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Ethel Merman in “Girl Crazy,” 1930

The Cole Porter musical Anything Goes cemented Ethel Merman’s status as a star. While she had made a hit in the Gershwin’s Girl Crazy three seasons before, Anything Goes, filled with a hit laden score that includes “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and the title tune, showed new dimensions of Merman’s talent, which helped it run 420 performances on Broadway from 1934 to 1935, one of the longest runs for a musical comedy at the time.

In the summer of 1935, Ethel Merman, who typically stayed on until the end of the run of her shows, decided to leave for Hollywood, after Samuel Goldwyn dangled a juicy part in a new film with Eddie Cantor. She had conquered Broadway and now wanted to do the same in Hollywood.

Benay Venuta in “Anything Goes” Charcoal on paper, 22 x 18 in., 1935

How does a one replace a force of nature like Merman? Producer Vinton Freedley went with a relatively unknown actress and singer, Benay Venuta. Venuta had begun her career in show business a dancer in vaudeville, but her “brassy, all out style that showed more than a little Merman influence” attracted Freedley’s attention and he hired her. She learned the part in three weeks, by rehearsing at Cole Porter’s apartment for her Broadway debut. Merman and Venuta would end up becoming close friends for the rest of their lives, even playing together in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1966 at Merman’s suggestion. Venuta had also been in the film version of the musical in the 1950s.

Venuta went on to star in both comedies and musicals on Broadway, including Rodgers and Hart’s last new show, By Jupiter in 1942, where she introduced “Ev’rything I’ve Got” which the songwriting team had written in rehearsal to showcase her voice (and it became one of the hits of the show). She later starred in the original production of Jule Styne’s Hazel Flagg and she made her final Broadway appearance in Romantic Comedy in 1980.

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