show business until her dying day, working a tiny role on the daytime soap Ryan’s Hope (which is not credited to her page on IMDB, unfortunately — an oversight I’m sure she would have hated).

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

As sensational as she is when you hear her on the recording of Follies, unless you saw her performing it, you really can’t imagine what she was doing while she sang “Broadway Baby.” No such problem for me as I was lucky enough to see Follies as a fourteen-year-old at the April 3, 1971 Saturday matinee prior to its Sunday night opening. In the review I committed to paper when I came home from the show, I wrote: “Ethel Shutta brings down the house with her one song.” Genuine critics wrote the same thing the very next day.

Shutta stayed with Follies for its entire fifteen-month Broadway run and recreated her role in the Los Angeles production in the late summer of 1972 with members of the original cast. It turned out to be a shorter run than anyone anticipated, as due to poor business, it ended early and didn’t tour as it was planned. But there was one last performance of “Broadway Baby” left for Ethel Shutta to give, which came as a gift in the form of a chance to sing it one more time at the age of seventy-six. This was at the 1973 “Sondheim Tribute,” thankfully recorded live as a double-record-set, known to aficionados as the “Scrabble Album.” And seriously, it could drive a person crazy trying to decipher what the hell Shutta is doing to solicit screams of laughter from the audience. And her ovation does just what I said it did at the matinee two years prior at which I attended: she brings the house down.

March 11, 1973, many people’s choice for a time machine journey

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