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A Legendary Musical Amid ‘Phantoms’ : ‘Gypsy’ set a standard in 1959 that still towers today

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Change comes in waves, first as experiment, then as daring, finally affecting the way things are and settling into common use. Then another wave of change comes along. This is the pattern in most things and it is the pattern in the theater.

You can see the changes quite clearly in the contrast between two musicals at the Los Angeles Music Center: the new “The Phantom of the Opera,” at the Ahmanson Theater, and a revival of 1959’s “Gypsy,” opening Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a production starring Tyne Daly. (It plays the Orange County Performing Arts Center from July 18-29.)

“Gypsy” set the benchmark when it opened on Broadway. A nearly perfect show, it added up to everything that had been accomplished on the musical stage until then. It was the show with perhaps the best score ever written for a musical. (Most of Broadway’s composers thought so when they were asked in a survey.) It was perhaps the last of the great “book musicals,” the shows that set songs to serious stories. As a result, “Gypsy” is now legend, it is the mythic Broadway musical, the one with towering soul and a heart of brass.

Today, when musical plays are something of a souvenir and a new kind of musical is developing (i.e., “The Phantom of the Opera”), it is important to understand that these classic musicals of ours serve as their basis, from their overtures to their exit music.

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At the time “Gypsy” opened, “West Side Story” had just introduced the something that was coming, the concept musicals, that would be largely dominated by choreographer-directors. A few years later, “Fiddler on the Roof” took that movement a step further. What was past had been wonderful, but it was past.

Today we know that there is gold in that old brass. When “Gypsy” was just a jingling coin in the pocket of producer David Merrick, the talent pool was so vast that young Cy Coleman, eager to do a show with his lyricist Carolyn Leigh, wrote four songs, strictly on speculation (“Firefly” was one of them and it became a hit for Tony Bennett, making “Gypsy” the only Broadway show to have a score-and-a-half, including hits that weren’t in it). The assignment had already been promised to 29-year-old Stephen Sondheim but, trouble was, he had written only lyrics so far, and they were just for one show, “West Side Story.” Sondheim considered himself foremost a composer, but Ethel Merman, who would be starring in “Gypsy,” considered him foremost unknown, and so David Merrick bowed to her demand for an experienced composer and hired Jule Styne.

Then it was lyricist Sondheim’s turn to disapprove. “Julie’s shows had been in the traditional mold,” he said, “what used to be called ‘musical comedy’ songs. I didn’t know how he would adapt to another way of thinking, whether he would be able to keep his eyes and ears on character and story, rather than hit songs.”

That was nervy, but Sondheim was a serious-minded upstart who had the talent to back it up. He would push Styne to new composing heights. He could, because he had two men pushing him, two men who were as idealistic as he but older and more experienced, the director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and the librettist Arthur Laurents (who is directing the current production). They even knew that his lyric-writing could use a little improvement of its own after “West Side Story.” Now, he too, would grow.

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At first blush, lyrics seem the least important of the three major elements in a musical. After all, the music is what audiences come for (aren’t the shows called “musicals”?). In fact, the book, or script, is the crucial element, the spine of the show, and the reason it exists. The story is the fabric holding it together. Not even the most wonderful songs can rescue a musical from a weak script, and that has been proven by George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter.

Mind you, no show ever failed because of poor lyrics, because few people pay attention to them. In most cases, an audience is on information overload.

There is a spectacle to contend with, a story and characters, songs and dancing. It is tough enough to even make out the lyrics on first hearing, and yet they lie at a musical’s crucial theme, the point at which the spoken words end, and songs begin. There, the lyrics provide the link from dialogue into singing. If ideally written, they can make a play become musical theater, for words are the one thing that the drama and the song have in common. Too, lyrics can give the music content and they can be used to supplement a script that is already sorely limited, for when the songs and dances are counted in, little more than an hour is left for the story.

Great lyricists such as Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin established a tradition of wittiness, but Sondheim, with his lyrics for “Gypsy,” raised the craft to new purposes.

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Some people can get a thrill

Knitting sweaters and sitting still

That’s okay for some people

Who don’t know they’re alive.

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That is Mama Rose talking philosophy, but in her own words. In the old musical theater, clever lyrics meant funny lyrics, with devilish rhymes and ingenious wit. In this song, “Some People,” Sondheim was writing words to reveal Rose’s nature, her drive for excitement. He would never force her to sing words she wouldn’t say, but he would give her words that revealed her motivation, and even do it with ingenious interior rhyme such as knitting and sitting. They ran so smoothly, even the character never noticed them, and sometimes neither do we. Old-fashioned lyricists often rhyme to show off, but Sondheim rhymes only for emphasis and rhythm, the less noticeable the better. Moreover, by introducing Mama Rose this way, he saves librettist Laurents the chore of doing it with yards of expository drama.

I had a dream

A wonderful dream, Papa!”

Again, Sondheim helps Laurents, underlining the “dream” motif that the playwright is weaving through the story, and thus the responsibility of the lyrics is established, from the double-interior rhymes in “Small World” . . .

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We have so much in common

It’s a phenomenon.”

. . . to the virtual absence of rhymes in the final and staggering “Rose’s Turn.” And all these lyrics urge Styne’s music to go somewhere he had never been, and Styne was the first to admit it. He also had Ethel Merman to write for, which of course was inspiration in itself.

Here was the sound of Broadway, and she, the singer, for whom George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin had written their best. Styne was a writer of wonderful popular songs, and he had written a couple of hit shows (“High Button Shoes,” “Bells Are Ringing”) but was there reason for Sondheim’s worries about Styne’s limitations?

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Robbins, Laurents and Sondheim were no lightweights aiming for a mere musical comedy, and Styne almost had an inferiority complex. (When Jerome Robbins once asked him to write dance music, he replied, “You want ballet music? Get Bernstein!”).

It turned out that Styne had untapped musical resources, as well as an unparalleled gift for tailoring songs to Merman’s voice and personality. It oughtn’t have been surprising. He had been writing one Frank Sinatra hit after another, suiting them to “The Voice.” He had already tailored “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to Carol Channing (and would later fit “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People” to Barbra Streisand). In “Gypsy,” Styne would set a new standard for himself, writing earthy show tunes with musicianly underpinnings.

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Still, the book remained to make the show work.

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Laurents’ libretto is of course suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, who was the most famous and classiest of all striptease dancers. But while “Gypsy” is named for her, it is about her mother, Rose Thompson Hovick. Thus, when Mama Rose sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” not only does she mean rosy, but also two Roses--Gypsy and herself. In fact, Gypsy Rose Lee (whose real name is Louise) is named for her mother, because she is fulfilling her mother’s frustrated ambitions as a performer, and that is the reason Laurents uses “dream” as his recurring image.

I had a dream

I dreamed it for you, Rose

It wasn’t for you, Herbie

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And if it wasn’t for me

Then where would you be

Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?

Many of the story choices are in fact Laurents’. Yes, Rose Hovick was an archetypal stage mother, a “jungle mother,” and, yes, she really did keep Baby June’s age a mystery to prolong the girl’s viability as a “moppet act,” and she did feed her children Chinese food because it was cheap and reheatable. But it is through Laurents’ structure that she ascends to size and tragedy.

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Mind you, it had never been the intention of director Jerome Robbins to make “Gypsy” a traditional, song-and-dance-and-story musical, a book musical. He had intended to follow up on his advances in “West Side Story” and take musical theater yet another step toward concept shows. His idea was for “Gypsy” to be a cavalcade of vaudeville acts, the jugglers and acrobats and clowns made bigger-than-life. He even held auditions for such performers.

That show might have made a great show, but it wouldn’t have been this show. Once a musical is begun, if it is working right, it takes on a life of its own, and then dictates its own form. By that point, as Robbins would later say to Laurents, it was no longer his show. “It’s your show,” he said. “It’s a book musical,” for “Gypsy” was already alive, a solid story carried by a powerhouse central character and driven by a musical score of acid and brass. This creature was not to be denied, and Mama Rose had to fulfill her destiny as one of the most powerful, vivid and tragically heroic figures in not just our musical theater, but in all of American theater. No longer a role “owned” by Ethel Merman, it is a towering part that must be attempted, sooner or later, by any singing actress worth her nerve.

Today, our musical theater is at yet another crossroads. The concept musicals that Robbins had begun developing with “West Side Story” have dominated our stages for some 30 years, while he and the other choreographer-directors reigned--Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett. In this movement, Sondheim himself became a central figure, collaborating with producer-director Harold Prince on a series of landmark concept musicals such as “Company,” “Follies,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Well, Fosse, Champion and Bennett are now dead, and Robbins has long since retired to the ballet. His “Jerome Robbins Broadway” may be a current hit, but it is, of course, a compilation of numbers from his classics (including “Gypsy”).

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After “Gypsy,” of the concept musicals that he pioneered, “A Chorus Line” is the benchmark. It sets the limit of that development as “Gypsy” did for the book musicals. Thus is progress made, with invention, introduction and absorption.

It is Harold Prince who has taken a new step. Collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he has ushered in an era of music-dominated shows in which the composer becomes the creative overlord. Such Webber-Prince shows as “Evita” and “The Phantom of the Opera” are taking our musical theater yet another step forward.

The future of our musicals lies just a few hundred feet away from where “Gypsy” performs, at the Ahmanson Theater. But the future is always based on the past. The two shows demonstrate that they share the same tradition and can thrive side-by-side, but also, that the tradition isn’t dead, is still growing, old enough to have a past, but young enough to have a future.


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