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January 16 Happy Birthday Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ethel Merman

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Today we have a pair of big names from the Broadway musical taking, if you’ll pardon the pun, center stage.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is turning 37, began writing his first musical, In the Heights, while a student at Wesleyan University; an early version was a student theater production.  After he graduated he expanded it, and the revised version ran in tryouts before opening on Broadway in 2008, winning four Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.  The 2015 West End production won three Olivier Awards.  Miranda then went on to co-write the score of Bring It On: The Musical, and to contribute Spanish dialogue and lyrics to the 2009 revival of West Side Story.

Around the time that In the Heights opened, Miranda began reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and was inspired to compose, first, a rap, and then a whole musical about Hamilton’s career.  Hamilton: An American Musical opened on Broadway in 2015, and last year it was nominated for a record 16 Tonys, winning 11, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.  It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, while the original cast album won a Grammy.

Even more than last Friday’s headliner Gwen Verdon, Ethel Merman (1908-1984) is a legend of musical theater.  She worked briefly as a secretary after graduating from high school, but soon found she could do better as a nightclub singer.  In 1930 she was cast in a prominent role in Girl Crazy, a new musical by the Gershwins, and she was on her way to forty years of headlining Broadway musicals.  Over the years she displayed a particular affinity for the music of Cole Porter (in musicals like Anything Goes, DuBarry was a Lady, and Panama Hattie) and Irving Berlin (in the movie Alexander’s Ragtime Band and musicals like Call Me Madam and especially Annie Get Your Gun).

Because much of Merman’s career predated the Tony Awards, she had only three nominations and one win (along with a special award after her retirement from the stage).  She made about 20 feature film appearances.  Readers probably know her cameo in Airplane! as Lt. Hurwitz, who suffered from “severe shell shock–he thinks he’s Ethel Merman.”  Regrettably, she was not cast in the movie versions of what were probably her two greatest roles, in Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy.  However, she did make enough awards show appearances, PBS specials, and the like, that it’s possible to get a little sense of what she was like as a performer:

On the night that she died in 1984 (as was the case years later with Verdon), every theater on Broadway dimmed their marquee lights at 9 p.m. in her honor.

John Carpenter turns 69 today.  The director-writer has not been terribly active lately but remains respected and influential for his well-executed genre films from the 1970s and ’80s.  They included thrillers like Assault on Precinct 13, horror films like The Fog and The Thing, science fiction movies such as Starman, and the slasher classic Halloween.

Actress and dancer/choreographer Debbie Allen, who turns 67, is a three time Emmy winner for choreography, twice for Fame and once for Motown 30: What’s Goin’ On!  She currently appears as Dr. Catherine Avery on Grey’s Anatomy and has directed several episodes of the series.  Josie Davis, who played Sarah Powell on Charles in Charge, turns 44 today.  Jake Epstein is turning 30.  He played Craig Manning on Degrassi: The Next Generation and recently starred on Broadway in a lead role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.   Caroline Munro celebrates her 68th.  She appeared in several adventure/fantasy films of the 1970s like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and At the Earth’s Core and also had a small part in The Spy Who Loved Me.

A number of international stars share today as a birthday.  Kabir Bedi, who turns 71, has had a long acting career in his native India; American audiences may know him from Octopussy, where he played the villain’s main henchman.  Argentine actor Ricardo Darin celebrates his 60th.  He made his breakthrough in the caper film Nueve Reinas in 2000, and more recently starred in the Oscar-winning film El secreto de sus ojosMarwan Kenzari, who turns 34, won a Golden Calf for Best Actor at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2013 for starring in Wolf and has begun working in Hollywood; he was in last year’s Ben Hur and will play Pierre Michel in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, out later this year.  Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who celebrates her 35th, has made a name for herself in Danish film and television and begun to appear in English-language productions, such as Game of Thrones and Pitch Perfect 2Sidharth Malhotra, who turns 32 today, is a rising star in Bollywood who won a Filmfare Award for Best Debut in 2013.

Novelist William Kennedy is 89 today.  Born in Albany, NY, he has become a literary chronicler of his city of birth.  His main output consists of the eight novels of the so-called Albany Cycle; the third in the series, Ironweed, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a 1987 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.  Dian Fossey (1932-1985) was a primatologist known for her study of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, and for her memoir, Gorillas in the Mist, adapted into a feature film starring Sigourney Weaver.  Her 1985 murder remains unsolved.  Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was a Canadian poet know as the “Bard of the Yukon.”  Many of his poems about the Klondike Gold Rush era, such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “I Cremated Sam McGee” are still fairly well known.

Ronnie Milsap heads our list of non-Broadway music birthdays.  The blind country star, who turns 74, is a six-time Grammy winner and has had forty #1 Country hits.  He also was one of country music’s more successful pop crossover stars; seven of his country hits have also reached #25 or higher on the Hot 100.

Other birthdays in the music world include Jim Stafford, who is known for pop hits like “Spiders and Snakes,” and for being the headliner at his own theater in country music mecca Branson, MO.  Stafford turns 73.  Aaliyah (1979-2001) was just beginning to emerge as a major R&B and “urban pop” star, when she died in yet another case of that perpetual bane (it seems) of talented young musicians, a small plane crash.  Helen Folosade Adu, better known simply as Sade, is a Nigerian-born British R&B and soul singer-songwriter, who has sold some 50 million records worldwide and won four Grammys.  She turns 58 today.  Atticus Ross, who turns 49, has co-written a variety of film and television scores, including the Oscar-winning score for The Social Network (written in partnership with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails).

Our sports birthdays include boxer Roy Jones, Jr., who turns 48.  At different stages in his career, Jones held world titles in four different weight divisions, from middleweight up to heavyweight.  Albert Pujols, who is turning 37, has been one of baseball’s best hitters of the 21st century, and has made 10 All-Star games in his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Angels.  Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean (1910-1974) was one of the National League’s most dominant pitchers in the mid-1930s and the last pitcher in the NL to win 30 games in a season.  His playing career was shortened by injuries, but he then went on to a long career as a broadcaster.  Eric Liddell (1902-1945) won a gold medal in the 400 meter dash at the 1924 Olympics, setting a world record.  He was played by Ian Charleson in the Best Picture winner for 1981, Chariots of FireA. J. Foyt, who turns 82, was one of the most successful auto racers ever in the US.  He was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times and holds all kinds of career victory records.

The world of opera was enriched by three people born today.  Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar (1928-1996) had a long association with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and performed and recorded a wide variety of the standard repertoire, along with making a specialty of the Spanish musical genre known as Zarzuela.  American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne turns 83.  She was a four time Grammy winner and made several forays into musical theater.  Katia Ricciarelli, who is turning 71, has sung most of the major Italian soprano roles, and was cast as Desdemona in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Verdi’s opera Otello.

Harry Carey (1878-1947) was a major star of the silent era, particularly in Westerns.  In the sound era, he starred in MGM’s African adventure film Trader Horn (the first non-documentary shot in Africa), was an Oscar nominee for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and played cattle buyer Mr. Melville in Red River.  He should not be confused with either his son, also an actor, or with longtime baseball broadcaster Harry Caray.  Alexander Knox (1907-1995) was nominated for Best Actor for playing President Woodrow Wilson in a 1944 biopic.  After he ran afoul of the Hollywood blacklist, he had a long career in British film and television, including playing Control in the BBC miniseries Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on John le Carré’s novel.  Katy Jurado (1924-2002) appeared in several leading Westerns of the fifties and sixties, winning a Golden Globe for High Noon and receiving an Oscar nomination for Broken Lance.  Cinematographer Karl Freund (1890-1969) became known for working on German classics of the 1920s like The Last Laugh and Metropolis.  He then worked in Hollywood for many years, winning an Oscar for The Good Earth and then serving as cinematographer for I Love Lucy.

If today is your birthday, congratulations on sharing your big day with these notable names.  Birthday wishes to everyone celebrating a big day today.  Come back tomorrow for more celebrity birthdays.

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Posted on January 16, 2017, in Celebrity Birthdays and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Weren’t we just talking about Hamilton? I should show my dad this clip and see what he thinks. Kidding aside, I haven’t seen the play. Somehow Le Blog must have been left off the comp list. But I am very impressed with the impact it had had getting people who would never have been interested in history or musical theater to take an interest in both.

    Ethel Merman was one of those people who was always showing up or being referenced on TV when I was growing up. Without the background, the joke was never all that funny. I got that she was a singer with some powerful pipes. I do remember her Airplane cameo as well.

    John Carpenter has made some really good movies, some not so good ones and a few that are bad. But his high points are really cool and in the right mood I’m happy to watch some of his lesser works.

    I was trying to figure out why Caroline Munro’s name was familiar. Then you pointed out her part in The Spy Who Loved Me and it clicked.

    I remember when Aaliyah died. So much potential. She was starting what looked like a promising movie career on top of being a pop star. Who knows where that would have taken her.

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    • My biggest memory of Ethel Merman is of her performance as the battle axe mother-in-law in the comedy classic It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

      He might enjoy King George’s primary song. It’s melodic, satirical and funny.

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  2. As a little bonus to today’s article (since a few of us here sort of enjoy the Muppets), here’s a bit from Ethel Merman’s appearance on The Muppet Show.

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  3. John carpenter, yeah, I’ve sung the praises of some of his films here before. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned 1987’s “Prince of Darkness” though, which I’ve had on tape for almost 30 years; I think it’s a little cold around the heart, but I still like it.
    I know Debbie Allen mostly from TV’s “Fame” and in Richard Pryor’d 1986 film “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling”. When I was a kid, I thought she was related to both Karen Allen and Nancy Allen (kind of like how I thought this girl at summer recreation was related to Kathleen Turner because of her last name).
    Caroline Munro, other than the Bond deal, she stands out to me because of two horror films: 1980’s “Maniac” (which I think is really good) and 1986’s “Slaughter High” (ah, not so good, but I still like it, weird accents and all).
    Aaliyah, I viewed 2000’s “Romeo Must Die”, and then learned more about her, then she was gone not to long later. A total bummer.
    Sade, I like “Smooth Operator”, which is something I’m not (too much static and a bad connection). I used to think the title of the song was “Oooh Operator” for the longest time.
    Dizzy Dean, the numbers he put up makes my head spin; 30 wins as a pitcher in one season? Wow.

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