BWW Interviews: I Love Ethel Mertz - Lori Hammel on I LOVE LUCY LIVE ON STAGE
I Love Lucy Live on Stage's Lori Hammel spoke with BroadwayWorld San Francisco about the show's universal appeal and what you can expect from the classic TV-show turned theatrical experience. Check out the interview below! The show plays November 11 -23 at SHNSF's Curran Theatre. Visit https://www.shnsf.com for tickets or more information.
I Love Lucy was filmed in front of a live television audience, which means it's basically made for theatre. How does it translate to the stage for this show?
I think it transfers very easily. It makes sense because that's the way people experienced it when they were filming it. So for us to be doing it and have people there is a great luxury. We're not isolated. They're part of the story by being there for us.
How familiar were you with I Love Lucy coming into doing the show?
You know, I always loved it. I wasn't somebody who knew everything about it. I just always enjoyed it. I haven't watched all the episodes yet, but I've watched a lot of them. It's just been a wonderful education as an actor to get an opportunity to really hone in on these people, and they're brilliant. They are unbelievable, and their subtlety and the way they interact with each other is just so exciting to watch. And I love watching it. It's been a lot of fun to research.
Without giving away too much, can you tell me about the show's format?
Well the format of the show is as if you came to a taping when it was happening. So there is a person who takes you through the evening very similar to if you went to see a taping of a sitcom these days. Within the structure of the show there are commercials of the time that are performed live, which are sung beautifully by a group of people that are doing multiple roles that are really interesting and fun and very light. You feel like you've been taken back in time. It's interactive.
It's an older show. Do you still see a younger generation?
It's amazing to me how much Lucy has affected so many generations. We had ten-year-old girls come to the show that were twins. They were literally dressed as Ethel and Lucy. They showed up in Miami so excited and happy, and they'd seen episodes. And just the thrill of these ten year olds, and you're like, "This was filmed so long ago."
I think that the comedy is something that will stand the test of time. It is truly funny. To me, as an audience member, what I love is the sense of, "take me back in time, what is this like." And I feel like they've worked out so many of the details. The costumes are just gorgeous. The sets look like the Lucy show. It's uplifting. It's funny. It's just a great way to be entertained. And that's what we need these days. It's so different to sit in an auditorium with other people, feeling other people laughing around you. It's such a joy because it just takes the pressure off of you. You're going back in time. You're transformed. And you're with a group of people that are all there for the ride.
You play Ethel, Lucy's best friend. Everyone has an Ethel in life. Do you have an Ethel?
Oh, I have several Ethels. People that are willing to come along with me for the ride, and they're always up for the fun. The thing is, Lucy does get in trouble. I don't really get in trouble much in my life. It always seems like Lucy's looking for mischief and Ethel who, you know, doesn't have that much going on in her life, she's a landlady. She's married to Fred, who's much older than her. And so the enticement of Lucy's adventures, even though sometimes Ethel pulls back a little bit, she's always excited to move forward into whatever is going to happen.
You have done a lot of comedic work before, particularly with a few Forbidden Broadway shows, which require a lot of impersonations. Obviously you know how to get the audience to laugh. What is it like to portray such a legend in the business? How do you make the role your own while inspiring new laughs?
I'm trying not to do an exact impersonation of her. I'm trying to do the flavor of how Ethel works, what she is in the scene in a set of circumstances. I think that in order for scenes to work you have to have that sense of who that person is and what makes them tick and the time period, the 1950s, and all those sort of things, and the long-term relationships that that character has with the other characters. It is a great honor to play such an iconic role, and I think it's a huge responsibility. So I try to look at what does she make work and how does she do that.
When people watch the show on television there's editing. So in terms of like a close up, being able to land a joke, that's a different story, that's not what we have. Even thought it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, it was presented through the magic of the editor. We don't have that, so there is a difference because we don't have close ups. We have the same lines and we have the same set of circumstances, but it's not the same way the audience is viewing it as the audience is looking at a television viewing it. So there has been some readjusting.
And you certainly must play to a wide variety of sizes of audiences and theatres.
You start out in a rehearsal studio. It's very small. You basically just have people that are in the company at those rehearsals and then all of a sudden you're in front of 2,500 people and you're doing it for the first time in such an expansive way. It's pretty wild. So, I think for me it's trying to keep it real, and yet so everybody can see what's happening. And there's just a different point of view when someone has a camera on you, so when you've got all those people, it's like, how do you let them know what's going on inside. Luckily, being from the stage, there is a way you can naturally translate that so people can see what you're feeling and thinking and how things are affecting you.
How long have you been in the role?
Oh, not that long. We've done one month of performances.
Have you been to San Francisco before?
I've only been when we were on the road with Mamma Mia. I'm thinking we were in San Jose and came down for the day and loved it, but never really had an opportunity to explore. So this is so thrilling for me to be able to be there for two weeks and really get a sense of the city and the flavor. You just hear such great things about it and there's so many iconic places in San Francisco that are just burned into your memory, and you're like, "I want to see that in person, I want to ride the trolley car. I want to see those hills that have been portrayed in so many movies and TV shows." I'm really excited.
I imagine you've watched quite a few episodes of I Love Lucy by now. Do you have any favorite episode or line? You can't have I Love Lucy without the famous, "You have some 'splainin to do."
Exactly. Well, one of the episodes I don't remember seeing before was with a washing machine, where they go back and forth between who owns it and it gets thrown off the balcony. The wonderful thing about their comedy is that they go for real emotions and feelings, and so there's jealousy, there's a sense of possessiveness, ownership, but there's a real true and genuine love they have for each other. But they're not afraid to get mad at each other. And it's just universal. The time when they remodel Ethel and Fred's apartment and all kinds of mayhem happens, including feathers that get stuck on wall. And really, when you're watching it, you're like, "Oh no, don't let that happen." Everything I've watched so far I've just enjoyed. I look forward to it. It really makes me laugh.
You mentioned the sets. I've been to a few sitcom tapings, myself, and the sets are spread out so that you can't see everything. I imagine that won't be a problem with sets adapted for the stage, but how does the scenic design work for this production?
The set is divided in half. So you just have two sets. I think that was also how they chose the two episodes we perform, because they wanted to make sure that there weren't too many sets. It has to do with the magic of showbiz, what you're focusing on at what time during the episode, and I think it works quite well. There's music involved. We have a band. And that adds something to the evening, too.
As we wrap up our interview, is there anything else you want to say to encourage BroadwayWorld's readers to see the show?
The rest of the cast is delicious and wonderful. It's a show that goes across the board with ages. The people who remember watching it back in the 50's and the people that are in between because Lucy has never gone off the air, so it's been a source of entertainment ever since the 1950s. It's something that's still very much alive in American culture. You'll see Lucy, Ethel, Fred and Ricki. There's wonderful music, dancing. You'll relate to the four. It's a lovely evening out. And it's one where you could feel safe bring neighbors to it, or clients, relatives or kids. I think it's like if Lucy came on television, you say, "Hey, let me sit down and enjoy watching this." It has that kind of appeal.
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