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by Michael Portantiere

The Gypsy Cult


    Patti LuPone in GYPSY; photo by Joan MarcusWhen showbiz professionals are asked to name their favorite musicals, Gypsy almost always appears among the top ten, the top five, or even the top three. If you're lucky enough to score a ticket for the Encores! Summer Stars production of the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents classic at City Center, starring Patti LuPone as Rose, Boyd Gaines as Herbie, and Laura Benanti as Louise/Gypsy, you're likely to notice any number of theater folk cheering wildly along with the rest of the audience. I asked several notables -- actors, composers, lyricists, journalists, publicists, et al. -- to tell me exactly why they hold the show in such high esteem, and here's what they had to say.


    CHARLES BUSCH (writer/performer, The Lady in Question, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, etc.): "On the one hand, Gypsy is a marvelous, nostalgic look at the changes in popular entertainment from vaudeville to burlesque. But it also hits you on an emotional level because it's about parents and their children -- how parents have to let go, how children need to break away and live their own lives. It shows how a parent can be both nurturing and damaging at the same time. While people are enjoying this big, brassy entertainment, it's hitting them with some difficult truths. I love it when something is fun entertainment but also has a real emotional foundation."

    BARBARA COOK (star of such Broadway shows as Candide, The Music Man, and She Loves Me): "It's been fascinating, through the years, to see how different actors and directors have approached the show -- and it holds up continually. I saw Merman do it several times, because I knew Julianne Marie, who replaced Sandra Church as Gypsy. Even though Rose has been played extraordinarily well by other people since Merman, she had kind of a natural take-over approach that nobody else has had since. One of the most dreadful things Hollywood ever did to us was to give Rosalind Russell that role, which only happened because her husband bought the film rights. Can you imagine how Merman must have felt? It was terrible! I really enjoyed seeing the show again at City Center. It's such a great, great piece. And that overture -- good Lord!"

    JULIE HALSTON (who played Miss Cratchitt and Electra in the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy): "One of the greatest things about Gypsy is that it strips away the glamor of show business. People in this business have to give up a lot to get anywhere -- and that's the killer. Gypsy is also about the pain of not making it, which is something that a lot of show people don't want to face. Not everyone is going to become a star, even if they have the talent; Rose had the stuff, but she never made it. Then there's the whole mother/daughter thing and the women-in-show-business thing. It's still a big deal for a woman to take control of her life and be the force behind her career. Rose had to put food on the table. She could have gotten a job in a department store, but she went into show business because she was star struck. I think we're all star-struck when we start out; it's only later that we become jaded bitches and whores! We also have to remember that this show was done in the '50s. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are so great and so original, especially for that time; it's as if he was putting dialogue into song. Plus the music is so great, and the orchestrations are so well done. The score is revolutionary. I love the show so much that I will go see a production at a grammar school in Peoria, Illinois if I have to -- and if I do see a production there, I'll still cheer and cry. That's how great the material is."

    MARK HARTMAN (associate conductor, Avenue Q): "For sure, theater people are invested in shows about the theater, but the main reason everyone loves Gypsy is that it's so brilliantly written and it gives such great opportunities to actors. It's interesting that, to a large segment of society, Gypsy Rose Lee is much more a character in Gypsy than a real-life person. As for Rose, this sort of mythos about the role has evolved. When we hear a great young belter, we say, 'Boy, when she's 50, she's going to make a great Mama Rose!' We don't say, 'She's going to make a great Mrs. Lovett!' I think everyone's hoping for the perfect Rose: one with the voice of Merman, the acting of Tyne Daly, the desperation of Bette Midler, the ability to sell the ballads the way Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury did. I think Patti LuPone comes exceedingly close to being perfect in the part."

    JERRY HERMAN (composer-lyricist of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles, etc.): "Gypsy is one of my all-time favorite musicals, and to go into all the reasons why would not fit into your column. I just have to say, I don't know of any other show that so skillfully combines a truly absorbing and wonderfully crafted book with a thrilling score that, to me, defines what a great musical theater score should be -- great melody after great melody, and brilliant lyric after brilliant lyric. When all that is put together against a show business background, we've really not had anything to compare with it. Everything works in Gypsy."

    GEORGE S. IRVING (veteran Broadway actor whose late wife, Maria Karnilova played Tessie Tura in the original Broadway production of Gypsy): "I remember a party at The Players Club many years ago, where I ran into Jule Styne. We talked about the show, and I called it 'the faultless musical.' He looked up from his couch and, very pleased, agreed with me. It certainly is a masterpiece. Maria didn't quite understand the script when they handed it to her; she had never heard such pejorative words in her life, words like 'tough titty.' She was such an innocent in that respect. I remember Jerry Robbins laughing all through her audition, because she had no idea what she was reading. But that's what he was looking for; he didn't like to cast right on the nose. Gypsy has that absolutely necessary quality of being a well-made play. It's so satisfying, and it was thrilling to hear those numbers again at City Center. The show has one of the great overtures of all time -- right up there with William Tell."

    TOM JONES (lyricist of The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade, etc.): "Aside from the fact that it's all very skillful, I think Gypsy is right on the cusp of two sensibilities. Because of Jule Styne particularly, it has the showbiz thing -- and also because of Jerome Robbins. He was of the school that, no matter how serious things get, you always have to have that showbiz pizazz as well. Then you have the contribution of Sondheim, who represents the future of musical theater. In Gypsy, there's a darker thing happening than happens in previous musicals, so the show has a very modern relevance to us in our time of disenchantment. You have a very strong character who wants something very badly; she's drawn to the lights, she believes in the magic of show business. Sadly, she never becomes disillusioned of that belief, but the authors do. They see a kind of emptiness in those lights."

    MICHAEL JOHN LaCHIUSA (composer-lyricist of The Wild Party, See What I Wanna See, etc.): "You can't beat that brilliant score, and there's not one wasted word in the libretto, not one wasted beat of drama. Because of Jerome Robbins' contribution to the piece, it emphasizes that what's most important in a musical is the transitions from beat to beat. Of course, you need to have good songs; but it's what happens between the songs, how you get from one to the next, that really makes a great musical. Gypsy does that better than any other show."

    KEVIN McANARNEY (theatrical press agent): "I think it's one of the greatest musicals ever written, and anytime anybody has an opportunity to see it -- especially with a full orchestra -- they should jump at it. Theater people love it partly because it's about show business, but mostly because of the score. Gypsy and Follies are both great show business musicals and both have great scores, but the book for Gypsy is much better. All of the songs are wonderful, and many people in the industry think Gypsy has the best overture in Broadway history."

    ERIC MILLEGAN (actor whose credits include Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, Harold and Maude at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and the hit TV series Bones): "I fell in love with the show when I was about 13 and I did it at the University of Oregon. I was one of the kids who did 'Extra, Extra.' The experience resonates with me on a deep level because I had a girlfriend at the time, and we would sit in the back of the theater holding hands and listening to 'You'll Never Get Away From Me.' I also love 'Little Lamb'; I used to sing that with my sister when we were kids. Another reason I love Gypsy is that it's fun to watch stories about other people trying to make it in show business. I auditioned for Tulsa in the Bernadette Peters revival, and I REALLY wanted it, but I didn't get it."

    FRANK RICH (op-ed columnist and former chief theater critic, The New York Times): "I've been thinking a lot about Gypsy this week, since I saw it at City Center, and I went back and looked at a review that I read as a child: Kenneth Tynan's review of the original production in The New Yorker. He begins by talking about how brilliantly constructed the show is; I think he compares it to the engine of a Rolls Royce. You have that brilliant book by Arthur Laurents, then you throw in those phenomenal songs and the opportunities for great performances, along with the Robbins choreography that survives from production to production. Put it all together and you have a truly great musical. That said, you could make the same case for other shows of the period -- Guys and Dolls, for example. But Gypsy, at its heart, has something that allows it to transcend the competition, and also to transcend the fact that most people in the audience don't know what vaudeville was or what burlesque was. It's incredibly powerful because it's about a relationship between a parent and her children over time; it goes enough into Gypsy's adulthood that you get to that point in the relationship where the child starts to become the parent. That's something I didn't appreciate when I was younger, and it's why the show continues to be fresh as people see it over and over again. A few years ago, my wife and I had a startling experience with Gypsy; we've served as mentors in the Open Doors program for a number of years, and we took a group of inner-city high school kids to see the Bernadette Peters production. They loved it, and they really got it. We had teenage girls in the group sobbing as they used the characters of Gypsy and Rose to explore their relationship with parents who favored one sibling over another. The show has an emotional core that doesn't date. It's really a remarkable piece, and my awe of it has only increased."

    FRANK "FRAVER" VERLIZZO (poster art designer, Eliran Murphy Group): "I saw Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters in Gypsy, and of course I've seen the movie with Rosalind Russell and the TV movie with Bette Midler, but I don't count those. I was bowled over by the City Center production; it's pretty fabulous. The thing that struck me most about it was how strong the supporting cast is -- much stronger than any other I've seen. Boyd Gaines is remarkable, and Laura Benanti is great. It's one of those cases where the chemistry of the entire show is just right. The minute the overture started -- and, as you know, that is THE best overture in Broadway history -- the audience was electrified. People are rabid over Patti LuPone, and everybody went berserk when she made her entrance through the house. You feel, 'This production is only here for three weeks. How could anyone miss it?' One thing, though: At intermission, the line for the men's room is horrific, so you shouldn't drink for about three hours before you get to the theater."

    Published on Thursday, July 19, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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