A non-fan of musical theater tries to make sense of CLO Cabaret’s new show, The Book of Merman | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A non-fan of musical theater tries to make sense of CLO Cabaret’s new show, The Book of Merman

click to enlarge The Book of Merman - MATT POLK
Matt Polk
The Book of Merman

It’s lonely being an arts and entertainment writer, which is why we sometimes drag our loved ones to the shows we cover. In this case, my husband, Ian, accompanied me to The Book of Merman, CLO Cabaret’s production of the Ethel Merman-infused parody of The Book of Mormon, now playing at Greer Cabaret Theater. But right before the show it dawned on me — my husband has zero familiarity with Ethel Merman or The Book of Mormon

Surely those obstacles would not detract from his enjoyment of it? Good thing he was willing to be interviewed about his experience. 

So Book of Merman
So it’s not about mermaids who are men?

It’s about Ethel Merman.
Who’s Ethel Merman?

She was this great, famous Broadway stage actress who was known for her big, brassy voice and personality.
So why did these Mormons go to her house?

In the musical The Book of Mormon, the whole idea is that these Mormon missionaries go to Uganda. The entire conceit of the show is that, instead of going to Uganda, they go door-to-door and eventually end up at Ethel Merman’s house …
So why did they go to Ethel Merman’s house? Is that what happens in The Book of Mormon?

No! It’s not what happens in The Book of Mormon! In The Book of Mormon, it’s about two missionaries, they go to Africa, and they try to convert people in Africa. … Watching the show, do you at least understand that Ethel Merman was an entertainer?Yes.

Do you at least understand that Book of Mormon was a Broadway show about two Mormon missionaries …
Yes.

… and that those two things combined?
That’s what I don’t understand. Because why did that happen?

Because it’s a pun. Because instead of The Book of Mormon, it’s The Book of Merman. Get it?
So someone came up with a pun and then was like, “We should make a show off of this pun?” I cannot believe that someone pitched that to someone, and they said, “OK.” It’s like a Twitter joke that someone made into a musical that I then got to watch for free and be confused during.

In some ways it’s kind of about old Broadway meets new Broadway because Ethel Merman is old Broadway and Book of Mormon is new Broadway. But in this show, it just seemed like every single song was old Broadway.
I don’t know anything about old Broadway or new Broadway, so I was definitely going in at a disadvantage here.

So what did you think of the musical numbers?
They were bad! How many of them were from The Book of Mormon and how many of them were from Ethel Merman?

I don’t know if any of them were actually from The Book of Mormon. I know some of them, like "Anything You Can Do" …
I know that one! That came on and it was like “Free Bird” started playing. I was like, “I know that!”

I think it’s from Annie Get Your Gun. … What was your favorite part of the show?
There was one joke that was funny. … Something about when Jesus died and then he went to America and saved everyone there.

Is that something Mormons believe?
Oh maybe. Actually, never mind, I don’t know. There’s a lot of homework I didn’t do for this show.

What was your least favorite part of the show?

The rap. I sunk down in my chair and hoped no one I knew was there watching me, because it was a shame. It’s like, “Oh, it will be funny if we have this old Broadway star and these Mormons do a rap song,” which, I don’t know, the lyrics may have been funny. I don’t know if they were because I couldn’t hear most of the show.

So would you say that coming out of this show though, you have a better understanding of who Ethel Merman is and what the Book of Mormon is about?
Absolutely not. I am so much more confused then I was before. I don’t understand how these things are connected. I don’t understand what the original Book of Mormon must have been like. … I don’t understand what Ethel Merman must have been like. This leaves me very confused.

Does this make you want to explore Ethel Merman’s work? Does it make you want to explore Book of Mormon?

Maybe Ethel Merman, definitely not The Book of Mormon.

Let’s just say this — was it obvious that this show was written for an older crowd?
It was definitely written for people with considerably more knowledge of musical theater than I have. There’s a very high barrier for entry. You need to know a lot to understand anything that’s happening. That’s why I aptly described it, as we walked into the show, like it’s going to see Avengers: Endgame without ever having seen any of the other Marvel superhero movies, which I think would have been a totally weird experience because you would have absolutely no idea what was going on and wouldn’t understand any of the stakes or any of the relationships at all. … This is like that except nerdier and older.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I kind of feel like a good show should be able to entertain a non-informed audience in certain capacities as well. Maybe that’s not a fair thing to say.

So you think it should be accessible no matter what?
I feel like this kind of thing should be. I don’t feel like you should have to know something about The Book of Mormon and know a lot about Ethel Merman. I feel like the characterization of Ethel Merman should be strong enough that you’re like, “I understand exactly what’s going on here.”

To your best judgment, do you think that this would at least appeal to fans of musical theater, to fans of The Book of Mormon, to fans of Ethel Merman?

I think if you are above a certain age and you have seen The Book of Mormon and you know very well who Ethel Merman is, and you haven’t seen anything else funny in the last ten to fifteen years, you would probably like this.

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