There's No Business Like Christmas Show Business
Out Front Theater's world premiere is a loving tribute to an iconic performer

By Lee Valentine Smith

Just in time for the season, Out Front Theatre Company is debuting its first-ever holiday-themed production, the world premiere of "The Ethel Merman Christmas Disco Spectacular." From the wildly creative mind of Artistic Director Paul Conroy, the show is based on the notion of what might've happened if the legendary performer - once known as the "Biggest Voice on Broadway" - had hosted a disco-themed Christmas TV special in 1979.
The idea isn't too far flung because Merman did indeed record a disco album in '79. Though far from a massive commercial success, the disc became a favorite among her fans as well as connoisseurs of improbable celebrity kitsch. The jarring juxtaposition of Merman belting her stage and screen hits - propelled by throbbing disco beats and late '70s-style arrangements - has kept the allure of the collection alive since its release. Out Front's Musical Director Nick Silvestri is handling the disco tracks for the new production, set at legendary celeb hotspot Studio 54.
In Conroy's vision, Merman (played by actress Lynn Grace) hosts a cornucopia of A-listers and perennial NYC-scenesters, including Andy Warhol (Davin Grindstaff), Donna Summer (Alaina Holeman), Michael Jackson (Patrick Coleman) and Truman Capote (Brandon Deen). To further fan the flames of festive polyester fashion, audience members are encouraged to dress in their best glittery, late-'70s disco attire.

INsite spoke with busy writer-director Conroy during a break from rehearsals.

So the whole thing starts with the now-legendary Ethel Merman disco album.

That's right. My family is from Boston and two years ago my boyfriend and I were driving back from Christmas there. Since I do most of the driving, I just put on whatever music I want. For years, I've been a fan of Ethel Merman so I was playing her disco album. As I was listening, I realized that she had never released a Christmas album. That seems kind of odd for someone who was recording from the '30s through the 70s, so I started thinking, 'What kind of Christmas songs would she have recorded if she'd done a disco Christmas album?' It's an 18-hour drive so I had plenty of time to think about it.

Then you began to formulate the concept.

Yeah, her album came out in 1979 - that was the year I was born - and that was at such a shift in time. We were about to go into the Reagan Years and the AIDS crisis and so many changes. That's when I decided to set it at Studio 54.

Studio 54 was such a hotbed of pop culture leading up to that kinetic time.

It really was and as I researched and found out that Studio 54 actually closed in February of 1980, it all started to fit together. It would be a Christmas variety special for television. Since the end of the '70s was such a time of change, I decided to add characters who were part of that world and also experienced a lot of changes as the '80s arrived. So we have Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer - people who helped define the '70s and lived on into the '80s. I thought it would be a natural fit for our audience. And now here we are.

Did you consider writing a score of original songs?

Well her album was basically her greatest hits and they just set it all to a disco beat. So I talked to our musical director Nick Silvestri and I said, 'I need you to take Christmas songs that everyone knows and put them into a disco beat.'

You're presenting a fictionalized story with actual characters who tend to be larger-than-life personalities. It's easy to go way over-the-top with such easily recognizable figures.

Right but we didn't want them to be caricatures of their images. Like, when we think of Ethel Merman, we think of this loud, bawdy, brassy woman. Certainly she was at times, but Lynn is careful to portray her real voice. When she wasn't 'on,' she was very soft-spoken. We show her and all the celebrities as real people. And the cast has been great to offer their own takes on it, too: 'I think she might say it this way, or let's try this or that.' For example, the person playing our Truman Capote, is around six-feet-tall. Capote wasn't that tall but he's studied the mannerisms and the voice so we understand that the person is portraying Truman Capote but not in a buffoonish way. The hope is that it can live on, well beyond our production.

Ethel is beloved by some and totally unknown to others. Why did you select her to as the central character?

Of all the people we could have featured, I've been asked, 'Why Ethel?' Well, I've always been interested in women that made it through so much. She became a celebrity during the Great Depression and was performing during WWII and all these things. I really feel that the success of so many women today is due in part to the women who came before them. I just wanted to do something that showed my appreciation for her. People say, 'Oh are you gonna have a drag queen play Ethel Merman?' But that's not the point. To me and to many people, she was a real, important figure for many years. It's just absurd to me that the disco record was the last thing she ever recorded.

It's definitely a loving tribute to Ethel as well as the era.

Exactly. I don't want to say it's a love letter, but I do hope that more people will come to appreciate her for what we're showing in this production. If we'd really gone over-the-top, I don't think it would have had the same impact, especially as a holiday offering. It has to have real heart and recognizable themes, especially since it's for the holiday season.

Once you had the initial concept in mind, how long did it take to finish the script?

Honestly, it's still a work in progress. There won't be anything major done now but I plan on watching the audience reactions every night. If something doesn't work, then we'll tweak it throughout the run. I've tried to write it so that it can be easily produced. If someone says, 'All we can do is a big sparkly curtain and a Christmas tree,' then you can do it that way. I want to make sure it's not the kind of show people can look at and go, 'Oh we'd love to do this, but we can't afford it.' Making theater producible for any company is very important to me. It's written so that it can be done with two people or eight or however it works best for anyone who might want to do it.

Will the Spectacular become an annual tradition for Out Front?

I hope it's something that will continue but we're not going to be doing it every year. Not to say we won't go back and revisit it sometime, but I want it to be something special. I want people to see it this year. If they miss it, maybe they'll see it in a few years when we bring it back. I hope people will see all the holiday productions around town but I think it's nice to have something new, too.

What's next? Are you hoping for a franchise of Ethel-related productions or even a film version?

(Laughs) Oh I don't know. We've made jokes about making other Ethel Merman holiday specials, like Ethel's Easter Extravaganza or something. I don't know if that'll happen, right now we're taking it one step at a time because it's all brand-new. My fear, but also a sick excitement, is: ok, what happens if we get in front of an audience and all-of-a-sudden there's a five-page section that just bombs? The next day, I'd be calling people in and rewriting stuff to figure out what is going to make it work. Even when we close, it still won't be 100 percent set-in-stone. I love theater and the collaborative nature of it, so I'll keep working on it. If someone wants to do it next year or the year after that, then there can be a bit more of an understanding of what it's all about.

The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular runs December 6-22, with shows on Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Out Front Theater. For tickets and more information, visit outfronttheatre.com.

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