Friday, August 20, 2010

Rose's Turns, Part Four

Isn't everyone tired of the Bernadette Peters platitude that her bee-stung, waiflike persona redirects her every characterization into a "kewpie doll" presence? Very early on, she did specialize in sweetheart parts, but the feisty edge she displayed as taxi-driving Hildy in the Ron Field On the Town revival has been essential Peters for a long time now.

True, Rose isn't feisty. Rose is crafty, domineering, and dangerous, able to captivate through force of personality but all the same a villain of sorts. It's not a Peters role. Nor does Peters have the voice for the heavy stuff--the big, sustained notes in particular gave out after a few seconds. Still, every artist brings something different to the part, and Peters created a most physicalized Rose, with more body language than anyone else. This Rose had a rack, hips, moves. Everyone agrees that Peters grew into the role during the run, as she learned more about how Rose really feels about the people she interacts with. Most Roses make a point of showing how little Rose listens to to anyone, automatically batting away anything she can't use. Peters listened while remaining obdurate and demanding. She could make love to you while saying no.

I said earlier that I skipped the Patti LuPone revival with the intention of catching up with it later at Lincoln Center Library. It probably sounded irresponsible, even screwy. Why would anyone stack Merman, Lansbury, Daly, and Peters in a Rose-off and not include the most recent of the Roses? Well, it is irresponsible; I wouldn't have done it in a book. But I consider the blog concept as even more personally "authorized" than book writing. I like the idea of relaxing the rules--for instance, not bothering to give the year of production for each staging. I think of that old tale of a fan visiting the hotel room of P. T. Barnum's attraction General Tom Thumb, "the smallest man in the world." As the story goes, the visitor is guided (by Berlioz!) to the wrong door, opened by the bel canto bass Luigi Lablache, a towering specimen who for some reason goes along with joke. Yes, he is the great Tom Thumb, he says. Visitor much confused. "But Tom Thumb is the smallest man in the world!" he finally gets out. "Well, in public, of course," Lablache agrees. " But when I'm at home I make myself comfortable."

I think of blogging as being at home. Nevertheless, I did catch up with the LuPone Gypsy, but I'm going to indulge my quirk and not tip her in with the other Roses. No criticism or disappointment is implied. I'm simply leaving one Rose out, to make this piece...I don't know. My own? Because the striking thing about this latest Broadway Gypsy--the third directed by Arthur Laurents--was that long stretch after Dainty June and Her Farmboys, when there are two book scenes, each capped by a number. One thinks of this as the star's rest period, and it is that. But the best writers exploit such conventions, twist them to unique use. And what they did in these two scenes is develop Louise so that, in the end, she deserves the title role. The real Gypsy had it in her contract; as long as the show was called what she was called, she didn't care much what happened in it. But, after all, Rose is the show's protagonist. It's her story, not Louise's. So in order to allow Louise to function most importantly in it--as the Second Actor, to use the terminology of the ancient Greek stage--Gypsy has to round her out, and these two scenes is where it happens. Till then, she has partnered her sister in their act, had a few lines here and there, and sung an establishing song, "Little Lamb" (which comes unusually late in the story simply because there's no point in establishing Louise musically till she's an adolescent). Then comes the dialogue scene I mentioned in Part Three. It leads into one of the cleverest numbers of its time, "If Momma Was Married," which gives us a chance to see Louise and June in an "act" (so to say), that unlike the Newsboy and Farmboy set pieces is really winning. Of course, it's not an act: it's life. But American art keeps telling us that show biz is life.

As a child, I fell in love with this musical when, playing the album, I heard the couplet that follows Louise's "Momma, please take our advice":

LOUISE: We aren't the Lunts.
JUNE: I'm not Fanny Brice.

Because I dimly knew who the Lunts and Fanny Brice were, and the references helped stabilize my growing knowledge. Musicals, back then, were by the smartest people in the nation, and their purpose, besides entertainment, was enlightenment: the creation of more smart people. The authors of musicals sampled the encyclopedia, the gossip columns, and common-sense wisdom to enrich their shows, and they sure enriched me. So, what arrests me about this number in the LuPone Gypsy is how poorly it was staged--as if bad writing needed a busy rendition as a smokescreen. June generally was characterized as angry brat in this production, but here both girls were forced to go over the top and "enact" their lyrics as if in a charades version of the number, with relentless shtick that distracted from the brilliant wordplay.

The scene that follows is Tulsa's--"Dreams of Glory" on the placards at the side of the stage--and this one really violates the musical-comedy handbook: never give a character number to a nobody. Character numbers are for leads and support. Some great shows are handbook-driven--Anything Goes, for example, or Guys and Dolls, a unique piece to be sure, but surprisingly routine in its structure and the way its score works, except for its heavy complement of recitative. ("What's playing at the Roxy?...") But most great shows fiddle with or even tear up the handbook--Show Boat and Follies, of course, but also My Fair Lady. (Everyone thinks it's a perfect, meaning "standard," show, but it's actually rather peculiar.) And Gypsy, which is one of the shows that rewrote the handbook, gets outrageously deviant in Tulsa's scene, because to that point he has been no more than one of the boys in the act and after that he is mentioned once but never seen again. He shouldn't have a scene, much less a song as obtrusive, as noticeable, as "All I Need Is the Girl."

But then, it isn't his song. It's Louise's second duet. "Momma" placed Louise's alienation from show biz; "All I Need Is the Girl" reveals her longings, as she shyly tries to engage with Tulsa, become an ally, even get into his act. The last time she expressed longings was "Little Lamb," when she was surrounded by stuffed animals. This time she's made the transition to boys, preparing for what happens to her in Act Two, when, almost taking over the narrative, she becomes a woman. At the show's end, Vogue is going to run her photograph.

Bemusingly, "All I Need Is the Girl" was as terrific in the LuPone Gypsy as "Momma" was terrible. Tony Yazbeck is the best Tulsa I've seen, and while he was too talented to represent a kid who's been knocking around at the bottom of vaudeville, that problem is built into the number. And why is Tulsa so canny in his concept for his act--the way the scene builds, his notes on the orchestration, his (own) choreography? Granted, it's a conservative rather than innovative turn--but Tulsa knows more about how to sell ware in show biz than Rose does. Is that why Louise and June never get anywhere till they break free of their mother--that is, going by the real lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc? Is Rose's flaw not her ruthlessness but simply her bad taste in art?

(Next time: Merman)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rose's Turns, Part Three

Tyne Daly was an unexpected Rose, perhaps the first to assume the role without substantial musical-theatre background. It's worth noting that Angela Lansbury's replacement when she took Gypsy to New York was Dolores Gray, one of the outstanding singers in Broadway history, with a stand-and-deliver style in acting. That is, even after Angela, Rose was regarded as fit for an acting singer, not for a singing actor. Monumental Dolores: hard and stacked in fifties style, with don't-touch-me-don't-even-look eye flashes. Her Rose would have been less a force of nature than a power plant giving off ray after ray of stupendous vocal electricity.

But that's not Tyne. What she brought to Rose was, above all, charm--and she really did seem like a mother from Seattle in the early 1920s (which is when the story begins). You felt she was truly related to the father in the second scene; few Roses pull that off. The scene is very well written, yet neither the father nor the Rose, usually, effects any sense of having lived with and tired of each other. Daly's singing was surprisingly good; she was in rough voice for the cast album, unfortunately, which greatly mars the recording's use as a historical souvenir. Nor was the production helped by Arthur Laurents' direction, another entry in his apparently endless quest to throw crazy dust on Jerome Robbins's participation in Laurents' only two unqualified successes in musical comedy, Gypsy and West Side Story. As director, Laurents will do anything to so to say "correct" their Robbinsness. His most recent renovation, in the current West Side Story revival, was having dialogue and lyrics translated into Spanish. But why stop there? Why not The Red Mill in Nederlands, a Camelot in old English, with Beowulf signing at stage left? I once asked Anne Kaufman Schneider (George S.'s daughter, very connected with the New York theatre establishment) how anyone as difficult as Laurents could have attracted a lover as handsome, built, and blond as Tom Hatcher, and Anne replied, "The blond was meaner than Arthur."

Tyne Daly's Rose was the most blatant imaginable yet very nuanced: a complete Rose, big and reckless but with such personal appeal that you could see how she got away with so much aggressive behavior. You could even see why--as the last dialogue scene reveals--Louise really loves her. Likes her, even, which is harder with mothers. A Rose's first quality is the singing, but without the personal magnetism, Gypsy is a concert. Moreover, some Roses who project the charm never quite establish rapport with Herbie, which kills one of the show's major throughlines. On the contrary, Rose needs this man--a little--and when he walks out on her we should know that she is devastated...even as she believes she can get over it because she has happened upon a life saver: Louise. Worthless as June's partner or as the star of The Act after June elopes with Tulsa, Louise will, startlingly, dazzle as a stripper. Is it simply a makeweight of the moment, or does Rose somehow know that, at last, she has created a star in the family?

Breaking the chain of Arthur Laurents' Broadway Gypsys was the Sam Mendes staging for Bernadette Peters. This was the first comprehensive Gypsy, giving us all of the work, not just the Rose of it. There was a hint of concept production in the use of a miniature proscenium to frame the onstage numbers and the collaboration of the ensemble in shifting scenery, as if the cast was demonstrating something about the American obsession with starring in show biz as a kind of spiritual ecstasy. After all, Gypsy is a backstager. Mendes' emphasis on the power of applause as an ego-soother enhanced the show as an entity, a unity, because concept productions invariably focus on the contents of the story rather than on the contents of the star. Further, the presentational air that Mendes flirted with redeemed--after almost twenty-five years--the show's original billing as "A Musical Fable."Fable...or parable? Such as"The Tale of the Hungry Woman and the Children She Destroyed Together."

Sam Mendes is something the musical doesn't get a lot of, a director with a deft touch. One instance was the way he revealed how alienated June is from her mother. Yes, it's in the script, in the only extended scene between June and Louise, preceding "If Momma Was Married":

JUNE: (Cold anger) It's a terrible act and I hate it! I've hated it from the
beginning and I hate it more now!

But Mendes let us into June's emotional relationship with the person who drives The Act--Rose, of course--by having June light a cigarette, not with cold anger but with a look of supreme disgust on her pretty face. Let's hit Gypsy with a nod to Sartre: Hell is other people, especially your mother. June wants to make it in show biz, and she even thinks she can. But first she has to cut loose of The Act and the cow and the flag and Rose.

My favorite instance of the Mendes touch was a bit of visual that some in the audience may not have noticed. Halfway through Act Two, as Rose and her troupe passed through the stage door of their Wichita booking, way upstage we saw the silhouettes of two baggypants comics. Instantly, we realized--that is, if "we" were new to the show in the first place (which, let's face it, nobody is)--that Rose has hit, as the placards near the wings state it, "The Bottom": burlesque. Of course, it requires a bit of show-biz expertise to absorb this news, because, in the something like 1928 in which this episode takes place, burlesque was lower than the bottom: it wasn't in show biz at all.

It had been. In the late nineteenth century, burlesque--in its original meaning of "spoof"--produced some of the musical's biggest hits. By the turn of the century, when Weber and Fields upheld the purity of the form, it was in decline in all other hands. Soon enough, it became a cut-rate version of entertainment, strictly for the neighborhood. And then its primary elements of "beauty chorus" and gaggy men devolved into randy junk.

So Mendes' little Etch-a-Sketch of burlesque, as Rose and her minions crowded in, nudged us into a certain awareness. To this point, we've assumed that The Act is third division, but no more terrible than much of vaudeville was. However, when the Toreadorables enter that burlesque house, we realize how ghastly, how puny and hopeless Rose' idea of show biz must be. Yes, vaudeville was dead: but its talent was moving into theatre, radio, movies. Rose's art isn't talent. It doesn't just hit the bottom: it is the bottom.

(Next time: Bernadette and Merman)