Stephen Sondheim is the Shakespeare of musical theatre, Joe Calarco told me. To extend the comparison, does that make the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy Sondheim’s Lear?
Certainly the power and appeal of that part helps to explain why Gypsy has had more revivals on Broadway than any other musical from the later half of the 20th Century that I can think of. Is there another role that has won three actors a Tony award? I can’t think of one. (And Ethel Merman would likely have won in any year in which The Sound of Music hadn’t also opened.)
In fact, by now, the musical, its songs, and its central character have eclipsed the renown of the woman on whose experiences the musical is based. More people could, I bet, recognize the song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” perhaps even the phrase “Sing out, Louise!,” than the name Gypsy Rose Lee. She was the burlesque entertainer who leveraged a striptease act to become pretty much a household name in the middle of the 20th Century.
The appeal of that plum role is undeniable. The other part of the lasting appeal of Gypsy, which Calarco is directing for Signature Theatre, is the quality of the writing. I remember reading an article, years ago, in which several prominent playwrights were asked to list their three favorite plays. Wendy Wasserstein answered and I don’t remember her first two choices (I tried to verify my memory with an unsuccessful Google search), but her third choice was “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. Not Gypsy itself, but that song.
Sondheim, as his many devotees will know, wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, not the music. The music was by Jule Styne (whose string of memorable scores also includes Subways Are for Sleeping, Funny Girl, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Bells are Ringing, and Fosse). But that song is striking. It’s complex musically, not the typical Tin Pan Alley-type pop song.
The lyrics have Mama Rose kind of losing it. “Rose’s Turn” is the “11 o’clock number” to end them all; the “To Be or Not To Be” of musical theatre. Most musical numbers “stop the show” in the sense that the audience applauds while the actors wait before continuing; I can’t think of another instance, in 40 plus years of theatre-going, when I have seen a standing ovation occur before the end of the show. I did, at a previous Gypsy (more about this later).
It is the strength of the writing that Calarco stressed during a conversation in the Signature lobby as the audience for Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill drifted into a matinee. Calarco deemed it the “best book of a musical,” before reeling that in a bit and saying that his choice for that distinction would be between Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. It’s “really emotionally and psychologically complex”; there is a “brutality” and Arthur Laurents, the writer of the book, “doesn’t pull the punches.”
Calarco continued that, unlike so many classic musicals, the spoken text is “significant.” He pointed out that there are only four songs in the second act of the show. It’s not a musical that just goes from “song to song.” No one suddenly bursts into song unless the moment truly calls for it, “unless they have to.” It’s like a “play with music.”
Calarco, best known as the adaptor/director of Shakespeare’s R&J, won Helen Hayes awards for directing Urinetown and Side Show at Signature, so he knows musicals. He told me about the first read of Gypsy. When they got to the songs, the cast read the lyrics, and Calarco observed that he’d never had an experience before when the lyrics read “like text, like prose. It’s a great piece of writing; the best.”
When your material is this good, Calarco said, it “makes it easier.” What is needed to make it successful, “it’s there,” in the script. When he tackles the classics, Calarco will “always try to look at it as if it had never been done before.” In this case, “it’s not like, oh my god, we have to re-invigorate” the play; it still seems “so fresh,” however frequently revived it has been.
The “why now” question is asked. Calarco didn’t try to convince me that Gypsy speaks particularly to the era of Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring. Rather, he emphasized not only the quality of the writing, but also the timelessness of the themes. The “disease of our culture” is the “need for success.” What makes the story timeless is a depiction of “what the American Dream does to people.” After all, for every winner of a TV talent contest, there are thousands whose oft-stoked dreams have not been realized. Many of them have as much reason to hope for that kind of success as Mama Rose’s younger daughter…or Mama herself, who sings, “With what I’ve been holding down inside of me…if I ever let it out…” Maybe the Sondheim comparison in this case is less to Shakespeare than to Arthur Miller?
If the “why now” question is answered with reference to remarkable material and timeless themes, there is a third answer: “The main reason to do it now is to do it with Sherri.” Sherri is Sherri L. Edelen, a familiar face to Signature audiences and audiences around the region. Calarco dates their I-want-to-do-this-with-you chats as far back as 2000, when Edelen played a lead for Calarco in (and won a Helen Hayes award for) Signature’s Side Show. That’s the show, you will remember, about the conjoined twins who worked in vaudeville. Describing the qualities Edelen will bring to the role, Calarco mentions her “access to a well of emotion” and the fact that she will approach the role “as an actress first.” (Sometimes, talented singers can speak a different language than theatre people. I once heard of an opera singer who responded to a director’s hour-long exploration of a character’s psychology by saying, “Just tell me where to put my feet.”)
Gypsy, by the way, also has a record of sorts in Signature history. Over its 20 plus years, Signature has double-dipped into the Sondheim oeuvre (I can remember more than one production of Company, Assassins, Sweeney Todd), but Gypsy is the only “lyrics only” Sondheim show that’s gotten a second look. In fact, it’s the only one that’s gotten a first look. The other two musicals for which Sondheim only wrote lyrics are West Side Story and the less fondly remembered Do I Hear a Waltz?, neither yet produced at Signature.
Edelen will remember that earlier production of Gypsy. She was in it, as Tessa Tura, one of the three strippers who sing the show-stopper “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” The Mama Rose in that production was Signature stalwart (and its original Managing Director) Donna Migliaccio, who, in the current iteration, is playing one of the other “Gimmick” strippers, Mazeppa. “It’s a very lonely role,” Migliaccio e-mailed Edelen in reference to Mama, “she’s the only one who believes in her dreams.” Migliaccio has been a source of support, Edelen told me, before using that as an example of DC having a “very supportive theatre community.”
Edelen seconded Calarco’s praise of the material (“I love Gypsy…great book…fantastic score…one of my top five”) and elaborated on their approach. She didn’t want to do the “typical” take on the fiercest stage mother in history. She’s “not interested” in a “she’s a monster” approach, and she makes a distinction between her tack and the actors (and she mentions Merman and Patti LuPone) who have stamped the role with their strong, indelible personas. She and Calarco began from a “more psychological standpoint.
In contextualizing Mama’s drive, Edelen stressed the line “I’m used to people walking out on me.” Mama has had to fill “both [parental] roles,” she’s “living in a man’s world.” This brought to my mind Barbra Streisand, who for years has been reported to be developing a new film version of Gypsy. (The first film, with Rosalind Russell lip-synching to Lisa Kirk, is no-one’s favorite film of a Broadway hit.) When a woman in show business behaves like a man, Streisand’s persuasive lament goes, she’s described as a bitch.
Edelen and Calarco both stressed Mama’s devotion to her children. “It’s all about love,” said Calarco. Edelen used the phrase “approach with love” as she discussed Mama’s relationships with her family. Calarco allowed as how Mama does not demonstrate “what we think of as a healthy way to raise children.” But he looks at any script presuming that what motivates the characters is often “what they think of as love,” even in a case like this when the love can feel “suffocating.”
Calarco also spoke about the relationship between the two sisters. As you remember, Louise (who will eventually become Gypsy Rose Lee) begins the play as second fiddle to Baby June, the daughter who has the talent, the one Mama is cultivating to be a star. He quoted the line “Do you ever feel like you didn’t have a sister?”, remarking that that is a “big thing to say.” Having seen other productions of Gypsy, he nevertheless said that he’d “never heard that line” before working on it. In real life, Baby June became the actress June Havoc, who, like Gypsy Rose Lee, wrote about her life and youth, although, according to Calarco, you “can’t believe the memoirs”; the sisters were “writing their own reality, painting the story the way they wanted to be seen.”
Mama would not be with a “weak man,” Edelen said, when I asked her about the casting of Herbie, Mama’s boyfriend. Mitchell Hébert, a Helen Hayes award winner for After the Fall at Theater J, is someone I’ve seen a lot in plays like Clybourne Park and Kvetch at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, but isn’t someone I associate with musical comedy. Edelen did The Diary of Anne Frank with him at Round House Theatre, called him “a great actor” during our interview, and described his approach as “masculine” and “romantic” in a role that can sometimes come off as a bit of a milquetoast. The opportunity to see what Hébert does with Herbie adds another level of interest to the production.
Those of us, um, of a certain age not only remember Signature at the warehouse on Four Mile Run, we go back even further. We remember the thrill of seeing Sweeney Todd up close and personal at Gunston Theatre Two. It’s always been part of the appeal of Signature that it gives you the opportunity to see big musicals in an intimate space. Thankfully, the new Shirlington digs seat only 300 and that intimacy will inform this new Gypsy.
Calarco, as he talked about “exploring the intimacy” in this story about “a small family,” mentioned that the play “doesn’t repeat a location once” and spoke about the challenge this presents for set designer James Kronzer working in a smaller room than is usual for the play. Kronzer’s task will be to make the set “very mobile” and “actor-driven” as to how it moves. In response to a question about vaudeville and whether or not he felt an affinity for that world, Calarco spoke about how it has affected the design (fading posters will be a key element) and how part of the play’s dynamic is its portrait of people trying to “survive in something that’s dying” and the consequent need to have “hope in something that is hopeless.”
Of course, you never forget your first time. Mine was with Angela Lansbury. In 1973, she had starred in the (quite delayed) London premiere of the 1959 show. In 1974, on her way to opening that production as the first revival on Broadway, she took it to the Kennedy Center, where I saw her make her first entrance down the (if memory serves) audience right aisle, novel enough at the time to impress at least one high school kid. I saw it again, after she had won a Tony. (Tyne Daly and LuPone are the other two Tony’d Mama Roses; Merman and Bernadette Peters are the two Mamas who didn’t win Tonys.) Who remembers Shady Grove Music Fair? That’s where I saw her again when the show played on one of those “bus and truck” tours. Lansbury hadn’t yet gained her TV fame, but she was still a big stage star and had multiple Oscar nominations for her film work, so it’s funny to think of her playing for a week, in the round, with flimsy (if any) scenery, right after a Tony win. But that’s the way they did it in those days. And it was at Shady Grove, by the way, not the Kennedy Center, where the audience stood after “Rose’s Turn.”
From the overture (“best ever,” said Edelen), when the brass starts vamping the stripper music (there will be 14 in the Signature pit band), Gypsy is a musical that’s a clear favorite with audiences. Merman, Lansbury, Daly, Peters, LuPone on Broadway; Betty Buckley, Tovah Feldshuh and others around the country; Migliaccio and now Edelen at Signature; Mama Rose is a role that attracts actors who are ready for a singular challenge.
“Someone tell me, when is it my turn?” asks Mama Rose in “Rose’s Turn.” It’s Sherri L. Edelen and Joe Calarco’s turn in Shirlington through January 26.
Holiday helps from cast members of Gypsy:
That’s Donna Migliaccio as Mazeppa, Tracy Lynn Olivera as Electra and Sandy Bainum as Tessie Tura.