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They’re Coming Up Roses : Bette Midler headlines a new movie version of ‘Gypsy,’ a rare exact replication of a Broadway show. Therein lies a tale of tenacity, good timing and star power that Mama Rose herself would have appreciated

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Twenty-two years ago, Bette Midler had a dream.

It was during her first tour, and she wanted to put a few songs in the act from the musical “Gypsy,” “because it was her favorite show,” her friend and then-musical director Barry Manilow recalled. Few people outside of Manhattan had ever heard of her at the time, but Midler had a goal of someday playing Mama Rose, the monster stage mother of all time, a role originally created on Broadway in 1959 by Ethel Merman.

“But she thought she was too young at the time,” Manilow said, so the “Gypsy” music wasn’t included--songs such as “Small World,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Together, Wherever We Go.” Instead, he said, “the two of us would sing the whole score together in various cheap motel rooms we stayed in on the road.”

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Thirty-one years ago, “Gypsy’s” authors--book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim--had a nightmare.

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It came in the form of Warner Bros.’ 1962 film version of their show. They had sold the rights to Hollywood thinking the star would be Judy Garland. Instead the role of Mama Rose went to Rosalind Russell, who was much admired as an actress but who couldn’t sing. And the title role--the eldest of Rose’s two daughters, who grew up to be famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee--went to Natalie Wood, who couldn’t sing either.

That wasn’t all. The director was Mervyn LeRoy (producer of “The Wizard of Oz”), who had never before directed an adaptation of a Broadway musical. Several characters from the stage version were eliminated, voice narration was added and one of the show’s best-known songs, “Together, Wherever We Go,” was dropped.

“That film was a dreadful thing,” Styne said recently from his New York home. “They know nothing about the theater out there. They know nothing about the music tempos. The only thing that counts is the director.”

“Not for all the money in the world will we let them make another film version of ‘Gypsy’ ” was Laurent’s flat-out statement four years ago when interest in a remake was rekindled by a successful stage revival starring Tyne Daly.

But guess what? Next Sunday, CBS will air a new, three-hour film version of “Gypsy,” starring none other than Midler and featuring Peter Riegert as Rose’s strung-along boyfriend, Cynthia Gibb as the daughter transformed from Louise to Gypsy, Ed Asner as Rose’s father, Michael Jeter as vaudeville impresario Mr. Goldstone and Andrea Martin as an officious secretary.

The broadcast will be a rare event: the exact replication of a Broadway show for the camera. Even such landmark broadcasts three decades ago of Mary Martin in “Peter Pan,” Julie Andrews in “Cinderella” and Carol Burnett in “Once Upon a Mattress” used scripts that adapted the original stage production for the home screen. Not so “Gypsy.” It is word for word, lyric for lyric, note for note the same as when Merman sang the songs--but shot to look like a movie, not a stage play.

How Midler realized her dream and Laurents, Styne and Sondheim put their nightmare behind them is a tale of tenacity, good timing and star power that Mama Rose herself would have appreciated.

During the past 10 years there has been continuing interest in remaking “Gypsy” for the screen. Shirley Bernstein, Laurents’ longtime agent, recounted an impressive list of actresses who have been proposed to star, including Daly, Burnett and Liza Minnelli. In 1989, Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency even suggested a package that would have cast Barbra Streisand as Rose and Madonna as Gypsy (with Streisand directing). But the authors nixed them all.

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One of the primary concerns for Laurents was that a film adaptation would be just that--an adaptation requiring a screenplay based on his original play. “He would have none of that,” Bernstein said.

“We had many offers,” Styne recalled. “But the only way we’d ever let them do it was if they did it just as it was in the theater.”

In fact, they also had to do it in the theater. Bernstein said the authors wanted whoever was going to do a new filmed production to take the show on the road and play before live audiences first, then record a version of the show onstage, much as has been done with such Sondheim musicals as “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Styne, who wrote the music to Streisand’s most famous musical role, Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” said that over the years he kept calling Streisand’s manager, Marty Erlichman, about her doing the show in such fashion.

“But Marty kept saying, ‘I’ll see.’ She was not interested in taking the show on the road,” Styne said.

Enter the producing team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. For years they had had a dream of their own: to produce “Gypsy"--one of their favorite shows--starring their first and only choice for Mama Rose, Bette Midler.

“She has the perfect combination of brashness and vulnerability that Rose calls for,” Zadan said.

“It was the role she was born to play,” Meron said. “Now she’s the right age for it as well.”

Zadan’s entree to “Gypsy” was his longstanding relationship with Sondheim--he wrote “Sondheim & Co.,” a biography of the composer-lyricist--and he knew Laurents and Styne too. He also knew well their aversion to what Hollywood can do to Broadway musicals.

Above all, both he and Meron had enormous respect for “Gypsy,” the backstage musical fable based on the 1957 memoirs of stripper Lee. The show is widely regarded among theater buffs as one of the best-written American musicals, with a strong story and hit songs that propel the drama.

For all of that, however, their proposal took several years to win acceptance from the reluctant authors. They virtually had given up on it ever happening.

Then last year, as agent Bernstein recalled: “Basically, one day I was talking with Neil (Meron), and I told him that if he cared to bring up the subject of a ‘Gypsy’ project, this might be a good time to bring it up.”

What had changed, she said, was that Laurents, Styne and Sondheim felt the time had come to make a permanent record of their show as it was intended--and Zadan and Meron vowed absolute faithfulness to the original script and Jerome Robbins’ choreography and gave the authors casting approval.

Television had been broached as a possibility before. Barry Brown, who was one of the producers of the Angela Lansbury “Gypsy” stage revival in 1974 and then of the Daly production in 1989, said he and his late partner Fritz Holt had once offered to produce a theatrical version with Burnett that also would have been taped for TV. But that proposal too was rejected.

“The real reason they changed their minds now,” Brown believes, “is two words: Bette Midler .”

Styne doesn’t dispute that she was a big factor: “When they (Zadan and Meron) came up with Bette, boy, that’s who we wanted. Then the minute we agreed to Bette, (Streisand) called and said she wanted it (for a feature film).” Too late.

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After that, “Gypsy” pretty much sold itself. CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky told Zadan and Meron in a five-minute conversation that if they could sign a star, he would give the project a go. Midler was mentioned as one possibility.

At the same time, Sagansky also put them in touch with producer Robert Halmi Sr., who had co-produced “Lonesome Dove” for the network and is about to begin production on “Scarlett,” a sequel to “Gone With the Wind,” also for CBS.

Halmi would provide much of the $14-million production money--a sum virtually unheard of for one night of network television programming.

One of the keys to making “Gypsy” financially viable, Halmi said, was the fact that it will be shown as a theatrical feature in other countries. It will be released on home video Feb. 24, and a cast album is already in stores.

Zadan and Meron next called Bonnie Bruckheimer, Midler’s partner in All-Girl Productions. She told them that 1993 was to be a busy period for Midler, who was to make the film “Hocus Pocus” and begin rehearsals for a live stage tour that would begin in September (and which arrives at the Universal Amphitheater on Dec. 15). How could they squeeze in “Gypsy”?

A month went by. “It was just before the time Bette went on ‘The Tonight Show’ and sang goodby to Johnny Carson,” Zadan recalled.

“I finally talked to her and said, ‘Is Rose not your favorite role?’ She said, ‘Yes.’

“I said, ‘Is this not the greatest female role ever written for a musical?’ She said, ‘Yes.’

“I said, ‘Isn’t this the greatest musical ever written?” She said, ‘Yes.’

“So I said, ‘What’s the problem?’

“And she said, ‘You’re right. Let’s do it. “

Then it was back to CBS. “It wasn’t a hard one to say yes to,” Sagansky said. “The ‘event’ moniker is so overused, but that’s exactly what this was to be. Anytime you can do something that is off the beaten path and with the kind of talent that Zadan and Meron were able to line up, you’ve got something that is really unique.”

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Once Midler was locked in, the producers turned to finding a director who could retain the show’s theatricality and yet give it a cinematic look so that it would look like a movie, not like a play that had been filmed.

“Bette was convinced it might never work because of this,” Zadan said.

But the producers knew Emile Ardolino, the director of such films as the current “The Nutcracker” and 1987’s “Dirty Dancing.” He also directed “Sister Act,” a film Midler had turned down, leaving the way open for Whoopi Goldberg to star. The producers also knew that Ardolino had directed in theater and for the PBS TV series “Dance in America"--a program close to the heart of “Gypsy” choreographer Robbins.

It seemed perfect. And when Zadan and Meron learned that, as a young man, Ardolino had seen “Gypsy” on Broadway 25 times, they offered him the job. This time, it would be Ardolino who would turn down a chance to direct “Sister Act 2"--to do a show with Midler. Ardolino and his partner, Cindy Gilmore, also functioned as co-producers.

But halfway through the shooting last summer, Ardolino started to weaken and it became obvious that something was wrong. Soon CBS executives were told that his condition was related to AIDS.

Ardolino continued to work and saw the project through editing. But his condition worsened, and he never saw the movie in its final form. He died Nov. 20. Now, the network says, the final frame of the movie will be a dedication to Ardolino’s memory.

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So was it worth the wait? Agent Bernstein says she thinks the new film is wonderful. And Styne--whose latest Broadway musical, “The Red Shoes,” is scheduled to open Dec. 16--is exuberant.

“I’m so excited,” he said a few days ago. “I just watched a tape of the movie and I cried. (Midler’s) is the most outstanding singing and acting performance I’ve seen on the screen within memory. . . . Emile made up for the fact that there is no applause (as there is in the theater) by beautifully and cinematically blending one scene into the next. It doesn’t feel like an antiquated transfer from stage to screen.”

Laurents and Sondheim declined to comment.

“As it turned out,” said Midler’s partner Bruckheimer, “and knowing the difficulties of getting people to appreciate musicals, maybe television is the right medium. There is an intimacy, and ‘Gypsy’ is pretty much an intimate show focusing on a few characters.”

Producer Halmi sees the project as an attempt to prove to the media, actors, writers and directors that TV has come of age. If there is an audience for “Gypsy,” he hopes that there may be room on television for new versions of musicals like “West Side Story” and “Oklahoma!”

“We are ready and able to take on the theatrical (film) boys,” Halmi says. “Audiences are sick and tired of movies of the week and diseases of the month."*

* NEXT WEEK . . .

“Gypsy” star Bette Midler talks about the new production in next Sunday’s TV Times.


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