Thursday, May 21, 2009

"The Best Damn Musical!"/The First Fifty Years of the Fabulous "Gypsy." In Eight Parts.

Jack Klugman, The Merm and Sandra Chruch, as immortalized the the singular Al Hirshcfeld, in the original production of Styne-Sondheim's "Gypsy"
"Gypsy," a musical fable, opened at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway 50 years ago today. The next day, on May 22, 1959, Walter Kerr, then of The New York Herald Tribune, wrote the most famous quote for the show - "The Best Damn Musical I've Seen in Years!"
The New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson,
however,  was a tad more restrained, calling it "the most satisfying musical of the season," adding that "Miss Merman, her pipes resonant and her spirit syncopated, struts and bawls her way through it triumphantly."

Miss Merman, of course, is the legendary Ethel.

Kerr would rave about it in a subsequent Sunday piece.

"Gypsy" was my first Broadway show. I saw it in April of '59, during its five-week tryout at the Shubert Theatre in Philadelphia and my only reason for attending was because my friend, Stevie Cuprese, was in the cast as one of Baby June's newsboys. His stage name was Steve Curry and he would go on to appear as Baby John in the 1964 Center City revival of "West Side Story" and as Berger in the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions of "Hair," where he would meet and marry Shelley Plympton. (Well, at least, I think they were married.) Together, they played the title roles in Jim McBride's 1971 counterculture cult film, "Glen and Randa."

Stevie was boffo. I loved the show - it was the first cast album I ever bought - and I developed a serious crush on Jacqueline Mayro who played Baby June. Sandra Church, who played Louise/Gypsy, wasn't bad either. I dated a girl in high school largely because she resembled Church.

Merman? She was overwhelming. A real presence on stage. And loud. But even as a kid, I was discerning and observant, and my most vivid memory of Merman as Madam Rose is that she tended to step out of the role for the songs and sing directly to the audience. Arthur Laurents reportedly has called her a bad actress. He's right. If that's what he said.

"Gypsy" would play on Broadway for 702 performances. Not a long run. Oddly, it has never enjoyed a long run in any of its incarnations. Never. The general public seems to like the show but not wildly so. It is strictly the obsession of Broadway types - critics and gay men in particular.

Note in Passing: Given that 2009 is a landmark year in the history of "Gypsy," one has to wonder why the producers of the most recent production hastily staged their revival in 2008. Why not wait a year? Reviving "Gypsy" for its 50th anniversary would have been something festive. Perhaps it might even have had its first long run. Perhaps.
* * *

"Sing out, Louise!": "Gypsy" Filmed Triumphantly in 1962 by Mervyn LeRoy, with Roz Russell as Rose
Full disclosure: My parents sent me to Catholic school, something for which I am not entirely grateful. Dad was a Catholic, although an excommunicated one - excommunicated because the woman he married, my mother, was Jewish and divorced. Mom was decidedly not practicing in terms of religion. Far from it. She was more of an agnostic (I take after her), but she went along with my dad, which is how I landed in Catholic school.

I bring this up to explain exactly how I happened to end up in Radio City Music Hall with my friend David Gretzkowski on Thursday, November 1st, 1962 - the opening day of Mervyn LeRoy's film version of "Gypsy." It was important that I get to Radio City that day for the opening and, luckily, it was All Saints' Day - we had the day off. The theater was packed, curiously with a lot of nuns, one of whom was our school principal, Sister Mary Salvine, who I genuinely liked. A musical theater freak, Sister Salvine feigned embarrassment at being caught at a movie about a stripper. She made us promise not to say that we saw her there.

On the other hand, she seemed unconcerned that we were there.

That moment - the entire day - is burned in my brain. I had a keen interest in the film of "Gypsy" because, as I said in the previous post, it was the first Broadway show I saw. I liked the film even more than the play and, over the years, I've come to cultivate an appreciation for LeRoy's defiant fidelity to his stage source. Accustomed to MGM's routine bowdlerization of Broadway musicals (see "Bells Are Ringing" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" from the same era, or "On the Town"), I was impressed that Warners elected to transfer "Gypsy" to the screen nearly word-for-word, courtesy of playwright/screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass, who actually improved on Arthur Laurents's excellent stage script.

I could pontificate ad infinitum about the glories of the film "Gypsy" - and I have - but, today, I'd rather share the insight and astute comments that British film historian Douglas McVay brought to his seminal book, "The Musical Film," arguably the definitive take on a uniquely American film form - certainly a rare intelligent film-musical tome miles apart from the highly disposable, lovelorn hackwork usually devoted to the subject.

Here are select excepts from McVay's lengthy analysis of "Gypsy" (which immediately followed his take on "West Side Story" in the book):

"Fine as 'West Side Story' is, though, it is equaled and, arguably, surpassed – in a rather different idiom – by another filmed Broadway hit: Mervyn LeRoy’s “Gypsy.” Arthur Laurents’s book (for) 'West Side Story' (adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman), though largely craftsmanlike, falls short of his libretto for 'Gypsy' (scripted on celluloid by Leonard Spigelgass), based on the memoirs of the transatlantic stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The dialogue and situations in 'Gypsy' have more wit, bite and emotional range, and the characterizations are more complex.

"And although Jerome Robbins has more consistent choreographic opportunity in 'WSS,' at any rate one of his numbers in 'Gypsy' is on par with anything in the other show and movie. Last but no less important than these considerations, 'Gypsy' on celluloid boasts two performances – by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood” – immeasurably superior to any of the acting in the 'West Side Story' film.

"In the main, LeRoy’s mise-en-scène is a perfect compromise between the evocatively theatrical atmosphere of the original, and shrewdly filmic innovation. All the best numbers reflect this. One thinks of 'Some People,' where the marvelously urgent words and rhythms of the song (delivered by the possessive Rose, mother of the little girl Louise whom she is to transform into strip-queen Gypsy) are put across by Russell with knife-edge timing of gesture and facial espression, most notably in her contemptuously comic grimace as she plunges a hatpin into her hat on the climatic line, 'Well, they can stay and rot – but not Rose!' Or again, of the way in which the vivacious chorus (for) 'Mr. Goldstone, I Love You' is followed (with a change of mood as daringly impressive as anything in Capra or Ford) by a cut and a slow track-in to the crouchingly isolated form of Louise (Natalie Wood), cradling and singing softly to a nuzzling 'Little Lamb' as she sits lonely on her noisily spoiled birthday. LeRoy’s shooting of the numbers is never static – except when it helps so to be, as in most of this ballad.

"Miss Wood and Ann Jilliann (as Louise’s younger sister, June) do a staircase duet, 'If Mama Was Married,' which ends on an exhilarating, long-held reprise of a low-angle close-shot, taken from lower down the stairs, of them peering at us over the banister, right of the frame (the grouping decoratively balanced by a candelabra on the left), and then hanging on to the final ringing note.

"And in the film’s greatest sequence, the 'All I Need Is the Girl' routine (in which Jerome Robbins exceeds even his 'WSS' dance-design), LeRoy’s command is masterful. A youthful hoofer (played by Paul Wallace) demonstrates to the enthralled Louise the fabulous number with which he hopes one day to conquer New York: and it becomes a celebration of his show-business ambition and an orgasmic symbol of her hopeless amorous yearning for him.

"LeRoy preserves the potently blue-shadowed alley and yard setting (plaudits to art director John Beckman and Technirama-Technicolor camerawork by Harry Stradling), by largely holding the action in medium-shot: but his camera not only tracks in a little on Louise as she longingly stands, stretching out her hand or pressing voluptuously to her body, it also moves with Wallace during his terpsichorean solo laterally- unobtrusively yet tellingly. And finally, it pulls back to view them both when Louise at last does join in, and they caper and twirl together, Wallace yelling exultantly to her as they leap, 'Again! Again! Again!...' This number, a choreographed sex-act, rates for me (with 'Niña' in 'The Pirate' and 'The Man that Got Away' in 'A Star Is Born') as one of the three most inspired I have seen in the film-musical genre.

"Strandling and Beckman deserve our thanks, too, for the atmospherically misty-blue railway station décor which is the background to 'Everything’s Coming Up Roses,' Rose's bitterly intransigent song of resolve – when June, her original protégée, unexpecedtly quits to get married – that Louise shall take her place. It is handled by Rosalind Russell with neurotically pile-driving brilliance: nowhere more so than in her mortified gaze and vocal emphasis on the lines 'You’ll be swell!' and 'Mama is gonna see to it!' And at the finish of her solo, her arms come up and freeze above her head, while the camera pans slowly above and to the left of her (we see her arms and face at the bottom of frame) to take in the railroad vista – and we hear the faint, melancholy, poetic hoot of a train ... the train carrying June away from her?

"Gypsy" - En Francaise
"As Louise – now Gypsy – prepares to go on-stage to peel for the first time, LeRoy tracks with her, first out of her dressing-room, then away in front of her as she walks towards the stage, then laterally – until we join her behind the curtain. This lengthy track conveys all Gypsy’s nervous excitement. The director’s share in the marvelous portrayals by Russell and Wood is surely indisputable: and these portrayals culminate in the riveting quarrel scene – in the way that Miss Wood looks almost shyly down at her ritzy gown and says in a quiet, breaking voice, apropro of her new fame, 'Mama – I love it' (later repeating this several times in a furious tirade which the actress gradates faultlessly, never quite losing our sympathy); and in the flickering combination of rage, guilt and misery in Miss Russell’s face, after her exasperated rhetorical query, 'What did I do it all for?,' has been answered (unawnswerably) by Gypsy’s softly accusing 'I thought you did it for me, Mama...'

"Now that Louise-Gypsy no longer seems to need her, Rose, defiantly alone on an empty, crimson-glowing stage, does a bravura song and mimed striptease, 'Rose’s Turn.' Once more, Russell is magnetic (who cares if Lisa Kirk dubbed a few of her high notes?): especially in her final, orgiastic repetition, 'For me! For me! For me!' But the silence after this number is broken by the applause of the smiling, watching Gypsy: mother and daughter are reconciled; and the film’s last line, appropriately, is 'Madame Rose – and her daughter … Gypsy!,' delivered with beamingly affectionate élan and a raised, annuniciatory sweep of the arm by Russell to Wood (LeRoy lifting his camera slightly to echo Rose’s raised arm). The two of them turn and walk away from us, arm in arm (the camera tracking slightly away from them, to increase the formalized finality of the image), to a triumphant, measured orchestral surge on the soundtrack of the “curtain up” passage in 'Everything’s Coming Up Roses.' "This grand finale is only paralleled in impact by that of Cukor’s 'A Star Is Born.' One regrets all the more that Warner Bros. (as in the case of 'A Star Is Born') saw fit to make certain cuts in the versions of 'Gypsy' released in Britain and widely in America." Say no more. A brilliant analysis of a brilliant film.
* * *
Momma's talkin' loud, Momma's got the stuff, Momma ... Momma ... Momma's gettin' ... old.
Lady Gaga should play Rose in Streisand's "Gypsy"

Arguably, few movie remakes are as good as the originals and, as a general rule, the average film buff is contemptuous of remakes.  But that hasn't stopped any self-respecting buff from indulging in fantasy casting.

Count me in.

Which brings me to "Gypsy" and Barbra Streisand's crusade to film another version, reportedly based on a new script by the estimable Richard LaGravenese.  As regular readers of this site know by now, "Gypsy" remains my favorite musical (I saw the original production as a kid, my first stage show ever), as well as my favorite movie musical.

Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version, with Rosalind Russell's definitive reading of the role of Rose Hovick, is letter-perfect, even with the few ill-advised cuts that LeRoy made following its first previews.

An unnecessary and unmemorable 1993 TV movie, directed by Emile Ardolino and starring a seemingly well-cast but surprisingly ineffectual Bette Midler, succeeded only in making the LeRoy film look even better.

Much better.

Streisand's plan is to direct the new version and play the role of Rose.

The idea of Streisand singing the "Gypsy" score is irresistible.  She would have made the perfect Rose - would have.  Streisand will be 74 in April and may well be a few years older if Universal decides to back the film.

"Gypsy" spans about 10 years, opening with Rose as the mother of two little girls who, I'm guessing, are about seven and eight.  It ends with the still-young title character becoming a phenomenon in burlesque.

Rose should be 30 at most when the show opens and about 40 when she triumphantly/pathetically sings the searingly biographical "Rose's Turn."

Forty years ago, Streisand undoubtedly would have been a revelation as Rose and apparently LaGravenese thinks she is still right for the role.

Recently, Streisand has aligned herself with Lady Gaga and expressed interest in casting her in "Gypsy."  Great, I thought.  Barbra is going to direct Gaga (né Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) as Rose.

Gaga is 29 and would be a terrific Rose, considering (1) her age, (2) her demeanor and (3) her vocal range.  But I assumed wrong.  Streisand's idea is for Gaga to play Gypsy to Streisand's Rose.

None of this is exactly new. Over the past 50-plus years, there have been only a handful of productions of "Gypsy" and, by extension, a handful of actresses playing Rose, the crown jewel of musical comedy.  But all of them have been examples of ageist casting (yes, ageist, but not in the direction you think). Why has the character of Rose traditionally been cast with an actress well into her 50s (at least)? Imagine how different - and revelatory - it could be with a younger, vibrant performer in the role.

But this has never happened.

Wait. It happened once.  No, twice. In 2004, Andrea McArdle, then 40, played Rose in The Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre production of "Gypsy." At 40, McArdle (who has the perfect voice for the role) was a decidedly youthful Rose. It probably also helped that McArdle invariably identified with the material, having started out as a child actress (read: "Annie"). Mary McCarty, who replaced Ethel Merman in the Broadway production in 1961, was 38 at the time. (McCarty played Mother Goose in Disney's "Babes in Toyland," which co-starred Ann Jillian as Bo Peep; Jillian would play Dainty June in the '62 film version of "Gypsy.")

And, in 1964, songstress Gisele MacKenzie played the part in Berkeley at Ben Kaplan's Meadowland Theater.  She was - ta-da! - 37.

MacKenzie is the youngest Rose Hovick to date.

 The oldest Rose? That would be Leslie Uggams who was 71 when she played Rose in the 2014 production at the Connecticut Repertory Theater.  Wow!  She is followed, but not too closely by Patti Lupone who was 60 when she undertook the part in the most recent - 2008 - Broadway revival of the show. The talented Lupone was 58 when she also played the role in the 2007 Encores! production and 57 when she tackled it for the first time for the 2006 Ravinia Festival production.

 Following Uggams and Lupone, age-wise, are these top-notch actresses, some miscast, some well-cast, but all a tad too old for the role, a trend that I covered in an earlier essay here:

Imelda Stauton, age 59 (2015 British revival at London's Savoy Theater; see Michael O'Sullivan's coverage here from his excellent site, Mike’s Movie Projector)

Ann Sothern, age 58 (1967 touring Music Fair production)

Ethel Merman, age 57 (original 1959 Broadway production)

Patty Duke, age 57 (2003 Spokane, Washington Civic Theatre production; Duke below with co-stars Danae M. Lowman and Reed McColm)
Bernadette Peters, age 55 (2003 Sam Mendes revival)

Rosalind Russell, age 55 (original 1962 film version)

Tovah Feldshuh, age 55 (2008 Bristol Riverside Theater production)

Linda Lavin, age 52 (succeeded Tyne Daly, below, in the 1989 revival)

Betty Buckley, age 51 (1998 Papermill Playhouse production; Debbie Gibson co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Joanne Worley, age 51, pictured below (1988 The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley; Aundrey Landers co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Angela Lansbury, age 49 (1973 London production, followed immediately by the first Broadway revival in '74)

Bette Midler, age 48 (1993 TV-movie remake)

Vicki Lewis, age 48 (2008 California Musical Theater production)

Betty Buckley, age 45 (1992 Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production)

Tyne Daly, age 43 (1989 Broadway revival)

Betty Hutton, age 41 (1961 National Tour)

But somehow, the role has evaded such powerhouses as Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli and ...Streisand! And Stockard Channing  would have been an absolutely terrific, atypical choice for the part but a natural.

But back to "a younger, vibrant performer in the role." Well, that would be Gaga, hands-down, who could be easily aged for the later scenes. ("Youthening" someone - is that a word? - is much more difficult and rarely convincing.)  Plus - and this is probably important to Universal - Gaga would bring bodies into the local multiplexes to watch her in action.

Below: Audrey Landers (left) and Joanne Worley (center) in The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley production

While we're at it, let's cast the other roles, all within the right age range.  (It's called fantasy casting, see?)

Herbie:  Adam Levine (he would match up well with Gaga, his personality would fit the part and, of course, he can sing)

Louise/Gypsy: Jennifer Lawrence (she could be a-mazing.)

Tulsa: Zac Efron

Dainty June: Elle Fanning

Miss Cratchet: Allison Janney

Tessie Tura: Tina Fey

Electra: Amy Poehler

Miss Mazeppa: Amy Schumer

Baby June: Alyvia Alyn Lind

Baby Louise: Sophie Pollono

That said, wishing Barbra the best of luck with her dream project.
* * *
Of all the people who have been associated with "Gypsy" in one form or another over the years, the most fascinating is Robert Tucker.


Here are a few Robert Tucker factoids...

Robert Tucker was assistant choreographer to Jerome Robbins on the original 1959 production of "Gypsy." His son Ian Tucker played the role of Angie, one of the dancing framboys in the production. (The senior Tucker also assisted Robbins earlier on "Bells Are Ringing" and "Peter Pan.")

Robert Tucker recreated Robbins' original choreography for Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version of "Gypsy," with son Ian once again essaying the role of Angie for the movie.

Robert Tucker also recreated Robbins' choreography for Arthur Laurents' 1973 London production of "Gypsy" and Laurents' first Broadway revival of the show in 1974. In both productions, the role of Louise was played by Zan Charisse, Tucker's daughter. Tucker's wife is Nenette Charisse, sister of Cyd. Zan took here mother's maiden name professionally. (When "Gypsy" was revived in '74, most people assumed Zan was Cyd Charisse's daughter. The resemblence was striking.)

Robert Tucker also did the choreography for the main credits of David Swift's "Under the Yum Yum Tree" in 1963 (produced by Frederic Brisson, husband of Rosalind Russell, who of course played Rose in the film version of "Gypsy") and designed Elizabeth Hartman's go-go dances for Francis Ford Coppola's "You're a Big Boy Now" in 1966.

Robert Tucker also worked variously as vocal suerpvisor and vocal arranger on such film musicals as "The Sound of Music" (1965), "My Fair Lady" (1964), "Jumbo" (1962), "West Side Story" (1961), "Can-Can" (1960) and such MGM titles as "Gigi" (1958), "Silk Stocking" and "Les Girls"(1957), "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955) and "Kiss Me Kate" (1953).

That's just a partial list. There are many more. And his Broadway credits are even more innumerable. Now you know Robert Tucker.
* * *

Roz Russell created the definitive Rose on screen, despite five decades of whining by Broadway types

Today, a few idle thoughts on "Gypsy" - trivia, gossip and opinions...

1. First, a confession. For years, I've pontificated that "Gypsy" is my all-time favorite Broadway show, a solid vehicle that defies destruction or distortion. Not true. The fact is that all my affection for the show is derived from the on-going pleasure that I get from the 1962 film version. The material, although wonderful, isn't surefire. It is at the mercy of who plays the leading role and who's directing it. Neither Angela Lansbury nor Tyne Daly (both directed by Arthur Laurents) made much of a lasting impression, despite scrupulously craftsmanlike performances. Bernadette Peters (directed by Sam Mendes) was a flat-out disaster in the role.

2. The show itself has evolved, albeit ever-so-slightly, over the years. Author Laurents apparently has enjoyed tinkering with his script, tweaking it here and there. The major change he made between the 1959 original production and the first revival in 1974 was rewriting Gypsy's final strip to include spoken French. A pretentious alteration, but it may be authentic: Perhaps the real Gypsy Rose Lee spoke French on stage during her act. Also, Herbie - who should have been a non-singing character - had more to do, song-wise, by '74.

3. Musicals in tryout traditionally gain and lose songs. "Gypsy" was no exception, but its greatest loss was a delightful number titled "Mama's Talking Soft," sung in the first act by Baby June and Baby Louise. (The number was in the show in Philadelphia, where for some reason, Baby June was called Baby Claire.) The song was important to the symmetry of the show - the characters of June and Louise have songs about Mama both as little children and as young women (the great "If Mama Was Married"). Also "Mama's Talking Soft" figures into Rose's triumphant penultimate number, "Rose's Turn," which incorporates bits and pieces of other songs from the show. When Rose sings, "Mama's talking loud...," it's a direct response to "Mama's Talking Soft." Why was the song cut? Well, the legend goes that it was sung by the two little girls in the rafters and that one of the kids couldn't handle the height. Huh? So why not restage it on the ground level? And, more to the point, why has it never been reinstated in any of the revivals? It's too good to be lost.

4. Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to both "The Music Man" and "Gypsy" the same week, putting both into production for release in 1962. Jack Warner's dictum: Don't fix what isn't broken. Both shows came to the screen with atypical fidelity to their respective source material.

5. Warner's first and only choice for Rose was Rosalind Russell, who made a smash film comeback for the studio in Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" (1958). Mervyn LeRoy who had just directed her in the studio's "A Majority of One" (1961) supported his choice. Judy Garland wanted the role, but there was a catch: They had to take her then-pubescent daughter, Liza Minnelli, too - for the role of Gypsy/Louise. (Can't imagine that.) Doris Day, who was a long-time Warner contract player, also pursued the role, but her last musical for the studio, Stanley Donen-George Abbott's "The Pajama Game" (1957), tanked at the box-office, with Warner questioning her drawing power. There have been rumors that Ann-Margret was up for the role of Gypsy/Louise, but Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda were the only actresses seriously considered for the role. BTW, Garland got to do her own version of "Gypsy" (of sorts) a year later with a 1963 Ronald Neame film called "I Could Go on Singing."

6. The disturbing columnist Dorothy Kilgallen got her nose out of joint when her good friend Ethel Merman, the original Rose, wasn't considered for the film. Jack Warner wasn't stupid - like everyone else, he had seen "Call Me Madam" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" and knew that Merman was no screen personality. Instead, he went for a world-class actress who would bring psychological depth to the character.

7. Independently, Russell also wanted to play Rose but, as I was told by Harper McKay, who was the vocal coach on the film, she was more interested in doing a straight movie based on Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs (also the inspiration for Laurents's stage script). This information leaked out and Kilgallen ran with it: "Warners to drop all the songs from 'Gypsy,'" the gossip columns harrumphed self-righteously. It wasn't true, but it was too late. The gloves were off: Broadway types, proud of their contempt for film, were in the attack mode. It didn't matter that the show's composer Jule Styne was hired as consultant (and also to conduct the "Gypsy" overture on screen) or that several supporting players (Paul Wallace, Faith Dane) from the show were hired for the film. Roz stole Ethel's role and she ... was ... going ... to ... ruin ... it! ... Dammit!

8. It also didn't help that playwright Leonard Spigelgass was hired to adapt Laurents's script - not Laurents himself - and it didn't matter to the film's detractors that Spigelgass contoured "Gypsy" beautifully for the screen, honoring Laurents work and words while also making sure the piece wouldn't be completely stagebound. Spigelgass's "Gypsy" is a nice commingling of reality, theatricality and cinematics. It's a movie.

9. While it was in production, Kilgallen had "Gypsy" under a microscope for her on-going demonization. LeRoy's nifty decision to hire Jack Benny for a cameo elicited the following Kilgallen criticism: "Jack Benny has been hired to play a role in the film of 'Gypsy.' It must be in trouble." You can't buy bad publicity like that. A couple years later, there was an inside joke about this in Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963), in which Merman appeared. Once again, Benny makes a cameo appearance in which he offers to aid Merman and her stranded family. Merman's line: "We don't need any help from you!," delivered angrily.

10. Warners had two producer sneaks of "Gypsy" in September of 1962 - one in Pasadena and one in (gulp!) New York. Bad idea. It was Monday, September 14th, 1962 and the RKO 58th Street Theatre was showing Vincente Minnelli's "Two Weeks in Another Town." At the bottom of that day's ad, a line read, "Tonight at 8:30. Special Invitational Preview. Not open to public." The first Gotham showing of "Gypsy" - to theatre insiders.

11. The preview print of "Gypsy" ran 149 minutes and the program for the preview listed all of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim songs from the play. The audience reaction to Karl Malden singing wasn't good - they laughed - and to protect his star, LeRoy cut the part of "You'll Never Get Away from Me" in which Malden performed and all of "Together, Wherever We Go," a major cut given that it was a major song from the show. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Malden's singing. He's much better than Jack Klugman who played the role on stage. No, it wasn't Malden's singing that was the problem. It was the idea of Malden singing that was the problem. Audiences are resistant to non-singers even if there's nothing wrong with their voices. LeRoy made a few other minor cuts (the most noticeable involving "Dainty June and Her Farmboys").

12. At 143 minutes, the release print of "Gypsy" was now six minutes shorter, with LeRoy claiming it was cut to meet the running-time demands of Radio City Music Hall. Not true. In those days, Radio City would not play anything longer than 150 minutes. The original "Gypsy" ran 149; "The Music Man," which also played there, ran 151.

13. Feeling compelled to "undo the harm of the Roz Russell film," the makers of "Gypsy" pushed for a remake, the result being the unwatchable 1983 Bette Midler TV version, poorly directed by Emile Ardolino ("Dirty Dancing"). On paper, the ever-game Midler sounds like an ideal Rose; in performance, she's something else - utterly and surprisingly unmemorable and with a small voice that made her sound more like Baby June than Rose. Luckily, this "Gypsy" is just about forgotten. About the production, a source very close to the material once said to me, "It gets worse every time I see it." Ardolino filmed Laurents's stage script intact and what seemed great on stage comes across as arch on the small screen. This word-for-word conceit only magnifies the show's flaws.

So, when I say that I love "Gypsy," I'm talking about "the Roz Russell film." And I've a hunch that whatever affection the public has for "Gypsy" is directly related to this long popular film, not the show itself.

Feel free to disagree.
* * *

Ray Sharkey gamely took on the role of Madam Rose in Taylor Hackford's lively "The Idolmaker" (1980)

One of the least-known bits of trivia is that an unofficial male version of "Gypsy" was made in 1980 - by Taylor Hackford. Let me explain.

Robert P. Marcucci, who was a top handler of talent in the 1950s and '60s, escorted his latest discovery, Matt Dillon, to Philadelphia early in 1980 to promote one of Dillon's first films, Robert Maxwell's daring coming-of-age fable, "Little Darlings."

Among the information Marcucci shared with me during the interview was that a film about his career was going to be released later that year.

"It's like a male 'Gypsy,'" he said matter-of-factly.

I should add here that Marcucci's nickname in the biz was The Idolmaker. And that, of course, was the title of the Hackford film that would be released in November of that year, with Ray Sharkey in the Marcucci role - named Vincent 'Vinnie' Vacarri on screen - as an agent who discovered and groomed young talent, in this case rock n' roll singers.

                      Sharkey with Feldshuh: Could they be singing "You'll Never Get Away from Me"?

While "The Idolmaker" is loosely based on Marcucci's experiences with Frankie Avalon and Fabian - with Paul Land and Peter Gallagher in those roles - its narrative has the contours of "Gypsy." Land is clearly the June character, an ingrate who abandons his mentor, while Gallagher has the Louise/Gypsy role. Tovah Feldshuh is essentially playing Herbie.

If there's any doubt about the influence of "Gypsy" on "The Idolmaker," there are two musical numbers that seal it. In the showstopping "Here Is My Love," Land performs the number on stage, while Sharkey apes his moves in the wings - just like Rose during the "Dainty June and Her Farmboys" number in the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim musical.

Even more of a direct steal is “I Believe It Can Be Done”, Sharkey's "Rose's Turn," performed as the last scene in the film after Vinnie's second protégé has left him. "The Idolmaker," a seriously neglected film, would make a wonderful double-bill with "Gypsy."


The 1959 Oscarcast, which celebrated the film year 1958, included a song titled "It's Bully Not to be Nominated," sung by Joan Collins, Dana Wynter and Angela Lansbury. The song, an original and very odd, basically ridiculed that year's best actress nominees, including Rosaling Russell, nominated for Warner's "Auntie Mame."
Of Russell, they sang, "Roz Russell, what a marvelous dame / your mother could have scored as Auntie Mame." Ouch.

It seemed harsh and yet, oddly, Lansbury would play that very role on stage in the musical "Mame." Mame Dennis would be Lansbury's greatest stage accomplishment. Makes one wonder if her mother could have "scored" in the role. I can only assume that Lansbury admired Russell, despite that song lyric, because she would inherit two more Russell roles - Rose in the 1974 London and Broadway revivals of "Gypsy" and the title role in the 1999 telefilm, "The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax." Russell starred as Emily Pollifax in the 1971 theatrical film of the popular Dorothy Gilman novel, retitled "Mrs. Pollifax - Spy."

It was Russell's last big-screen movie.

To the best of my knowledge, Lansbury has never discussed her relationship with Russell - or the three roles that they would share.


If I had to pick one element of "Gypsy" that I find transporting, it would be its language - the wordplay devised for both stage and screen.

Arthur Laurents wrote a master script for the play, abetted by the witty, incisive lyrics that Stephen Sondheim penned for Jule Styne's melodies, while playwright Leonard Spigelgass made the smart move of retaining nearly all of Laurents' dialogue for the film version, adding some all-important narration and a few lines of his own here and there.

My favorites:

Rose, learning her chorus boys are bailing: "Ingrates! You'd take the bread out of that man's mouth (pointing to Herbie) and spit it in his face! Well, as the good Lord says, 'Good riddance to bad rubbish.'" (Laurents)

Rose, testifying to a theatre manager that he children like the candy that Herbie's trying to sell: "Butterfingers and Baby Ruth. So help me. I speak as a mother - and who could argue with a mother?" (Spigelgass)

Miss Mazeppa, trying to impress the young Gypsy: "Once I was a schlepper / Now I'm Miss Mazeppa." (Sondheim)

Warners was nothing less than fastidious when it came to putting the marvelous Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim score on screen.

Originally, all three of the film's stars - Russell, Wood and Karl Malden - were committed to do their own singing. Russell had the toughest assignment - singing songs that were actually written for Ethel Merman's voice and range. While Russell sang on stage in "Wonderful Town" and on film in "The Girl Chase," the "Gypsy" score is decidedly more demanding.

I've heard two sets of her test recordings. The first, set to the original Broadway orchestrations, was recorded prior to filming and one can hear Russell struggling. These tracks are included on the recent Rhino reissue CD of the film's soundtrack. The second set, made during filming while Russell was working with vocal coach Harper MacKay, is a distinct improvement. Still, Russell wanted to sing. Jack Warner was uncertain.

A compromise was made: Russell would do as much singing as she could handle. Broadway's Lisa Kirk, a terrific match-up, was brought in to do voiceover loops for the more demanding songs. For the release version, Russell sang live versions of both "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" and a reprise of "Small World," near the end of the film, as well "Together, Wherever We Go," pre-recored but ultimately cut from the film.

Most of the songs are a brilliant interpolation of both Russell's and Kirk's voices. On screen, for example, Rose's big finale number, "Rose's Turn," starts with Russell singing - again live - and then segues into Kirk for the big finish. Oddly enough, the version on the soundtrack album is all Kirk.

Natalie Wood and Karl Malden did all their own singing.
Wood also experimented. She sang "Little Lamb" live on the set, without music accompaniment, but recorded a seperate version for the album.

Rarely has a studio gone out of its way to get something right.

Note in Passing: Speaking of the back-to back "Goldstone"/"Little Lamb" numbers, a Harbinger CD of Ethel Merman's private recording of the Styne/Sondheim score prior to the show's mounting indicates that "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" originally wrapped around "Little Lamb," a quiet moment apparently nestled within the marching chaos of "Goldstone."

A nice touch. I would have loved to have seen it staged that way...
* * *

As much as I like "Gypsy" the show, I prefer "Gypsy" the movie - the 1962 Mervyn LeRoy theatrical version, not the arch 1993 Emile Ardolino TV version.

Frankly, without exaggeration, I can say that every stage production of the show has somehow let me down. Part of this has to do with the built-in lop-sidedness of the material: The first half, song-heavy, is all musical; the second half is essentially a straight drama with a few songs, most of them performed on stage.

Believe me, the film version's elimination of the intermission helps a great deal, somehow making the transition smoother.

The 2003 revival, despite the presence of a grotesquely miscast Bernadette Peters in the lead role, offered promise. The director was Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and I thought, "Great! Maybe we'll finally get a revolutionary version of 'Gypsy.'" I had a dream, to borrow a recurring line from the show. Perhaps Mendes would reinstate the lost "Mama's Talking Soft" number.

Enter Arthur Laurents who, apparently, would have none of this. No tampering with his baby. Laurents, for all intents and purposes, is the real Mama Rose of "Gypsy," seeming always to be refining his fine script (himself) and, for better or worse, clutching on to it and protecting it with a proprietary - nay, territorial - fervor.

I had a dream, yes - but it was not to be.
I must reiterate that the writing is what makes "Gypsy" transcendent - the core script by Arthur Laurents, the sensitive cinematic tweaking of Leonard Spigelgass and the witty lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.

Spigelgass's shooting script for LeRoy's "Gypsy" was much longer that what ended up on screen. Laurents's script was preserved just about intact, some narration was added and new scenes were invented for the film.

One of Spigelgass's addition was the inclusion of a scene set in Klamath Falls (see photos above and to the right) where Rose, wearing widow weeds and her girls carrying pet birds in cages, seeks work from Mr. Beckman (played by James Millhollin, who was cut from the film), who owns the Bijou Theatre there and is also "one of mama's brothers," a high mogul. Mr. Beckman (called Barton in Spigelgass's shooting script; Beckman in the finished film) is also the father of Tulsa, a kid who, according to his dad, spends too much time "jigging" (i.e., dancing).

When Rose adds boys to the act, she talks of recruiting "that jigger kid from Klamath Falls." Tulsa, of course, eventually becomes Louise's secret love interest and plays a crucial role in her development into Gypsy.

Enter Jack Warner who, apparently, would have none of this. No tampering with his baby.

While most of what Spigelgass wrote was filmed, none of it was used. Warner made sure his "Gypsy" would be a near-carbon copy of the show.

And so what's on screen comes directly from the play. If there's anything wrong with it, it's because there's something wrong with the source material. There's virtually no difference between the stage "Gypsy" and the movie "Gypsy" - except that the movie is better. Got that?

Roz Russell in a scene cut from the final film.


Finally, the ever-resourceful You Tube site has a few must-see clips of Russell doing her own singing in "Gypsy," including "Small World,"
"Some People," "You'll Never Get Away from Me" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

Finally, you can revel in the jarring weirdness of Ethel Merman's voice coming out of Rosalind Russell's mouth in the big finale, "Rose's Turn." Mama's really talking loud now.


Note in Passing: David Cairns' nifty Shadowplay site offers an incisive anaylsis of LeRoy's "Gypsy" by guest writer/occasional contributor David Melville, based on a recent screening at the Edinburgh Filmhouse.

By all means, check it out.
* * *

Director Mervyn LeRoy and cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. frame Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood for the final scene of "Gypsy"
One final anecdote about my on-going "Gypsy" obsession, which started when I saw it on stage in April, 1959 (my first exposure to a Broadway show) and reached a zenith with the release of the film in November '62.

But my finest moment occured on December 18th, 1986 when my wife and I attended a Rosalind Russell auction held at Christie's in New York.

I was prepared. Christie's had sent me a catalogue of what the Russell estate was making available for the auction. I was primarily interested in lot #234, which included Roz's shooting script for "Gypsy" (which Jack Warner had bound for her); a slew of stills and publicity shots; her Golden Globe for her performance in the film, and two scrolls autographed by everyone connected with the film.

Underestand this: I had to have it.

I won't say how much I paid, but Susan was having a minor meltdown during the process (because I was quickly exceeding our agreed-upon price). There was only one other "Gypsy" freak there who wanted that lot and he wouldn't give up. The two of us went at it. But I prevailed!

I'm fond of saying that "The Apartment" is the film that changed my life - which taught me how to "read" movies - but truth be told, "Gypsy" remains my desert-island film, something I'd gladly watch once a day, every day. So, happy anniversary to a great, great musical.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

cinema obscura: Edward Burns' "Purple Violets" (2007)

With an increasing regularity, I keep discovering compellingly obscure movies on my 300-channel cable schedule - fairly estimable movies that I never heard of, movies with noted performers that I'm surprised even exist.

The films, not the performers.

Case in point: The 2007 Edward Burns film, "Purple Violets" which was made for the Weinstein Brothers who, not unexpectedly, immediately shelved the title after it played the Tribeca Film Festival that year.

It's been all over HBO these days.

Selma Blair makes good company in a lost film
This is not a bad film, just an uneventful one. Burns, who made his reputation making films (alternately set on Long Island or in New Jersey) about lovelorn Irish lugs, seems to have hit a career roadblock these days. But here, he turns out a faux Woody Allen film - a nervous romance (to borrow an ad line for one of Allen's films). It's a credible imitation.

The cast is appealing - Selma Blair and Patrick Wilson as two former lovers, both writers, who come together again after she's given up writing for real estate (thanks to blockage) and he's gone on to become a crowd-pleasing novelist. On the sidelines are Elizabeth Reaser as Wilson's unstable girlfriend; Donal Logue as Blair's insensitive main squeeze; Dennis Farina as Blair's piggish boss; Burns as Wilson's best bud, and Debra Messing as a woman trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid Burns.

These are companionable people - it's nice to see Blair in a leading role, even a mopey one like this - and the movie itself goes down easy.

I just have two questions:

Why was it made?

And why didn't the Weinsteins release it?

Note in Passing: Burns hasn't exactly been inactive, just low-profile. He directed and co-starred in (1) "Ash Wednesday" (2002), starring Elijah Wood as his brother; (2) "Looking for Kitty" (2004), starring David Krumholtz as a high school baseball coach, and (3) "The Groomsman" (2006), with John Leguizamo (which airs on The Movie Channel at 11 a.m., est, on Monday, June 8 and at 2:55 p.m. on Friday, June 12).

He also went freelance and acted in Nancy Meyers' "The Holiday" (2006) and Anne Fletcher's "27 Dresses" (2008), as well as a trio of lesser-known titles - Peter Hyams' "A Sound of Thunder"(2005); "Nick Willing's "The River King" (2005), and Eric Valette's "One Missed Call" (2008), a remake of Takashi Miike's Japanese horror film "Chakushin Ari" (2003), co-starring Shannyn Sossamon (and showing on HBO at 4:30 p.m., est, on Friday, June 5 and at 9 A.m. on Wednesday, June 10).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

cinema obscura: John G. Avildsen's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975)

Good old boy Burt Reynolds with (from left) Don Williams, Rick Hurst, Jerry Reed, James Hampton and Conny Van Dyke in John G. Avildsen's delightful "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975)
I miss Burt Reynolds movies the same way I miss Doris Day films.

Both stars made me feel good - but not in the hackneyed "feel-good" way. They made me happy. They were both good company.

Reynolds' career as a major movie star was sadly fleeting, reminding me of Ernest Dowson's haunting poem, "They Are Not Long":

"They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for awhile, then closes
Within a dream."

Burt's star shone all-too-briefly and then seemed to close within a dream. He reigned in the 1970s, during which he defined his star persona - part scamp, part playboy - largely on Johnny Carson's couch on "The Tonight Show" (which is where we really got to know him), while he worked hard to stretch himself as a film actor in a series of features for good directors which, in retrospect, now seem impressively varied and ambitious.

I can't think of another actor of his magnitude who was so nakedly sincere about improving himself. Burt Reynolds was a student of film, perhaps the only studio-system actor to operate without a studio. He arrived too late. Actually, Burt was born too late. The studio system was long dead when he came on the scene. I've a strong hunch that Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Cohn would have loved him.

All of this is in premable to celebrating the Fox Movie Channel's screening - at 4:30 p.m. on May 19th - of Burt's charming and difficult-to-see "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," one of four titles he made in 1975.

The movie year 1975 is memorable for such titles as Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," among others, but beyond those classics were the four that Burt made. In addition to John G. Avildsen's "Dancekings," there are Robert Aldrich's "Hustle," Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" and my beloved "At Long Last Love," directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

On paper, these all looked great - they still do - but in reality... Well, who remembers or cares about any of them? Well, I do (he says defiantly).

I've written here at length about "At Long Last Love" (and on two occasions); the bracing "Hustle" has a small cult of supporters who compare it to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville; and "Lucky Lady" was undermined when Fox decided the dark tone of its original ending (truly poignant and the point of the movie) was too disturbing and reshot it.

Of these four, "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" is the tiniest - a sour-mash-flavored road film about a rickety country-western group with a pleasing sound and its shady, incorrigible manager, W.W. Bright (Burt natch). Ned Beatty is the piece's well-fed villain; the appealing Conny Van Dyke (who made Phil Karlson's terrific "Framed" the same year and then seemingly dropped out of sight) is the female lead, and the supporting cast includes such female stalwarts as Louise Latham (uncredited), Peg Murray, Polly Holliday, Nancy Andrews, as well as James Hampton, Burt's pal, the late Jerry Reed, and, in an amusing cameo, Art Carney.

But it's Burt's film. He's light and appealing - grinning, blowing bubble gum and generally flirting with everyone in sight, men as well as woman.

For a long time, "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," almost impossible to see, seemed like a dream. Elusive. Now, thanks to the Fox Movie Channel, it's back at least one more time to be enjoyed.

My recorder is ready.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Real Housewives," or "The Women Redux"

Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell - When wives had class as well as ambition and claws
For reasons which, initially, I could barely explain, I've become a devotee of the "Real Housewives" shows on Bravo, particuarly the latest one, "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," which is easily the entertainment version of fast food - great-tasting, unhealthy and guilt-producing.

But then, one day, when I was able to tear myself away from Bravo and return to my beloved Turner Classic Movies, I realized something. Turner was promoting its May 14th screening of George Cukor's "The Women" of 1939 and it suddenly dawned on me that, 60 years later, Bravo's collective series on catty, acquisitive, self-absorbed, untrustworthy women of privilege is clearly the heir to Cukor's classic.

Danielle Staub, a real Jersey housewife
In many ways, the women, then and now, are exactly the same, except that the characters in Cukor's film talk with much better diction and have a noticeably less vulgar taste in clothing, decor and especially men. (The men in "The Women" remain off-screen but I'd wager that they're more presentable than the balding, obese nouveaux riches of "Housewives.")

Poor Diane English. She spent 10 years working on her 2008 remake of "The Women," doing her level best to approximate and modernize Cukor's take on Clare Boothe Luce's ruthless depiction of, er, loyalty among women. While she was busy working, Bravo got it right.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

literi: Nick Dawson's "Being Hal Ashby"

The late, great Hal Ashby on location in New York for "The Landlord" with his star Beau Bridges
Hal Ashby (1929–1988) had a relatively brief run as a filmmaker, too short, but the handful of films that he turned out, even the lesser titles when he started to self-destruct towards the end, are nothing less than remarkable. Starting with his first film, "The Landlord" (1970), he had me hooked. Hal Ashby remains one of my very favorite filmmakers - one of two, actually, running a close second to only Alfred Hitchcock.

Why it took so long for someone to confront, dissect and honor the man's talent in a biography is beyond me. But Nick Dawson's heartfelt, scholarly tome, "Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel" (440 pages), recently published by the University Press of Kentucky, was well worth the wait. I gladly bring it to your attention.

Hal and I became friends during my first year as a critic when I was just about totally obsessed with "The Landlord." We met several times over the years (most memorably on a smoky, atmospheric nighttime location in Bakersfield, Ca. for "Bound for Glory"), we corresponded often and he generously gave me his worn shooting script for the film.

Nick Dawson utilized material from Hal's personal archives that included his letters to me and mine to him, as well as some of my reviews of Hal's films. It's a small contribution to a fine book, very small.

But I'm genuinely proud of it.