By RORY LANCE
I was a small boy during the run of the original Broadway production of Gypsy. I didn’t see the show on stage, but I do remember watching Ethel Merman appear on a television variety show. At the end of the broadcast, she informed the host that she had to get to the theatre. A camera followed her out of the studio, into a taxi, up to and through the stage door of the Broadway Theatre — all while she was singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” That night it became one of my favorite songs, and Merman one of my favorite performers.
A few years later, the television ads for the film version of Gypsy presented it as a family picture, but some people were saying it was not appropriate for children, and I wondered why. No one seemed to either know or care. Then one lunchtime at school I asked Brian Mednick. We were both nine years old, but Brian was definitely the more cosmopolitan, and he said, “Because she takes her clothes off.” “What? Why?” “She does it in a show, she’s in a show where girls take their clothes off.” Thus, during the third-grade lunch period of Public School 213, I was officially introduced to the wonderful world of burlesque by a nine-year-old.
I did finally get to see the film on television a few years later — I guess Standards and Practices had lightened up by then — and I loved it and still do. In some musical theatre circles it is felt not very sophisticated to say you like the original film version of Gypsy, but this was one of my favorite movies to watch with my mom. Rosalind Russell may not have completely sung for herself, but the heart and soul she put into that performance was overpowering. My mother and I always lost it when she sang the reprise of “Small World” at the end of the second act.
I missed Merman’s original, but I’ve seen all the succeeding Broadway productions. Each actress brought something to the part of Rose that made it her own in a way that can only happen when a great performer inhabits a great role.
Angela Lansbury played it like a woman on a mission, and the only way you were going to stop her was with a shotgun.
Tyne Daly gave us a mother schooled in a tough-love approach to parenting. It was all for her kids. One day they would understand.
Bernadette Peters showed us a survivor who knew her only tools were her feminine charms and who used them to manipulate her way to success.
Patti LuPone’s Rose was born to be onstage — and if she couldn’t, someone was damn well going to be.
Each and every interpretation totally different, each and every performer totally perfect. My costume design teacher in college, well-known designer Eldon Elder, mentioned in one lecture his recollection of seeing Merman in the role. I asked him after class what he remembered about the performance and why it was so renowned. He said, “I really don’t know if she actually knew what she was doing. But every choice she made was the perfect one.”
I will always remember the day I staged “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” for my Murrow High School production of Gypsy. I’d been notified that the Assistant Principal was going to bring a new drama teacher from another school to watch my rehearsal, but as with every other notice, it was thrown on my desk and completely buried within a day or two. So I was caught unaware when the Assistant Principal marched an innocent young lady down the aisle just as I was onstage demonstrating to three teenage girls how to bump and grind with the best of them.
After the rehearsal, the young teacher gathered her jaw off the floor and said, “That was incredible, but my principal would never in a million years let me put on a show like this.” I defended my choice to her narrow-minded administrator in absentia. “You mean he would never let you put on one of the most beloved masterpieces of the American musical theatre?” She laughed, then we cried, and I privately gave thanks that I was lucky enough to work at a school where the administration supported my instincts and did not suppress them.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.