Ethel Merman, 1909-1984
Rosemarie Sloat, 1971
National Portrait Gallery: Gift of Ethel Merman
In 1930 the George Gershwin musical Girl Crazy opened on Broadway, and toward the end of the first act, an unknown singer named Ethel Merman mesmerized the audience with her rendition of "I Got Rhythm"--in the course of which she held a high-C note for sixteen bars. As Merman later put it, by the time the applause died, "a star had been born. Me." Over the next five decades, her booming voice and brassy style were the main attractions of some of the most successful Broadway musicals ever. Among her greatest triumphs were Anything Goes, Call Me Madam, Gypsy, and Annie Get Your Gun, whose score included her trademark song, "There's No Business Like Show Business."
Of her singing technique, Merman once said, " I just stand up and holler and hope that my voice holds out." And that it did. Songwriter Irving Berlin once warned, "You'd better write her a good lyric," because "the guy in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every syllable."
Among the reasons that Rosemarie Sloat was asked to paint this portrait was that her three-dimensional metallic technique seemed so appropriate for capturing Merman's vibrant stage personality. In the portrait Merman is dressed for her role as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. Merman liked the finished picture so much that it was used on the album jacket of a recording of the songs from the musical.