It’s Christmas 1979 and things are getting messy backstage at Studio 54 during the live taping of “The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” A miserly homophobic TV producer is making life miserable for Jimmy, the young stage manager and Mark, his dancer boyfriend. A born-again Donna Summer is preaching instead of moaning her way through “Love to Love You Baby.” Truman Capote is passed out in a corner. And a dazed and bedazzled Liza Minnelli is wandering aimlessly around.
Attempting to get a grip on the chaos, the star of the show pulls Jimmy and Mark aside for a little morale boost. “Listen boys,” says actress Lynn Grace in full-on Merman Broadway broad mode. “The world is a shitty place, filled with shitty people who are going to treat you like shit.” As soon as the final syllable hits the back wall of the theatre, the audience is howling, threatening to topple the carafes of mimosas precariously perched in their laps.
Welcome to the world premiere of Out Front Theatre’s first-ever holiday offering, now running through Dec. 22 at Atlanta’s LGBTQIA+ theatre in West Midtown. If the potty-mouthed monologue doesn’t exactly conjure up images of Frosty and Rudolph dancing in your head, that’s strictly intentional, according to Paul Conroy, Out Front Theatre’s founder and producing artistic director, who wrote the book and directs the high hat cymbal enhanced musical Christmas comedy.
“I’m from Boston and Ethel was from New York,” Conroy explains laughing. “In those places, that’s what a pep talk sounds like. ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ isn’t a fit for everyone. My favorite Christmas movie is ‘Christmas Vacation,’ a movie that’s basically all about just trying to make things work during the holidays.”
“The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” is completely unlike anything else currently on stage for the holidays in Atlanta — and that’s the point. Filled with disco-fied holiday production numbers sung by Grace-as-Merman in the style of her camp classic 1979 “The Ethel Merman Disco Album” (“I made everyone in the cast listen to it before we began rehearsals just so they would know why we were all here!” confides Conroy), the show is hilariously campy. And unexpectedly, it also sneaks in a few touching tug-at-your-heartstrings scenes about family as well.
In the title role as the aging Broadway belter behind “There’s No Business Like Show Business” who’s now nervously navigating her way through the era of “Stayin’ Alive,” Lynn Grace is a marvel to behold.
“I’ve never had so much fun!” Grace says. “Sure, there’s that singing voice but getting Ethel’s speaking voice was actually the most difficult for me. Her speaking voice was completely different than her stage voice. I wanted to add those different layers and colors to the performance. Everyone knows her as this brassy belter with perfect diction. Yes, she was bigger than life but we’re not portraying her as a cartoon.”
So why resurrect a long-dead musical theatre icon in 2018? “We idolize a lot of women in the gay community,” explains Conroy. “But for me, it’s the women from the 1940s and 50s, the women in show business who were overturning the studio system and the women doing their own thing. To me, Ethel just felt like the biggest and brassiest one of all. Plus, 1979 is when I was born. It just felt like a very pivotal point. Studio 54 closed in 1980. Disco records were literally being steam rolled. And “The Ethel Merman Disco Album” ended up being her last recording. Ethel had been this huge star but she was near the end of her life and so many people from that era were being thrown away. I wanted to honor her and make people laugh a little during the holidays.”
While full-page backgrounders are dedicated to Merman and Studio 54 in the show’s playbill, the character of Jimmy Sinclair, the newbie stage manager is the show’s heartbeat and serves as an entry point for younger theater-goers being introduced to the decade of polyester leisure suits for the first time. And like the trajectory of their characters on stage, Lynn Grace and Russell Scott, who plays Jimmy, immediately clicked together, even during their initial read-through together.
Russell has been my rock throughout,” says Grace. “Not just as Jimmy the stage manager, but Russell the actor. He’s kept me going in the right direction. The unique TV special structure of the show invites a lot of confusion for the actors. There were points in rehearsal where I would ask Russell, ‘Jimmy, where are we?’ because Lynn had no idea!”
Scott makes it clear he feels the same way about his co-star. “Lynn is incredible,” he says. “There’s tremendous talent and warmth that she brings with her to the work. She’s on stage for 95 percent of the show. She carries it. It’s great when you have an opportunity to connect with another actor like we do.”
And with the show’s built-in audience participation segments with Ethel’s special “guests” Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson, Conroy says Grace’s extensive background in improv comes in handy, especially with the mimosas flowing out there in the dark. “We knew we needed someone at the helm who could roll with whatever happens,” he says. “Lynn interacts with them the same way Ethel did with people on the street. She captures that beautifully.”
Adds Scott: “Having that audience participation guarantees that from night to night, the performance will never be the same. It definitely keeps you on your toes. But getting to interact with the audience and making it an immersive experience is great for us. We feed off that energy the audience gives you.”
And while there are no Ebenezer Scrooge magnitude life lessons being dispensed in “The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” Paul Conroy, his cast and audiences seem just fine with that. Recalls Conroy: “A complete stranger came up to me after the Sunday matinee, his eyes were a little watery and out of nowhere, he hugged me. He told me this was exactly what he needed. If you leave singing and feeling good about things, that’s what we’re going for.”
As for Lynn Grace, playing Ethel Merman onstage at Outfront Theatre for audiences this holiday season is the best gift she could have asked for. “I have been doing this professionally since 1982 and working with these people and having this experience has been without a doubt, the highlight of my career,” says Grace. “This has been the most loving, supportive and patient group of people I’ve ever worked with. And I’m going to cry like a baby when it’s over.”
“The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” with a book by Paul Conroy and musical arrangements by Nick Silvestri runs through Dec. 22 at Out Front Theatre. For tickets and info: outfronttheatre.com.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.