A Guide to Knowing Your Gypsy's

The Internet is abounding with the news that Barbara Streisand is in negotiations to produce and star in a new film adaptation of Gypsy: A Musical Fable (though that subtitle has all but disappeared from the lexicon. The musical features music from Jule Styne, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and book from Alfred Laurents. It is one of the most oft-revived shows on Broadway, including two critically acclaimed revivals in the last ten years. The show is loosely based on the memoirs of one Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous burlesque performer who chose to write about her overbearing stage mother Rose Havock. Momma Rose, as she's popularly called, pushed her two daughters Rose and Ellen (stage name June) to be vaudeville stars at any cost. Ellen became Baby June and, as a child, was far more successful than her sister Rose. Rose became Gypsy Rose Lee to stake out her own claim of fame and success that child star Baby June could never have. Momma Rose wanted perfection and when she couldn't get it the way she wanted from her grown children, she vowed to achieve it on her own.

With so many talented women taking on the role of Rose in the musical Gypsy it's hard to keep track. Hopefully this guide (with audio/visual aids) will be of some assistance.

The role of Momma/Rose/Madame Rose (but never officially Momma Rose in the play) was written for Broadway belter Ethel Merman. She originated the role in the 1959 Broadway production and brought her signature belt to the role. The production was nominated for eight Tony awards and lost every single one of them. The show had the misfortune of opening in the same season as the much more user-friendly The Sound of Music, though that didn't stop Fiorello! from tying for Best Musical.

Here's audio of Ethel Merman's final night as Momma in the original Broadway production.

As was vogue at the time, Ethel Merman was yet another Broadway performer passed over when her starring vehicle was transferred to the silver screen. Rosalind Russell got to debut the role for most of America. While Russell's acting was just fine, her vocals were not strong enough on this material. She was dubbed (the completion of the "why use the actor the part was written for when we can dub another actor not good enough to sing the same part?" arc of big Hollywood musicals at the time). Russell has done wonderful work in musicals, in particular Wonderful Town, but Gypsy is a deceptively difficult show. Here's her original audio singing "Some People."

There were stories that these unreleased until 2005 original recordings of Russell's voice were played by Merman at dinner parties to entertain her guests because of how awful they are. She's not bad; the music was beyond her tonal range. Russell was jazz and character; Momma Rose was Broadway belting.

The original London production in 1973 may have seen Angela Lansbury take the stage as Momma, but she was a replacement for Elaine Stritch. Ticket sales weren't strong enough to mount the production on the West End, so Lansbury was called in and did wonderful work in the production. It transferred to Broadway in 1974, earning a Tony Award for Lansbury. Someone recently posted a very grainy tape of Angela Lansbury performing "Some People," "Wherever We Go," and "Rose's Turn" in the revival. It's sensational. She has a very distinctive voice--it sounds so emotional and real. I always think she sounds like she's talking through the music, but her vocal technique is strong enough to make everything sound so clear.

Gypsy was revived again in 1989, this time starring Tyne Daly. She, too, won the Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical; the production also won Best Revival. Her performance, what I've seen and heard of it, is a very exaggerated and mannered take on the role. It's a valid interpretation of the character. Rose is a control freak, willing to do anything to make sure she gets her way. Every step, every word, every breath would be planned. Here's her "Rose's Turn," which can cause gigantic arguments among theater fans. Love it or hate it, it's powerful. What she lacks in vulnerability, she makes up for with startling, disturbing perfectionism.

1993 saw the release of the second film version of Gypsy, this time a TV-vehicle for Bette Middler. She won the Golden Globe for TV-movie performance. The problem with any film version of Gypsy is that it is a show so embedded in the world of stagecraft, it's hard to make it work any other way. It's a show about a woman pushing her children to be Vaudeville stars. There is a ton of music that tells the story in that style. If songs are cut, the show suffers. However, there is not enough story to sustain a 2+ hour film to fit in all the music uncut. The TV movie comes close, but it just falls flat at times. It is not, however, Bette Middler's fault. Just have a look at her "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

In 2003, Broadway saw its third revival of the show, this time starring Bernadette Peters. It marks the first time that writer Arthur Laurents did not direct the production. It also marks the first time a fantastic dancer starred as Momma. It's an incredibly physical performance, where Peters holds back her full abilities every time Momma doubts herself. There was so much nuance brought out by having such a great mover on the stage I'm still surprised she lost the Tony Award. I know how it happened, too (when else was the 5'2" overweight girl from Queens going to be nominated again for strong work?), but it doesn't take the sting out of it. This is Peters performing "Rose's Turn" with a sinus infection so bad, the producers of the Tony Awards encouraged her not to go on.

If that was sick Bernadette Peters, imagine what the performance was like when she could breathe.

The latest revival came in time for the 2008 Tony Awards. It marked the first time that a Poppa (Boyd Gaines) and a Rose (Laura Benanti) won Tony Awards. Oh, and then there was Patti Lupone as Momma, winning her first Tony since her turn in Evita twenty-plus years before. Arthur Laurents was back as director and the whole production felt right again. Lupone may not have the clearest diction of the Momma's, but she made up for it (as always) by being such an emotional performer. Here she is performing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" at the Tony Awards.

Who am I kidding? Her best moment was yelling at that audience member during one of the final performances.

Just kidding, Patti. That was genuinely badass and worthy of acclaim. If only more performers would stand up to rude audiences like you.

Now, to clarify one big thing I keep reading. Barbara Streisand will not be playing striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. This is one of the few character-named musicals where the title character is not the lead. Barbara will be playing (if she chooses to) the ultimate stage mother Rose Havock, nee Momma, near Rose, nee Madame Rose. While she is older for the role, she doesn't really look old for the role. With the right make-up and lighting for the first act action, she'll be fine. More than fine. She'll be great. She'll be swell, even.

Maybe this will be the film to get the show right.

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