Leslie Uggams to Lead GYPSY as 'Mama Rose' at Connecticut Rep, 7/10-20
In April 2014, Artistic Director Vincent J. Cardinal announced that Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Leslie Uggams would be starring as Rose in Connecticut Repertory Theatre's (CRT) production of GYPSY: A Musical Fable July 10-20. This announcement quickly spread through social media circles and the theatre community and set off a firestorm of discussion on message boards and Twitter about casting an African American actress in this iconic role.
"We weren't necessarily looking for an actress of color but rather an incredible talent to play this incredibly challenging role," Cardinal said. "The actor needed to be able to sing and act brilliantly - this is the King Lear of musical theatre. When we found Leslie Uggams, we were thrilled and honored to have such a legendary talent in this legendary role."
Gypsy: A Musical Fable by Arthur Laurents is one of the great masterpieces of musical theatre. Soaring with Jule Styne's melodies and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, GYPSY is based on the memoirs of the famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. The musical tells the story of Rose, the ultimate stage mother, and her dream to raise her daughters Louise and June to become stars on the vaudeville circuit and ultimately the legitimate stage. Through their success Rose will gain fulfillment for her own failed venture into show business. In real life, Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee and Baby June, movie star June Havoc. Mama Rose has become arguably the greatest female role in musical theatre due to its emotion, complexity and powerful songs.
About two weeks after the casting announcement, Cardinal was in New York City auditioning actors for the CRT Nutmeg Summer Season. Cardinal said, "Actors were stopping in just to say, 'Thank you. Thank you for casting in a non-traditional way.' "
In an effort to determine just how significant this casting was, CRT contacted several writers and theatre historians about past productions. After weeks of research, CRT learned that no African American actress had ever starred as Rose in an Equity production with a mixed race cast. This would be the first.
While this is Ms. Uggams' first opportunity to star in GYPSY, she has played other great roles not typically associated with an African American actress - Maria Callas, Reno Sweeney, Desiree Armfeldt and Dolly Levi (although Pearl Bailey did lead an all-black company of HELLO, DOLLY! on Broadway). This speaks to the "star quality" that is needed for such roles - a quality that transcends race. In GYPSY, in particular, Rose is not so much a biographical depiction of the real-life Rose Hovick as it is a portrayal of the archetypal stage mother who fulfills her stunted dreams through her children. The show is sub-titled "a musical fable," so it is clear that Laurents was not going for strict realism.
In fact, several years ago Laurents had spoken with Ms. Uggams about the possibility of leading the national tour of the Sam Mendes revival of GYPSY that starred Bernadette Peters on Broadway. "I was stunned," said Ms. Uggams. "I'd always wanted to play Rose but assumed that I'd never be considered because she was based on a real person. That conversation with Arthur got me thinking. If Rose's creator didn't have a problem with an African American actress playing her, then why should I? When this opportunity with CT Rep came about, I jumped at it!"
This is not the first time that Leslie Uggams has broken down barriers in the entertainment industry. Ms. Uggams' television career began at the age of six, portraying Ethel Waters' niece on the TV series Beulah. As a teenager she became the first African American performer to be featured on a weekly national primetime series as a regular on Sing Along with Mitch. In 1970 she hosted her own primetime variety series The Leslie Uggams Show.
Leslie Uggams, a Tony and Emmy Award-winning star of the stage and screen for six decades, is perhaps best known for her stirring portrayal of Kizzy in the landmark TV mini-series Alex Haley's Roots (Critics Choice Award and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations). Ms. Uggams recently starred in the Broadway-bound world premiere of Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Story (Ovation nomination) at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. On Broadway, Ms. Uggams made her musical theatre debut starring in Hallelujah, Baby! earning both Tony and Theatre World awards. Her Broadway credits include Blues in the Night, Jerry's Girls, Anything Goes, King Headley II (Tony Award nomination), Thoroughly Modern Millie and On Golden Pond opposite James Earl Jones.
Complete casting will be announced soon. When asked about whether racial identity of the characters will be a storyline in the CRT production, Cardinal said, "This is a multi-racial production. We are a university community, and we cast our plays to represent the global community that we serve. Our cast includes Latino, African American, Pacific Islander and Caucasian actors. It is not about the historical accuracy of race in America at that time."
GYPSY: A Musical Fable runs at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT from July 10-20, 2014. GYPSY is the third show of the 2014 Summer Nutmeg Series, which also includes A CHORUS LINE (June 5-14) and THE SUNSHINE BOYS (June 19-29) starring Jerry Adler, Richard Kline and Tina Fabrique.
Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Matinee performances start at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Subscription package options range from $30 to $93. Single ticket prices range from $10 to 43. Call 860.486.2113 for tickets and additional information. Call the box office or visit www.crt.uconn.edu for specific show dates and times because performance schedules vary and are subject to change.
The Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre is located on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs and offers air-conditioned comfort and convenient free parking. CRT's Community Partners for the Nutmeg Summer Series include SI Financial Advisors, Hamilton Sundstrand, the Nathan Hale Inn and the UConn Dairy Bar.