“There’s No Business Like Show Business” — Ethel Merman

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Photo by Vlah Dumitru on Unsplash

Whenever I need to steel myself for a challenging task ahead, I always think of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

It became Ethel Merman’s signature song, and there’s no-one who could give it the breezy, blousy treatment quite like her. Her performance of the song, possibly even more than the song itself, makes it a great song to listen to when you’re feeling down and need something to lift you up.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business” was originally written for the 1946 Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun”, which was also made into a film in 1950.

The silver screen wasn’t finished with “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, though, as it reappeared in the film of the same name in 1954…a film that featured a young Marilyn Monroe just before her career went stratospheric.

In addition to Ethel Merman’s devil-may-care vocal treatment of the song, it’s also got one of the most wonderful opening lines of any song ever written…

There’s no business like show business like no business I know

Written by one of the 20th Century’s most talented songwriters, Irving Berlin…who wrote “White Christmas”, “Cheek To Cheek” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” among many others…this line alone is a lyrical masterpiece.

I’m not sure many lyricists would try to put the word “business” three times in the same line of a song. It’s not an especially lyric-friendly word, it doesn’t really come with handy rhymes or concepts you can explore further as you develop the story.

But Irving Berlin didn’t just do that. He also made a series of internal rhymes in the same line, nestling in between repeats of the word “business”.

No, show, no and know are the words that get the musical emphasis in that line. Layered on top of the, let’s face it, slightly dull word “business”, Irving Berlin somehow takes what could be the most unprepossessing opening line in music history and turns it into a rabble-rousing, roof-lifting, spirit-awakening number you can’t help but love.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business” is all about keeping going when everything in life seems to be against you.

It’s about never giving up, smiling through the tears and delivering what you promised because you’re working for some higher purpose, even if that’s just brightening up people’s lives for an hour or two with some Broadway musical entertainment.

There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low
Even with a turkey that you know will fold, you may be stranded out in the cold
Still you wouldn’t change it for a sack of gold, let’s go on with the show

This is a song about keeping going even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it.

And there’s something in that old showbiz mantra “the show must go on” which can serve as an inspiration for us all.

Maybe people haven’t paid hundreds of dollars to come and see us on Broadway, but we all have people who depend on us to show up and do what we said we’d do…family, friends, neighbours, employers, community groups and many others.

Some days it’s tempting “just to sit this one out”. But if you start to make a habit of that, ultimately your life loses its meaning. Human beings are social animals. Those around us depend on us to do what we do so they can do what they need to do.

In the same way that an intricate piece of engineering can seize up if just one bolt isn’t tightened properly, so it is with your life. If you’re the cog that stops working, you start to destabilise those around you. Before you know where you are, everything and everyone around you has stopped working.

That’s why “going on with the show” is such a critical concept. Showing up when you said you would. Doing what you said you’d do. Performing at your very best for those who need you, whether or not you feel like it.

It’s not just a cheesy line from a Broadway show. It’s how to live a life in the service of others.

You get word before the show has started that your favourite uncle died at dawn
Top of that, your pa and ma have parted, you’re broken-hearted, but you go on
Yesterday they told you you would not go far, that night you open and there you are
Next day on your dressing room they’ve hung a star, let’s go on with the show!

If you need a bit of vim and vigour in your life, there’s no better song than “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to steel your resolve, fix a smile on your face and help you climb out of wherever you’ve been trying to hide.

Irving Berlin in his finest lyrical form. Ethel Merman belting it out in a way nobody else ever has, before or since. And a wonderful tongue-in-cheek view of doing what it takes to succeed on Broadway…there’s so much to like about “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

Guaranteed to improve your outlook on life, blousiest, breeziest performance of a popular song you’re ever likely to see.

Showcasing Ethel Merman’s unique vocal style, it’s Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business”…

(PS: keep scrolling for one of the more unusual examples of a favourite mantra of mine, namely that a truly great song still sounds great with a variety of different musical treatments. You will rarely see that done better than in the opening segment of Ethel Merman and the Muppets’ performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” down below.)

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0rww90JcMansTr9wVNLXSU?si=VTXU_7AYT-Cer7B0Xe6bDA

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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