Actress Rita McKenzie is sitting under a hairdryer in a Sherman Oaks, California, beauty salon, but show-biz trooper that she is, she's happily gabbing about her star turn in the off-Broadway smash, Ethel Merman's Broadway. McKenzie, a TV, film, and musical stage veteran, has been eerily evoking Broadway belter Merman (1909-1984), known for her starring roles in shows such as Girl Crazy, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, and Hello, Dolly!, since 1987.
New Times: Why do a one-woman show about Ethel Merman of all people?
Rita McKenzie: It's a long story, but the short answer is people told me I sound like her.
Were you a big fan of hers?
No. As a young girl, I thought she was loud. And now I am her, so explain that to me!
Do you believe she was underrated?
Absolutely. As an adult I realized that she was not only underrated as an entertainer, but she was underrated as a woman before her time. She was a very good businesswoman, and she also represented our culture and women in general in a very positive way.
Did you ever meet her or work with her?
No. Not at all. When I was growing up in New Jersey, we didn't go to Broadway shows. I felt she was like the Statue of Liberty. I was sure I'd get to see her at some point, but I didn't see the Statue of Liberty until I was 40, so I figured I had a lot of time. And then she died.
While doing research, what did you find out about her that was a surprise to you?
That she was very very shy. She was very uncomfortable in groups of people. Also she was a woman who wanted to be taken care of in her personal life by each and every husband she had [there were four] and they all let her down in one way or another.
After fourteen years of doing the show, are you wary of being typecast as a brash Ethel Merman-type woman?
No, because in Hollywood they know nothing about it. They have no idea. I did a movie with Rodney Dangerfield called Meet Wally Sparks, and there was a song in the movie and they made me lip-synch. They didn't even know I sing!