I make no claims to accuracy in the following story, except to say this is how it was told to me by Someone Who Was There.*
The year, 1980. The scene, backstage at the New York State Theater, shortly before the opening curtain of "Beverly!," the farewell gala saluting Miss Sills.
Since there were so very many stars involved in the gala, they had to double up in the dressing rooms. And so it came to pass that Ethel Merman shared a dressing room with Renata Scotto.
About 15 minutes before curtain time, the quiet hum of backstage activity is rent by a sudden yell of "Jesus Christ!"
Everyone turns around, and suddenly Merman bolts into the corridor, wearing only bra, panty girdle, hose, platform shoes, body microphone, wig and jewelry.Someone asks, "Is something wrong, Miss Merman?"
Merman trumpets, "Somebody tell that insane bitch in there to shut up with the goddamn vocalizing! For two hours she's been at it, and she's driving me fucking crazy!"
Peering into the dressing room one sees La Scotto calmly seated before the mirror in caftan and turban. She takes a sip of hot tea with honey, gently clears her throat and sings:"Some-where . . . Some-where o-ver . . . no, no, cosi non va bene . . . Some-where . . . ah, ah, meglio, meglio . . . Some-where, o-ver the . . . ah, NO! Some-where o-ver the rain-bow . . . ah, si, si . . . that's it! Some-where . . ."
And Merman growls: "Tell that bitch that if she can't sing the fucking song by now, she'll never get it!"
Well, as I said, that's the way the story was told to me.La Scotto was in demented form for "Over the Rainbow" that night, and here's what it sounded like.No sound clip of the Merm from that gala, alas, but how about something (for the boys?) from the Broadway diva's collection of private acetates -- Ethel in a mellow mood. (This clip is from the CD Mermania, a previously unpublished acetate from la Merman's private collection.
* Since this story first appeared online, I have been forwarded a different version of the events of that evening from an eyewitness -- in fact one of the performers from the gala! According to this account, the "party guests" (including of course Merman and Scotto) congregated en masse in a chorus dressing room. As always, these backstage rooms have a PA with a live feed from the stage. Amid all the chatter and noise (which presumably included Scotto's vocalise), Merman was suddenly heard to yell, "Hey, pipe down, willya? That kid can sing!" The "kid" was Gianna Rolandi, performing the "Laughing Song!" Back to the La Cieca version.
"Demented is opera at its greatest, a night when the singers
are in voice, in role, in glory. Everything fits. Filth is disaster."
Ethan Mordden , Demented
parterre box, the queer opera zine