Now, for accuracy’s sake, he might want to change the lines about the joys of musical theater sung by Spamalot’s timid Sir Robin: “You can sing/You can dance/And you wonâ€™t soil your pants.” Au contraire, mon frere! Musicals can be scary, as I discovered at a performance of Gypsy on Monday. While I had expected Broadway diva Patti LuPone to bring the house down, I didn’t think she’d do it so literally. Towards the end of the second act, a big vent fell off the theater ceiling and hit a woman in the balcony. A loud clatter was followed by a shriek, violent sobs and a man’s shout of “Are you alright?!”
But, as theater people say, “The show must go on” and it did, though I really couldn’t appreciate Patti’s grand finale while anxiously scanning the balcony for more casualties. (Luckily, the woman hit by the vent seems to be okay, but I have no doubt she’s consulting with lawyers even as I type.)
Gypsy is based on the book of the same name, a memoir written by Gypsy Rose Lee, the original queen of burlesque. Gypsy became famous in the 1930s for her elegant stripping and on- and off-stage witticisms. (When she was arrested for public indecency after one show, she supposedly said, “I wasn’t naked, I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.”) You can check out her style in this PG-rated version of her strip that she did for the 1943 movie Stage Door Canteen.
The musical version of Gypsy focuses on Gypsy’s notorious stage mother, Rose. (People tend to call the character Mama Rose even though the play refers to her as Mama, Rose or Madame Rose.) Mama Rose yearned for vaudeville stardom and tried to live out her dream through her younger daughter, June. Her older daughter, Rose Louise, was considered less talented and did background in “Baby June’s” acts. The girls never went to school; they just worked. (Britney Spears would be able to relate to this story.) When June was in her teens, she eloped with a dancer from the act and ran away from Mama Rose. Rose turned her attention to Rose Louise. But vaudeville was a dying industry, unable to compete with talking movies. Only burlesque was thriving, so Rose pushed her daughter into stripping. Rose Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee and a star was born.
The on-stage Rose is a selfish, overbearing horror. The epitome of the crazy stage parent, she’s Lynne Spears plus Dina Lohan plus every scary pageant mom wrapped into one soul-destroying package. The only thing worse than the on-stage Mama Rose? Real-life Mama Rose.
Both Gypsy and her sister, who became the actress June Havoc, communicated with Rose through lawyers in later years, generally about Rose’s demands for money. Gypsy didn’t even write her book till after her mother’s death, because she knew Mama would sue her ass. Rose eventually opened a lesbian boardinghouse in New York City. Apparently being a good hostess was not her forte, since she shot and killed one of the guests. According to Gypsy’s son Erik Preminger, the victim was Rose’s lover who’d had the bad judgment to make a move on Gypsy. The death was declared a suicide and Rose was never charged.
In the play, Mama Rose, her boyfriend/agent and the pre-Gypsy Louise sing an upbeat song called, “Together, Wherever We Go.” The lyrics include, “Wherever we go, whatever we do/we’re gonna go through it together./We may not go far, but sure as a star,/wherever we are, it’s together.” In reality, as Mama Rose lay dying of colon cancer, her last words to Gypsy were, “Wherever you go, whatever you do, I’ll be right there. When you get your own private kick in the ass, just remember: it’s a present from me!”
When Gypsy was dying at the age of 59 from lung cancer, she told June, “This is my present, you know. My present from Mother.” Terrifying! Believe it or not, June is still alive in her 90s.
Here are my reading/listening/watching recommendations for Gypsy Rose Lee.
- Gypsy by Gypsy Rose Lee. The basis for everything else.
- The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee. A murder mystery set in the world of burlesque.
- Mother Finds a Body by Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy’s second and rather creepily named murder mystery.
- My G-String Mother by Erik Preminger, Gypsy’s son by director Otto Preminger. It’s not a Mommie Dearest-type abuse expose; it’s quite affectionate and amusing. But Gypsy definitely hadn’t acquired traditional parenting skills, and her constant scheming to ensure a large income after her stripping days has shades of Mama Rose all over it.
- Early Havoc and More Havoc by June Havoc are June’s attempts to set the record straight about her life. She was angry at her portrayal in the musical and became estranged from Gypsy for years. There’s really nothing unflattering about her in Gypsy’s book or the play, so I was never sure what she was upset about other than the fact that it’s very uncomfortable to see yourself as a secondary character in someone else’s story. For instance, June has complained that she was portrayed as stealing Gypsy’s boyfriend when it’s clear that Gypsy merely had an unrequited crush on a guy who turned out to be June’s secret boyfriend.
- Gypsy: A Musical Fable. There are numerous Gypsy soundtracks from various revivals of the show as well as movie and television versions, but I only listen to the original 1959 Broadway soundtrack, with Ethel Merman as Mama Rose.
- Gypsy, the 1962 movie starring Rosalind Russell as Mama and the beauteous Natalie Wood as Gypsy, is a classic as well as a big inspiration to Dita Von Teese, the current and ultra-fashionable queen of burlesque. I found two clips on YouTube. First, Natalie Wood doing Gypsy’s strip.
And one of the show-stopping songs in Gypsy is You Gotta Have a Gimmick, in which three washed-up strippers teach an innocent Louise the basics of burlesque: “To have no talent is not enough!”
- They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This excellent 1969 movie starring Jane Fonda doesn’t deal directly with Gypsy’s story. It tells the story of a Depression-era dance marathon. Desperate people used to participate in dance marathons for the prize money and after fleeing Mama’s clutches, June Havoc was forced to make a living this way.
- If you haven’t seen Airplane!, which is the funniest movie ever, this is a good time to see it. Ethel Merman herself appears briefly as a shell-shocked soldier who believes he is Ethel Merman. She sings a few lines of Mama Rose’s signature song, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” before being subdued.
Finally, here are some newspaper articles (registration may be required):
- A 1998 New York Times interview with June Havoc.
- A 1995 New York Times article on June.
- The 1959 New York Times review of the original stage production starring Ethel Merman.
Well, that should keep you busy for a while. And of course, if you’re in New York, go see Patti in the play! Remember to bring a hard hat, just in case.