Many musical theatre scholars would place Gypsy in the top echelon of musicals from that period referred to as Broadway’s “Golden Age.” Boasting a superior score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, a solid libretto by Arthur Laurents, seamless staging and choreography by Jerome Robbins, and a powerhouse performance by the legendary Ethel Merman, the original 1959 production ran for 702 performances. Loosely based on the memoirs of celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the musical is both intimate and panoramic, charting the familial relationships of Lee, her sister June Havoc, and their archetypal stage-mother Rose against the backdrop of the popular theatrical entertainments of vaudeville and burlesque.
Like West Side Story, another innovative piece from the same period created by many of the same artists, Gypsy’s staying power is undeniable: in addition to film and television adaptations, Broadway has seen no less than four revivals. Unlike the ensemble-centric West Side, whose arguable “star” was the groundbreaking Robbins staging and choreography, Gypsy’s appeal stems greatly from its central figure of Rose, a role that offers a female performer the opportunity to inhabit a character of bravura musical and dramatic complexity. It is not surprising that Rose has attracted such strong singing actors as Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and, most recently, Patti LuPone. While LuPone’s performance, fittingly, dominated the proceedings, this revival focused equally on Rose’s thwarted ambitions and the impact of those ambitions on her loved ones. This emphasis on the family unit resulted in a Gypsy that played more as a cohesive piece of musical theatre than a musical-comedy star vehicle.
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From the perspective of voice and grit, LuPone, possessed of a brassy belt and outsized, earthy personality, distinguished herself as a natural successor to Merman—a performer famous for her clarion voice, but whose acting often was thought to eschew subtlety for verve. However, LuPone’s singular achievement lay in her ability to plumb equally the role’s musical and dramatic depths. LuPone performed Rose’s musical numbers superbly, delivering the requisite brass, as in her laser-intense reading of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” but also lending surprisingly vulnerable shadings to “Small World,” the song that kicks off her ill-fated romance with Herbie, the quiet salesman who courts her. Aside from the tendency to rush breathlessly through some of the early book scenes, LuPone crafted a Rose riddled with contradictions: fiercely ambitious and protective of her daughters though blind to their needs and her own self-absorption; single-minded in her determination to succeed in show business, yet almost pathologically unwilling to quit when faced with its harsh realities.
This was a Rose appropriate to our pop-psychology age, repressing regrets or pangs of self-awareness until her facade crumbled and true feelings erupted in the therapeutic “Rose’s Turn.” In this stream-of-consciousness, free-form performance that recapitulates the show’s score and Rose’s life, LuPone demonstrated her best abilities as a singing actor. Alternately prowling, strutting, and thrashing around the nearly bare stage, she literally and figuratively threw herself into the number, not so much singing it as wrenching it into existence. [End Page 138]
To dwell solely on LuPone’s performance, however, would slight the importance of this revival, because Arthur Laurents, who previously directed the Lansbury and Daly productions, succeeded in refining his vision of Gypsy, offering his most evenly balanced, ensemble-oriented production to date. While the revival in no way felt like a museum piece, Laurents wisely retained both the original orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler and the Robbins choreography. Placed onstage behind the performers, the orchestra essentially functioned as another character, treating the audiences to the raunchy aural bumps and grinds in the score. While less flashy than his work for West Side Story, Robbins’s dances remain beautifully integrated with Gypsy’s score and libretto, revealing character and the passage of time (as the...