Whether you’re seeing Gypsy for the first (or fourth or fifth) time, you’ll want to catch Arthur Laurents’ revival starring Patti LuPone at the St. James Theatre. For one thing, Gypsy is among the very best musicals ever written, and we assume that by now the 90-year-old Mr. Laurents—who created the masterly book in 1959, and is directing the show for the third time—knows what he’s doing.
He’s like a museum keeper with the only set of keys. When Sam Mendes directed the revisionist Gypsy with Bernadette Peters on Broadway five years ago, traditionalists took offense (including, reportedly, Mr. Laurents). Don’t mess with Mama Rose! (Or else.) Gypsy, the musical for people who hate their mothers, arouses intense feelings.
Even among Ms. LuPone’s ardent fans—known as “LuPonistas”—responses to her galvanizing performance as Rose vary wildly. Let me burn my bridges at the start and declare that it takes a diva to play a diva and that Ms. LuPone is the most authentic Rose we’re likely to see.
Ethel Merman—“Saint Ethel” to you—created the role of the monstrous showbiz “pioneer woman without a frontier” and made it legend. But she was no great shakes as an actress. Angela Lansbury made a memorable Rose in 1974 because she’s a great actress who can sing. Ideally, Gypsy needs a belter-actress, and though I have a few qualms about Ms. LuPone, she fits the bill perfectly.
MR. LAURENTS STICKS closely to tradition—replicating much of Jerome Robbins’ original direction and choreography. The creators of Gypsy—Mr. Laurents, the genius Robbins and the prodigy Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics—had just invented West Side Story (with music by Leonard Bernstein). Mr. Sondheim badly wanted to compose the score for Gypsy, but he was thought too inexperienced, and so Jule Styne, the Broadway legend of the old school (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Funny Girl) wrote the ageless music.
Michael Bennett (whose A Chorus Line continued Gypsy’s love affair with showbiz 15 years later) once told me that his idea of bliss at the theater was to sit back in his seat and hear the opening chords to Gypsy’s overture. (Those were the days when there were overtures; A Chorus Line was the first musical not to have one). The Jule Styne overture is, quite simply, unbeatable—a promise of the optimistic buoyancy and romance of old Broadway to come (“Some People,” “Small World”); and jazzy low things (“You Gotta Have a Gimmick”), and iconic show-stoppers (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Rose’s Turn”).
There’s one lapse in the score—the Styne-Sondheim deliberate mistake for the shamelessly sentimental, “Little Lamb.” I say baaah humbug, shoot the lamb! Jerome Robbins actually dropped Baby Louise’s awesomely sweet ballad about little lambs, little bears and little cats from his original production for one night without telling anyone. (But they found out.) Mr. Laurents has replaced the traditional live lamb with a stuffed one. It lacks vitality.
THE UNUSUAL ONE-OFF creative partnership of Styne-Sondheim accounts for Gypsy’s emotional pull and weird appeal. What other musical sends us home with the memory of its near-deranged heroine having a nervous breakdown onstage? (“Everything’s coming up roses/ This time for me!/ For me/ For me/ For me/ For me/ For me/ For me!”) Gypsy—which premiered the same year as The Sound of Music—is rooted both in Broadway’s past and the Sondheimian future.
On the one hand, according to Mr. Sondheim, it’s “the last good” show that’s still rooted in the Rodgers and Hammerstein form (Mr. Sondheim was Hammerstein’s protégé). In that retro sense, it’s a backstage story—a love letter to showbiz and the dying days of vaudeville. And it’s a family saga that triumphs as a quintessentially American musical about the feverish pursuit of success: “I promised my girl she’d be a star and she will be!”
On the other hand, Gypsy breaks all the rules of conventional musicals. Mr. Sondheim, together with his librettist Mr. Laurents, turned its backstage saga into a full-blown psychodrama. The outcome is an uncompromisingly modern musical about clingy parents living their lives proudly and pathetically through their children.
Mama Rose—the scary archetypal showbiz mother—makes no one happy (least of all herself). She’s a sentimental tyrant who’s abandoned by everyone (including her two daughters, her three ex-husbands and her doormat of a fiancé, Herbie). At her dark, narcissistic center, the nightmarish “beloved” Mama Rose is an extraordinary creation.