Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: GYPSY
Everything's coming up roses...
As I'm going through all my Gypsy CDs (yes, to ensure I have them all either on my hard drive or accessible in the cloud, before throwing them out), I'm finding myself weirdly most drawn to Tyne Daly's recording, from her Tony-winning performance in the 1989 revival. The thing is I know Tyne Daly, I mean I know her work. She's been a familiar and distinctive presence on stage and screen for as long as I can remember and I even have a few musical theater recordings featuring her singing, but hers is not a singing voice I live with on a LITERALLY daily basis like, say, Ethel Merman's, Angela Lansbury's, Bette Midler's, Bernadette Peters's or Patti LuPone's. So to me, Tyne Daly's Rose is a unique sound that I can only identify with Tyne Daly's Rose and, therefore, a character. For today, that's the Gypsy I most feel like listening to.
But is that what it's all about? Is theater about so completely suspending your disbelief that you forget you're watching actors? Or should it be a more "Brechtian" experience of consciously observing the artifice of the storytelling? And if that conscious observation of the art leads me to be mesmerized by the craft of, for example, Patti LuPone's belting of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," is that still Brechtian, or am I just swooning for the aesthetic and visceral pleasure of her voice.
For me, the beauty of musical theater is how it can be a fusion of some or all of those things at once. Gypsy is a particularly pointed example of this because it is both a classic musical comedy as well as a groundbreaking musical, a continuation of the kind of acting/singing/dancing mash-ups that Jerome Robbins innovated with On The Town and West Side Story and a new level of modern dramatic musical depth in the evolutions pioneered by Oscar Hammerstein, and later expounded on in Sondheim's own later work.
And it's not just that Gypsy has offered so many great musical theater actresses myriad opportunities it's to shine, it's also a numbers game in that with all these actresses taking on the role, most of us have seen the show many, many times. So we find ourselves more disposed to experience Gypsy on various levels, because of the depth of the work and the layered-ness of the work and because of our sheer quantity of exposures to it.
Of course, it's only natural that we should compare and contrast the actresses who have played Rose and that includes the very human inclination to rank them better and worse. I myself have been particularly guilty of this reductive sin in life, in musical theater, in general, but especially in the case of Gypsy, when my beloved favorite star Patti LuPone--a widely acknowledge perfect fit for the demands of Rose--was passed over for the 2003 revival in favor of her contemporary Bernadette Peters. Director Sam Mendes had wanted Patti and offered the job to her informally, but she was rejected by book-writer Arthur Laurents out of spite for her turning down a previous offer from him.
You have to understand where my head was at in 2003. Patti had just recently lost out to Bernadette on another Ethel Merman role in Annie Get Your Gun, after most fans had assumed Patti would be carrying on the Merman mantle since Anything Goes in 1987. We loved Bernadette in Sunday in the Park with George and Into The Woods, but we wanted Patti for these big, belter role and took these losses hard, as Patti was still only ten years out from her humiliating public disposal from the Broadway Sunset Boulevard. I would even argue that Patti's entire reign as a Broadway diva had been under the shadow of an eventually forthcoming movie adaptation of Evita that no one ever thought would star her. Her rise to success seemed choked and as a fan, I felt defensive. It would be fair to say my heart was closed when I walked into the Shubert Theater to see Bernadette in 2003.
But as the cookie crumbled, Patti eventually got her shot at Rose and won the Tony. And I think I can speak for LuPonistas worldwide to say we are grateful for the spate of success she's enjoyed over the last decade and change and we can chill out.
All of this leaves me less out for blood, less reductive and more able to enjoy each Rose on her own terms. So, let's just go through them in the order of my experience.
I first experienced Gypsy watching and rewatching the 1962 film starring Rosalind Russell. This movie gets something of a bad rap nowadays for the standard Hollywood partly ruining it did to the material and many of my show queen brethren take issue with Rose whose singing is dubbed by someone else. Here's how I'm reconciling it at this point: I like the movie The Women, but I'm not really into old movies in general and to disavow myself of the 1962 Gypsy would be to cut off my one true Roz Russell moment in my life.
Yes, I do love the Wonderful Town cast album, but let's be honest, I find the Donna Murphy recording more pleasing. And I just can't enjoy Auntie Mame knowing where the songs are supposed to go. This is my Roz Russell. Also, if you're gonna have your singing dubbed, get Lisa Kirk! No disrespect to Marni Nixon, but they kept her in a soprano cage at the studio. Lisa Kirk is SHOW BIZ! I have her album "Live At The Plaza." She's my second favorite thing on the OBC of Kiss Me, Kate and my third favorite thing on Mack and Mabel (listen to "Big Time" PLEASE!). Half of Lypsinka's stuff is Lisa Kirk for crying out loud. In conclusion, is the movie soundtrack the best Gypsy? No, it's probably the worst, but I still need it.
Next up for me was Tyne Daly. This is as good time as any to come clean and admit that I did not see her play Rose. I've been lying for years and pretending I did because I feel like I know what she did, I GET it! And I totally could have seen her do it. The year her Gypsy played LA, I saw Phantom with Michael Crawford* and Fiddler with Topol in the same subscription package. (*I actually saw Davis Gaines in Phantom, but that's another story.)
Anyway, I've got the CD and I love it. She's got one of those weird belts like Rosie O'Donnell, kind of like, "Hey, I just learned how to use this thing!" There are funny sounds but it's a strong voice and like I said, it feels like I'm listening to Rose and not just my Angela playlist du jour.
Next up for me was The Merm. Like five minutes after Tyne Daly's Gypsy closed in LA, I realized I was obsessed with musicals and started seeing everything and buying every CD and obviously the original Merman Gypsy was at the very top of the list. It's actually amazing listening to it after having all these other ones in my ear because Ethel just hits it straight throught the bullseye.
There are so many other choices an actress can make in Rose's Turn, but Merman's all feel like the real one or the right one or the best one. There's no subtext to wonder about with her; it's all crystal clear on the top and it all makes sense. Ethel is probably the only Rose whose star presence is purely beneficial. What does Merman mean to us today, except Rose. Personally speaking, my entire concept of Ethel fits squarely into the Rose persona she conjures and it's all synergistic.
Even with the "mommas," whether you know exactly what Ethel's thinking or not, you don't stop for a second to wonder. I'd love to ask old Eth what she had in mind. Or better yet, just ask all the true theater queens you know to answer as La Merman. This will be fun! You know what's not fun, though? Ethel's "Some People" is like a freaking ballad. It's not helped by the album cutting her introductory line "Anybody that stays home is dead. If I die, it won't be from sitting; it'll be from fighting to get up and get out." See how short that was? I just typed it from memory. Why was it cut?? What's even more striking is how gorgeous Ethel's "Small World" and, to a lesser extent, "You'll Never Get Away From Me" are. It's like, "Oh, right, these WERE WRITTEN FOR HER!" Ethel was SUCH a belter, I mean, the original belter and we associate that old school conversational chest voice style of singing with talking and shouting, so one tends to forget that Merman was a singer, first and foremost. Listen again. And then if you really want to bliss out, hook yourself up with her solo recording of "Little Lamb." Gold I tell you.
Right around this formative time in my life, Bette Midler's TV version came out and it's a funny thing, her mega-watt star presence both helps and hurts her. When I heard that Tovah Feldshuh was employing an Irish accent as Dolly Levi at the Paper Mill Playhouse, I immediately knew I'd be sparing myself a trip across the river. I don't care that Dolly Levi was "born Gallagher." I would be equally happy to see her played any ethnicity or race, as long as the performer was a star--someone with presence and charisma to galvanize the entire the play and electrify the audience from curtain to curtain. This is the difference between Hello, Dolly! and Gypsy. While Gypsy is like Dolly, Gypsy is also a modern musical hinged on serious character development and transformation. I can't watch Bette Midler without being 1,000,000% conscious I'm watching Bette Midler and that MADE her triumph in Hello, Dolly!
In Gypsy, it helps her in the fabulous swagger she brings to every moment, but there's a bit of a disconnect in the peak of the drama when you kind of expect her to break out into "Otto Titsling" or roll on for Rose's Turn as a mermaid in a wheelchair.
What Bette can do better than anybody is the ballads. Half of her career has been built on reviving vintage music for modern audiences and "Small World" sinks into her voice like a warm bath.
My next Rose was Angela Lansbury. Actually my next Rose was Betty Buckley, but there is tragically no cast recording from her thrilling performance at the Paper Mill Playhouse. She has recorded "Rose's Turn" and performed it in various concerts and somehow always managed to equal the power she exuded on stage. Betty is the only person who can or should perform Rose's Turn out of context of the show. It really doesn't work without two-and-a-half hours of play preceding it-unless you're Betty Buckley.
As far as Angela's Gypsy album goes, it's not my favorite Angela album. If you want Angela in peak belting vocals, the place to go is Dear World. Her voice there is rich and warm and overflowing with personality.
What Angela's Rose does bring to the table is brilliant deliberateness. With Angela, every single syllable is a choice, always surprising and interesting. Weird things become highlights on this album, like "Together, Wherever We Go," or the wordplay in "Mr. Goldstone." When Angela sings, "...and curbstones and gladstones and touchstones and such stones as them. There are big stones and small stones and grindstones and gall stones, but Goldstone is a gem!" she makes a meal out of searching for the words. Oh, right, Rose isn't just singing a song, she's working an angle.
Angela makes you hear the Sweeney Todd Sondheim nascent in this material. And of course, that's triply true for "Rose's Turn". The opposite of Merman, Lansbury is all subtext, which is not to say that she's subtle. Far from it! But she's is layered. Her "Momma, Momma" stammering makes you wonder whether it's the letting go that's stopping her up or some memory of being let go by her own mother. And the 180° flips into and out of giddy show business drive home the themes of Gypsy with harrowing theatricality.
Bernadette's Rose is another one that gets at the Sondheim-ness of it all. Her mommas feel particularly connected Rose as someone's daughter. In fact her entire "Rose's Turn" is chilling reading of Sondheim's lyric almost as sharp as Angela's, but more emotional and more convincing than any other Rose that she could have actually made it in Burlesque. Even shortened for the Tony Awards, it's a "Rose's Turn" to watch and rewatch.
By the end, you feel she's charging forward fearlessly on fumes and it's almost meta given the controversy around Bernadette's performance at the time, and her having lost the award. Still, my favorite Bernadette number is "Some People." It's definitely my favorite version of the song, although I prefer her 1996 recording from Carnegie Hall to the one on the cast album.
And if I'm really being honest, I prefer Liza's 1992 Radio City Music Hall recording. But Bernadette's is the best in terms of actual Rose performances (of the actual words and music as written, cough, cough, it's only 88 lousy bucks!). Bernadette is the natural heir (along with her friend and George M. co-star Joel Grey) old school American music hall tradition and it pays off in the panache she brings to this aspirationally vaudeville number. Nobody can do a big slide down the last note like Bernadette does here (or in "Broadway Baby"). Where the problems in Bette's "Rose's Turn" foreshadowed her triumph in Hello, Dolly!, the brilliance of Bernadette's "Some People" presaged her own success as Dolly.
Which leaves us with the great Dolly who never was, but I still hope against hope might someday somehow still come to be, Patti LuPone. Part of Patti's triumph as Rose was her ability to fulfill so many different aspects of the assignment. She's a steamrolling belter like Merman and an actor like Tyne and a diva like Bette and, thank you very much, a Sondheimian star in the vein of Angela and Bernadette. This enabled her to bring contrasting thrills to unexpected places in the show, like her randomly electrifying vocals in "Mr. Goldstone" ("I'll have June recite a POEM!!"--of course Merman belted this too, but it was TOO effortless) and the ridiculous comedy she found in "You'll Never Get Away From Me." Her "Rose's Turn" is as vocally powerful as you could hope and even more adventurous.
But the crown jewel of Patti's Gypsy is her "Everything's Coming Up Roses," which she manages to make simultaneously the sneak peak of the madness to come as well as a joyous triumph of spirit given soaring life in song. It's a Tonys clip for the ages and equally impressive when she performed it out of context, but somehow still full throttle, on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." This boundary breaking bravado is alive throughout Patti's Gypsy cast album and with La LuPone, there are no B-sides.