Monday, June 1, 2015

Backstage Musicals in London: Gypsy and Sunny Afternoon

Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. (Photo: Johan Persson)

It’s easy to argue for Gypsy, first produced on Broadway in 1959 and currently enjoying a sold-out revival in London’s West End, as the greatest of all American musicals. (Closest contender: Fiddler on the Roof.) Arthur Laurents’s book, suggested by the memoirs of the stripper queen Gypsy Rose Lee, is in the vein of John O’Hara’s for Pal Joey. Like that 1940 landmark musical, Gypsy has a seedy backstage milieu – second-rate vaudeville houses across the country at the twilight of vaudeville, when talkies were stealing away their audiences, and finally burlesque theatres – and an anti-heroic protagonist. But though Pal Joey’s script is colorful and sexy, the second act is a bit of a shambles (the distinctive characters and the marvelous Rodgers & Hart score bring it home), and the show lacks depth. An exposé of naked show-biz ambition, Gypsy, which has a superb score by Jule Styne (music) and a young Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), is almost O’Neill-like in its intensity and darkness.

The protagonist, of course, is not Louise, who turns into Gypsy Rose Lee in the second half of the second act, but her mother Rose, the prototypical stage mom, who pulls her two daughters out of elementary school in Seattle and tours them around – eventually graduating to the Orpheum vaudeville circuit – in the hope of turning one of them, “Baby” June, into a Shirley Temple-like star. The play never alludes specifically to screen tests, but in the early years, before June and Louise and the young hoofers they pick up along the way have become preposterously superannuated for the kiddie numbers Rose devises, L.A. is the dream city they’re supposedly moving toward – and move right past. En route they also acquire a manager, Herbie, originally a popcorn drummer who agrees to Rose’s invitation to promote them when he falls for Rose herself, a three-time divorcée with awe-inspiring drive and chutzpah.

Sandra Church, Ethel Merman, & Jack Klugman in Gypsy, 1959.
The role of Rose was written for Ethel Merman late in her career, and apparently she was sensational in it, though you sure can’t tell from her wavering-off-the-key belting on the original cast album. Rosalind Russell played it in the suffocating movie version (with Natalie Wood about as ill-fitted for the role of Louise as she had been the year earlier for Maria in West Side Story – some of these Hollywood adaptations of Broadway hits could be truly stupefying). Russell, who is truly wretched, was the first Mama Rose I ever saw, and the film was so sanitized that I didn’t understand the material. Nor did I get it when I saw Angela Lansbury’s rather ladylike style in the 1974 stage revival. In both cases there seemed to be such a disjunction between the reprehensible behavior of the character and the way the musical embraced her – as a kind of endearing pain in the ass, not unlike, say, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! – that I thought Laurents had invented a pathological heroine but somehow didn’t realize it. It wasn’t until I saw Tyne Daly play Rose on Broadway in 1989 that it became clear to me that Laurents had known precisely what he was writing. At the end of the first act June (who would turn into the stage performer June Havoc) finally elopes with one of the chorus boys, Tulsa – they all carry monikers referring to the cities where Rose pulled them into the act – and gets away from her mother’s iron grip. Immediately Rose turns to Louise, whose lack of talent she’s taken for granted for years, and swears to make her into a star. The first-act finale is the famous up-tempo number “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and if you’ve only heard it out of context it may be a shock to discover that it’s a paean to Rose’s relentless ambition, egotism and self-delusion. In the 1989 production (which Laurents directed) Herbie and Louise stood, paralyzed with horror, as Daly’s Mama Rose shifted her dreams of glory from the absent and now never-to-be-spoken-of traitor June onto Louise, whose role in the troupe has heretofore been as a combination chorus boy (she’s dressed as one of the boys), go-fer and seamstress. I can’t think of a more terrifying first-act curtain in any musical, including Sweeney Todd.

Tyne Daly gave the best performance I’ve ever seen in a musical, and nearly a decade later Patti LuPone was very fine in the part as well. There have been a lot of retreads. Bernadette Peters (2003) wasn’t right for it, and the revival she starred in was mediocre. A TV version with Bette Midler (1993) was an embarrassment: she and Peter Riegert, oddly cast as Herbie, didn’t seem to be in the same show, and Midler, who should have been an ideal Rose, was so wound up in her first song, “Some People,” that long before she got to her last, “Rose’s Turn,” you wanted to cry uncle. It’s a difficult role: you don’t want to sentimentalize her but if she’s a monster from the moment she appears you don’t want to watch her at all (and you don’t believe Herbie would stick around waiting for her to agree to marry him).

The star of the West End production, which was directed by Jonathan Kent, is Imelda Staunton, who gives Rose a sashaying good-old-gal quality that’s also sort of sexy: when, in the middle of her duet with Herbie, “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” she entices him onto the floor of a Chinese restaurant to dance with her, you see exactly what draws him to her. (Peter Davison normally plays Herbie, but I saw an understudy, Tom Hodgkins, who offered a very sympathetic portrait of the character.) But you see the blistering butt-end of her temper at the kids’-talent-show audition in the opening scene, and from that moment you’re never in any doubt that this woman is dangerous to anyone who gets in her way. Staunton is an undeniably powerful Rose. I wish Kent had directed her to shout less; it begins to feel like a fallback vocal choice. But she has some amazing scenes, and the ovation she got for “Rose’s Turn” at the matinee I saw was richly deserved. This perhaps most famous of all eleven-o’clock numbers (Styne knew how to write them: five years later he came up with “Don’t Rain on My Parade” for Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) comes after Louise, who has discovered her talent on the burlesque stage and become Minsky’s most celebrated star, finally tells her mother to stop interfering in her life. Rose accuses her of gross ingratitude. “What did I do it for?” she protests – the years of touring, the sometimes harrowing efforts to keep the wolf from the door. “I thought you did it for me, Mama,” Louise answers, and “Rose’s Turn,” where Mama is alone on the stage, reveals the truth: that she did it for herself, and that stardom for either of her daughters could never compensate for her unmet desire to be the one who got noticed. It’s one hell of a song. When Daly performed it, the audience went crazy and she took in the applause as if it were happening in her head. (In more than half a century of theatergoing, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more unsettling moment on a stage.) Staunton puts her own signature on the number by playing the stuttering verse (“M-m-mama / M-m-mama”) as a temporary breakdown.

Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver. (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Kent’s production is excellent, with strong contributions from the choreographer, Stephen Mear, the musical director, Nicholas Skilbeck, the set and costume designer, Anthony Ward, and the lighting designer, Mark Henderson. The orchestra plays the exciting overture with all the spirit it merits. The kiddie numbers, with Scarlet Roche (alternating with Isla Huggins-Barr) and then Gemma Sutton as June, are delightful parodies: June’s voice on “Let Me Entertain You” is a treacly screech, and every gradation of the act recycles so much material from the earlier ones that you start thinking of Carol Burnett wearing the curtains in her parody of Gone with the Wind. Dan Burton, as Tulsa, is charming on “All I Need Is the Girl,” as are Sutton and Lara Pulver on June and Louise’s lament “If Momma Was Married.” The only disappointing number is the one that generally works even in failed versions of the musical, the strippers’ trio “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” in the middle of act two, even though Mear has reproduced Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and Ward evidently had the time of his life creating the ridiculous costumes for the three ladies, Mazeppa (Louise Gold), Electra (Julie Legrand) and Tessie Tura (Anita Louise Combe). But they perform the number without adequate energy and too knowingly, as if they knew how crappy they were, and I don’t think that’s the right approach.

Pulver is a knockout as Louise. The character is a self-denigrating wallflower who suddenly blossoms as an elegant but hard-boiled, self-mocking burlesque star. The part often seems to be booby-trapped: many actresses who attempt it melt into the scenery until they perform their first strip (when Louise steps in at the last minute for someone who hasn’t shown up). So the metamorphosis often doesn’t work, even though the writers have set it up as a classic backstage-musical discovery number (like “After the Ball” in Show Boat or “I’d Rather Be Blue” in the movie version of Funny Girl) that begins with a timid, shaky vocal and acquires confidence as it goes on. Laurents has even given Louise a key line: when she dons the stripper’s outfit and looks at herself in the dressing-room mirror, she says, astonished, “I’m pretty, Mama. Mama, I’m a pretty girl!” Pulver reads that line very touchingly, but in fact she’s imbued Louise with so many colors from the beginning – especially in her scenes with Tulsa, whom she has such a crush on that she exudes a sort of joy whenever she’s alone with him. (A peculiar omission: Laurents never lets Louise articulate her response when he runs off with her sister, though it’s yet another case of June getting all the attention from the people Louise loves. The book goes out of its way not to make her resentful of June, ever, but a moment when her optimism falters might be helpful.) Pulver gives such an emotionally rich performance that her final scenes feel like a natural extension of the character. Gypsy is Rose’s story, but it’s secondarily a coming of age for its title character, and even the best Louises I’ve seen (like Laura Benanti in the 2008 revival, opposite LuPone) didn’t carry that element of the narrative as far as this one does.

Mark Newnham, Ryan O'Donnell, Garmon Rhys, and Andrew Gallo in  Sunny Afternoon. (Photo:  Kevin Cummins)

As a rule I don’t much like jukebox musicals, even when they’re actually about the band whose songs make up the score. (The most successful jukebox musical of all time, the intolerable, untouched-by-human-hands Mamma Mia!, isn’t about Abba at all but merely shoehorns the Abba tunes into dramatic situations for which they were never intended.) But I had a pretty good time at Sunny Afternoon, the West End musical about the career of The Kinks. Joe Pennall’s book is no masterpiece, but at least he keeps it loose and funny – at least in the first act, before the heartbreak traditional in musical bios sets in. He and the director, Edward Hall, are trying for something raffish and satirical, in the style of some of the English movies from the period, the mid-sixties, in which most of the play takes place, and if it isn’t exactly A Hard Day’s Night, at least it’s lively and refuses to take itself too seriously. Translation: it’s not Jersey Boys. Ray Davies wrote the original story as well as (of course) the songs, which are so damn good that they justify the show. I like Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons as much as the next rock and roll fan, but The Kinks’ discography is truly dazzling. (The book of the musical explains why Americans didn’t get to hear many of them when they were first released.) The performance I attended included four understudies, including Ryan O’Donnell as Ray and Robbie White as his brother Dave, so I can’t say whether John Dagleish and George Maguire, who normally play those roles, are, like O’Donnell and White, better singers than they are actors. Nonetheless I enjoyed hearing both of them interpret the songs, as well as Ned Derrington as Pete Quaife and Adam Sopp as Mick Avory, the other two members of the band.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Good article. Interesting look at Gypsy, and I didn't know anything about Sunny Afternoon. (Also confirms – that is, agrees with – my opinion of Mamma Mia, though "intolerable" might be a bit of overstatement.)

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