Gypsypost 1: connections

The last musical I was in was Carousel in 1981 at The Noble and Greenough School, Dedham MA. I have never been a musical theater actor, and although I can carry a tune, I do not have a stage-worthy singing voice. I have the theater intellectual’s attitude about musicals and I am not proud of it: most seem silly and contrived to me. How embarrassing it was then, in 1981, to find myself choking back tears as I sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone”  from the midst of the chorus. And I sobbed continually as my wife and I watched Spring Awakening on Broadway in 2008. So I’m not a cold hearted bastard. But the song has to get me at the right moment.

The real Gypsy Rose

How strange then, to find myself in that classic Broadway musical Gypsy – music by Jules Stine, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I play three character roles with no singing required: Uncle Jocko, Kringeline and Cigar (Laurents evidently ran out of names towards the end of the play). It’s the largest show I have been in in a long time – maybe ever. A full company of five principals, five supporting roles, a chorus of four male and four female dancers and a rotating cast of ten children. An epic scenic design with a moving platform the orchestra sits on, which travels over a giant turntable which is the main playing area, spinning 180 degrees to change sets as huge sliding doors open and close across it’s equator. A genuine broadway star as Mama Rose, and New York stage and TV vets with Significant Credits as Herbie and Louise. All this in 20 days of rehearsal before our first paying audience. Again, Shakespeare In Love: 

  • Allow me to explain the natural state of the theater, Mr. Fennyman. It is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to certain ruin.
  • But what happens?
  • Strangely enough, it all turns out alright in the end.
  • How?
  • No one knows. It’s a mystery.

Being a musical theater ignoramus, it was a surprise to learn that the story of Gypsy is based on the real life experience of a real person. And the more I have investigated that story, and the more I have watched rehearsals unfold, the more astonished I have become as the connections between the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, White Pines Productions and The Deception of Surfaces emerge.

Louise on the left, Rose on the right, Papa in the middle

Among other things, it’s the story of women in the early 20th century in America searching for an economic foothold in the entertainment industry. Part of what makes Mama Rose such a complex character is that in addition to being a megalomaniac, she was also in some sense a true feminist. She categorically rejected the patriarchal culture and set out to forge an independent life for her and her children on her own terms. The White Pines connection is in the economic journey she takes. They begin as “amateurs” – performing at kiddie shows for no money. Then, they begin getting booked on the Vaudeville circuit, and start making money. Interestingly, it is at this point that she acquires an agent: a man who handles all the financial arrangements. Also interesting: she doesn’t pay any of the kids. She keeps them dependent upon her whims and caprices for their economic well-being. This is both an attempt to keep them “pure” by keeping them away from money, but also a way to maintain absolute control over their lives, a strategy which eventually fails. As the entertainment industry changes, they are forced to perform for the market that pays, and finally the only market that pays is the Burlesque House.

This is where the Deception of Surfaces connection is. Mama Rose wants her kids to be a “professional act”. She is constantly negotiating for more money. In doing so, she makes the commodity market the arbiter of her act. She turns her own children into objects to be bought, sold and haggled over, and since they are attractive young women, they ultimately become sexualized. The thesis of The Deception of Surfaces is that when a young person acquiesces to the commodity market’s demands, they become an object – a commodity – to be evaluated in commercial terms. This ultimately has sexual consequences, especially for women.

But imitating Gypsy, Deception tries not to moralize. There is a meaningful victory for both Louise in Gypsy and Alice in Deception: they play the game by the rules they have learned and they win. Louse becomes a burlesque star and is paid handsomely; Alice makes $200 every 15 minutes she spends in the fantasy palace and has free health care as long as she works there. And we are left to wonder: is that okay with us?

Tovah is bringing a fierce, New York grittiness to Mama Rose. It’s amazing how much energy is coming out of such a small person. I have been deeply impressed with her work ethic, her probing questions and the kindness she displays to the rest of the cast. My hope for the show is that it’s a smash in the Broadway sense, but that it also retains some of the bleak despair and desperation the real Mama Rose and her children faced in the 20s and 30s. Watching Tovah fight her way across country as Mama Rose, I am reminded again of the words of my lawyer: “Ya know the great thing about money? It has no heart, no brain, no blood.”

I prefer the company of the living.