Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Rose Hovick may have been a monster, but in Gypsy she was Ethel Merman, who spent her career playing a tough broad with a gooey center, like a Snickers in armor. Generally an urban character till Annie Get Your Gun (even in the Arizona of Girl Crazy, she was a San Franciscan), Merman would sing torch songs on the ninetieth floor. “Leave out the cherry,” she says in one of them. “Leave out the orange. Leave out the bitters.” No sweets in this one: “Just make it a straight rye!” And listen to her characters’ names: Wanda Brill (the one who sings “Eadie Was a Lady,” one of the great hard-boiled show tunes of all time, in Take a Chance), Reno Sweeney, Nails Duquesne, May Daley, Hattie Maloney: no sweets there, either.

      So Rose Hovick was an ideal Merman part, once she agreed to take some acting direction. The standard Merman performance was touch-me-not diva in a sheltered space, projecting directly into the audience so that all her co-stars got to play to was Merman’s left or right ear. For Gypsy, she interacted with them, though she reverted to her old ways thereafter. You can hear the difference in the live tapes: in Gypsy, she occasionally turns to someone, and, given the primitive miking of the day, you lose the line. Then, as the last of the original Hello, Dolly!s, she’s back to hurling everything straight into the auditorium, and, except when she’s on the runway (which isn’t miked), you hear every word.

     Merman’s Rose was a tough broad with a show-biz center, exploiting her kids because she “just wanted to be noticed.” I’ve seen all the major Roses in the New York area (including Tyne Daly’s replacement, Linda Lavin, and, at Paper Mill Playhouse, Betty Buckley), and Merman was the titanic one. Further, her background in the above all comic show enabled her to get more laughs than her successors. However, in some strange way Merman’s was also a triumphant Rose—yes, even at the end, when she must face giving up her dream of getting noticed—because starring in a smash hit on Broadway is triumphant.

     And yet. Rose doesn’t triumph. And, despite her insistent reminders that her troupe were headliners on the Orpheum Circuit, she has been slogging along in the fourth division all her life.

     Later Roses have dealt more honestly with this paradox of the winner who loses. Rather, they  play losers who lose. But that doesn’t make it easier to understand; one reason we keep returning to Gypsy is to try to collect its protagonist, too rich and contradictory to absorb in one or even several visits. What does she love—her kids or show biz? And does she really want to marry Herbie? Or is that just one of the countless little memes she toys with as she recklessly storms through the world? No one chooses his or life as freely as Rose. Her establishing number, “Some People,” is an anthem devoted to free will—and we’d expect no less from a Sondheim character. While he wrote only the lyrics, to Jule Styne’s music, whether Sondheim collaborates on a score or writes both words and music, a Sondheim show is a Sondheim show: they all tour through the terrible real estate of the life freely chosen. As they used to say of unknown lands on ancient maps, Here Be Dragons.

     When I was preparing the bibliographical essay for my book On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, I found that some writers felt comfortable ignoring the shows Sondheim didn’t compose. What nonsense: a musical’s lyrics don’t count? West Side Story and Gypsy are Sondheim’s two biggest hits. Is it sensible to leave them out of a Sondheim survey? As far as that goes, it was Sondheim and Jerome Robbins who put together “Rose’s Turn”—and I always suspected that Sondheim composed the strange rising then falling triad chords that accompany the trio section (at the Poco meno mosso, to the words “I had a dream”) of “Some People.” In fact, I once asked him, point blank, if he had done so, and he responded without answering, delivering instead some praise about Styne’s amazing facility at the keyboard. Well, Sondheim’s always diplomatic about people he admires; or perhaps he didn’t care for the question. And I could be wrong. But that music, extremely advanced for 1959, doesn’t sound like Styne. (To be fair, Styne himself sometimes doesn’t sound like Styne, as in the title song of Subways Are For Sleeping, which in fact doesn’t sound like any other song ever heard on Broadway.)

     The Here Be Dragons in Gypsy is comparable to the places ventured into by Company’s Robert, Follies’ Ben Stone, A Little Night Music’s lawyer, almost everyone in Into the Woods, Passion’s Captain Bachetti, and many others in Sondheim shows. Each major Rose finds a different way of negotiating the perilous terrain, and now we have a vastly praised and very extreme interpretation from Imelda Staunton in England, which has suddenly become available online in a bootleg of a live performance at the Savoy Theatre in London. Staunton’s Rose is a massive portrayal, with a shattering finale, yet this is a mother without love and a finagler without charm. Merman’s Rose had her angry side, but it showed only when she was provoked. Staunton is a monster; she comes raging at you without preamble.

     The lack of love is especially shocking; like Verdi’s Macbeth, this is opera senz’amore. There are those who don’t believe there is such a thing as an unloving parent. They can conceive of misguided and even destructive and vindictive parents. But, they think, the love must be automatic.

     Well, they’re wrong. There are truly hateful parents. However, we don’t generally see Rose as unloving. We see her as obsessed, distracted by her goals, impatiently applying the choices of the free in her voyage to the isles of the blessed. The folks she describes in “Some People” aren’t free: because they make no choices. When Rose says, “I had a dream,” she really means, “I am choosing to be guilty of my life.” The melodic cell to which she sings those four words is so intrinsic to what Gypsy is about that it launches the overture and is the last thing we hear as the curtain falls. In the movie Schindler’s List, one character says, in a kind of ecstasy, “The list is life.” In Gypsy, the dream is life, and if you will it intensely enough—Hitler thought this, too, by the way—you’ll realize it.

     But Staunton’s Rose is not merely obsessed. She is so owned by her dream that nothing else is of value to her. When she smiles, it’s not because she’s happy, because she’s never happy. She smiles because no one at that moment is challenging her dream. And when, at last, she must give up the dream forever, she caps her stuttering “Momma”s with a wide-open mouth that recalls the terrible silent O that Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel, made famous in Mother Courage, when she realizes that she has allowed one of her sons to be murdered. The shortish scene that follows has traditionally provided a reconciliation between mother and daughter; Merman capped it with something near delight. Goody—I’m going to a fancy party in a sable coat! But Staunton is wrecked. Her daughter leads their exit, tall and powerful. And Staunton shambles along, all the fizz drained out of her and her head cast down, like that of a slave in chains.

     It’s total Sondheim, comparable to how Follies’ Sally Plummer feels at the show’s end, scarcely able to move at all. Or think of Sweeney Todd, immobile in despair and even willing to have his own throat cut at the close of his show. I wonder, though, if we want to see Rose so destroyed. Is Gypsy a musical comedy or a musical play? The former can be read as (fantasy + minor problem + solution = fun); in other words, No, No, Nanette or Anything Goes. The latter is (reality + major problem + no solution = tragedy); in other words The King and I or West Side Story.  And Staunton’s Rose gives us a No Solution Gypsy.

     I wonder if this Rose so enthralls the public because it feels it finally understands the character, has finally seen her not merely lose but feel it to the utmost. It will certainly be one of the bullet-point performances in theatre history, and it’s wonderful to have it taped for posterity, even if the rest of the production is on the modest side. The minor character men have been overdirected and the Herbie is no more than correct (though “All I Need Is the Girl” is the best I’ve ever seen, and the Louise is good.) And Rose’s father amusingly says “You ain’t getting eighty-eight cents from me, Rose,” the words Sondheim uses in a cameo on the Merman cast album, even if text and score give the line with “eight [not eighty-eight] cents.”  Perhaps it’s a Gypsy performing tradition, like certain interpolated high notes in opera arias.

     Above all, will Staunton’s renovated Rose influence successors? Merman said that Irving Berlin “made a lady” out of her tough broad because Annie Get Your Gun brought out her tender side. True, tender people don’t marry Ernest Borgnine, and there was nothing tender in Merman’s Rose. But Staunton has made a lady out of Rose in an entirely different way, as a tragic heroine: she strives, unknowing, till calamity brings self-knowledge and the elimination of the self from the world of the living. It will be interesting to see if Gypsy itself changes form or reverts to the sweets-filled if regretful show that we have been enjoying up to now.