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"Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing"

Shelley Cooper

Shelley Cooper grew up glued to the Golden Age of Broadway and many of the famous shows were ruled by two towering female talents – Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. 

The lives and songs of Martin -- vulnerable, dainty, and lovely – and Merman -- brassy, unapologetic, and bold -- will be highlighted in a new one-woman show by Cooper, a 34-year-old musical theater professor at Augustana College. “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing” will include new medleys arranged by Quad-City music director, Mason Moss, in two shows at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 (which is sold out) and Sept. 19 at Circa ‘21’s Speakeasy, in Rock Island. 

These women inspired some of the greatest composers, such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, and Jerry Herman.

Cooper’s show will feature songs from “Anything Goes,” “Hello, Dolly,” “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Peter Pan,” and more. The program is divided into halves – the first highlighting Martin and second half Merman, with a combination of medleys and stand-alone songs.

Credit Shelley Cooper
Shelley Cooper

“I always tell my students, I didn’t learn how to sing through the 26 Italian art songs. I learned how to sing with Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. It was listening to recordings of Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and all of these gems. The roles I wanted to play, I wanted to either be Mary Martin or I wanted to be an Ethel Merman, and I loved both of them.”

“I love the genuine and nuanced performances that Mary Martin brought. I just thought she was always very authentic on stage, nothing ever forced or pushed. Just a really delightful person to watch. There was always such an elegance and poise to her, and it makes sense, looking at the roles she played." 

"She was nuanced, she was smart, but nothing was ever forced or pushed. Where Ethel – I love how unapologetic she was. I love the fact that she never took a voice lesson and George Gershwin told her not to. He didn’t want anyone to mess with the natural talent she had. She really had this natural gift, and she didn’t overthink anything.”

Cooper says much of this music has resonance even today.

“I think it’s especially poignant now, since a lot of this music was written during the Great Depression era, and it was there to lift people’s spirits. I’m hoping it will have the same effect now. For me it has, working on this music, especially working on an ‘Anything Goes’ medley.”

Cooper (who sings, teaches, dances, choreographs and directs) recently performed in front of an audience for the first time in nine months in August at Circa ‘21’s second “Music on the Marquee,” where Cooper did a “Sound of Music” medley and a “Girl Crazy” combo. That was her first time working with Circa, and she had not sung in public since last November, at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

“It was so exciting. At the end of it all, I was on cloud nine. Like I woke up the next day still just on this high of happiness about it. I was really nervous and in fact, I remember my hands shaking, and I was really happy I was this high up because my hand was shaking, I was so nervous holding the mic at first. But then, once I got into it, it was like an old hat and it was, oh this is so much fun and I felt like I enjoyed it so much more than I had ever, because I haven’t been able to do it. It was teaching me not to take those performing moments for granted.”

Cooper says during the pandemic, people have sought and connected with entertainment in all forms, reflecting its vital role in society.

“It says how important our work really is, and how universal the work is. And how people just cling to it in times for comfort, but also for inspiration. Just throughout all of this, watching artists getting knocked down, knocked down – it shows the pure resilience. We’ve always been a resilient people, but my goodness, even more so right now.”

Because of the Phase 4 rules of Restore Illinois, capacity for the Speakeasy is limited to only 50 people. Temperatures are checked at the door; masks are required, and patrons must sit with people they know. For tickets, call 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or visit thecirca21speakeasy.com.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.