Thursday, April 3, 2008

Some Gypsy history

I am really looking forward to seeing Patti LuPone tonight in Gypsy. I love the music and the story.

I’ve been reading Brian Kellow’s fabulous biography Ethel Merman: A Life, which offers fascinating information about the show and its original star. The role of Mama Rose was Ethel’s “most unusual and substantial project,” Kellow writes, explaining that although she had had a successful Broadway career for decades, “she had finally tired of playing blowsy, diamond-in-the-rough musical-comedy parts, and she was eager to show that she could do something of a serious nature.”

Kellow’s book is a must-read for anyone planning to see the current revival -- as well as for any lover of Ethel Mermin, of course. It’s interesting to learn that Jerome Robbins, Ethel’s choice to direct and choreography Gypsy, had conceived of it as “a kind of colorful, affectionate tribute to the long-gone world of burlesque, and had even signed up a string of novelty and animal acts.” Arthur Laurents, who was writing the book for the show, had other ideas. To him the truly compelling story was not so much that of the title character, based loosely on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, as it was of her mother, “a willful, resourceful woman who would stop at nothing to see that her two young daughters met with show-business success.”

Luckily, Laurents’ instincts were dead-on. “Of all Broadway musical books, Gypsy’s may well be the best crafted, the leanest, the sharpest, the funniest, the most disturbing and revealing,” Kellow says. “Much of its swift pace and strong point of view no doubt stem from the fact that Laurents knew exactly where he was going along the way, because he had the sense to write the ending first. What he devised was quite unlike any other musical finale.”

Sick to death of her mother’s lifelong domination, Gypsy (Louise) tells Rose to leave her alone and go live her own life. “Rose’s armour begins to melt: for the first time, she examines her own youthful dreams of fame and applause and the life she had spent enslaved to her own desperate, gnawing need to be noticed,” Kellow writes. “It would be a scene and, eventually, a song, that would serve as both emotional breakdown and moment of truth, giving Gypsy the final piece of weight that Laurents had sensed the show needed.”

The trick was to find the right composer to do justice to the story. Irving Berlin was approached and refused because he found the show too dark and disturbing. Cole Porter was ill and dejected, having recently suffered the amputation of his leg following a riding accident. Laurents wanted Stephen Sondheim. Ethel would agree to having the young writer only for the lyrics; she wanted someone more tried and true for the composer, so the job went to Jule Styne, who was successful, but for romantic songs, not dark stories like Gypsy. Sondheim, angry and disappointed not to be considered as composer and lyricist, was ready to refuse, but his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, prevailed on him and Sondheim signed on as lyricist. As it happened, this creative team worked so well together they finished the entire book and score in “an astonishing four months.”

One of the reasons Ethel was against Sondheim was because she didn’t think he would know how to write for her voice; Styne thought of her voice as a trumpet, “and he wrote for it as he would be an instrument. What he came up with was an exhilarating score that felt as if it had been shot from a cannon.” Ethel loved the songs and wept when she first heard them. It would be the most taxing, demanding score she would ever sing, Kellow says.

“Rose’s Turn,” the closing song that is Rose’s big moment of self-revelation, was more “operatic scena than the standard eleven-o’clock number.” “All her life Rose has demanded that people pay attention to her. Now, all alone on the empty stage where Gypsy is a headliner, she realizes that no one is left to listen.”

Rose starts with her usual brash self-confidence, but midway through begins to crumble, “sputtering out, ‘Mmmmm-mmm-Mama,’ then starting up again, trying to regain her momentum before breaking down entirely as she at last stops moving full speed ahead and takes stock of what’s left of her life” -- scrapbooks full of her in the background and daughters and boyfriend gone. “It would be the most emotionally naked moment that the Broadway musical had yet experienced; Handel could not have written a more searing-rage aria.” Sondheim had been inspired by seeing Jessica Tandy’s mental disintegration as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. “By having Rose stammer ‘Mmmmm-mmm-Mama’ -- the thought of finally letting go of Louise is so terrifying that she can barely speak of it -- Sondheim was providing her with a Blanche-like collapse.”

These are just some of the marvelous behind-the-scenes gems Kellow shares. It’s interesting to know that Sondheim’s spark of creative genius came from watching Blanche’s breakdown. The intensity of this moment was lost in the most recent Broadway Gypsy revival. The normally powerful Bernadette Peters never really seemed powerful enough in the first place to carry off this final scene. I have absolute, complete confidence that Patti LuPone will make Ethel proud.

Stay tuned for my review!

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