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)