The Playgoer: Gypsy's "Papa Rose"

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gypsy's "Papa Rose"

Riedel got Gypsy author/auteur Arthur Laurents on the record Friday with what he really thinks about the director of the previous revival, Sam Mendes.

Laurents' "Gypsy" came about because he was deeply unhappy with the 2003 Broadway version starring his friend Bernadette Peters and staged by Oscar-winning British director Sam Mendes.

"There was the Ethel Merman 'Gypsy,' the Angela Lansbury 'Gypsy,' the Tyne Daly 'Gypsy' and the Sam Mendes 'Gypsy,' " Laurents says. "I thought Sam did a terrible disservice to Bernadette and the play, and I wanted a 'Gypsy' seen in New York that was good.

"You have to have musical theater in your bones, and Sam doesn't," Laurents continues, taking, as his wont, no prisoners. "You can't put it there. I know. I tried. I gave Sam many notes, but he just couldn't do it. As they say in 'Gypsy,' 'Either you got it or you don't.' And he don't."


This sent me searching back through the NYT archives, though, for an article I vividly remember of how Laurents marched into Mendes' production at the last minute, not just giving notes but demanding a complete overhaul.

(The article is behind the Times Select fire wall, but if you have access, it's from May 5, 2003, "New Gypsy Struts, Silencing Naysayers" by Jesse McKinley.)

Now I'm a little biased, I suppose, in being a great Sam Mendes fan. I'm not really talking about his movies, actually. I just think the stage productions of his I've seen both here and in London (mostly of classics) have been among the most smart, elegant,and well acted I can remember. Plus I plead completely guilty to loving the big "Cabaret" revival, which originated in much rougher form in London before being spruced up for the Roundabout and Studio 54. (Yes, and Henry Miller's Theatre before that, I know.) Now true, it's perhaps revealing that for Broadway, Mendes had to be paired with a more slick Musical Theatre pro, Rob Marshall. (Who later proved his own inventiveness on the film of "Chicago," of course.) But to me, Mendes stamp was all over "Cabaret": the unromanticized romance, the unvarnished treatment of politics, and a simple ensemble theatre staging that drew attention to itself as a play.

So, I was most interested in the Gypsy article how one of the first things Laurents objected to were "''these brown chairs and nothing else." Yup, I thought, that's my Sam! He loves the simplicity of the wooden chairs on bare floorboards--an almost Brechtian ascetic minimalism. Of course, he was nuts to think he would get away with that in a multi-million dollar Broadway musical. But he kinda did in Cabaret.

But Gypsy--as emotionally dark as it gets sometimes--is no Cabaret, when it comes to a wasteland landscape.

Long story short, the 2003 article also documents how Laurents seems to have approached Mendes to direct in the first place, but also insisted on casting Bernadette Peters, which Mendes resisted. (In Riedel's article, note he's still defending this choice and blaming Mendes for criticisms of her performance.) Upon seeing the final dress (or early previews) Laurents sent a 10-page memo demanding changes--in his capacity as author and basically de facto executor of the Gypsy estate, so these aren't just requests. And the article indicates that many of these notes were indeed followed. He did more than just "tried."

And note the closer of the '03 piece:

For Mr. Laurents, meanwhile, the satisfaction was more gradual, but deeply fulfilling.

''It was slow but sure,'' he said. ''But it got there. Boy, did it get there.''
Sounds satisfied, yes?

Well, cut to [twelve] months later when the show was forced to close in [May] [probably] at a loss[...].* Failure is as fatherless a child as little Rose Louise...

*see "Comments" for corrections on the previous claim here.

I myself was struck in Laurents' current staging by how similar it was in so many details to the "Mendes" version. Which I took to mean, Laurents indeed put his imprint on it and got his notes on stage. (Keep in mind these are not new staging ideas of his. He directed show already in two B'way revivals in the 70s and 80s.)

However, Michael Feingold makes a credible case for why Laurents' current presentation is different, and superior. Maybe he remembers the '03 production better than I do.

My larger interest in this story is how Laurents has basically set himself up as the Samuel Beckett of all things "Gypsy." Yes, I know in most circles that's called "author's rights." But one has to wonder what chances someone has if they really want to reinvent the show. You can say "if it ain't broke don't fix it" about many old shows. But then what would become of our theatre, and our young theatre artists?

It's unfortunate enough with Gypsy that any professional production is contractually locked into Jerome Robbins original choreography, as with so many Robbins shows. Not that Robbins isn't a American dance master whose work shouldn't be preserved. But that's what ballet houses are for.

Of course, freedom of (re)interpretation sounds good in theory. Sam Mendes' problem was there was $8 million riding on his.


Stephen R. said...

Brilliant post! If I ever am blessed with the opportunity to direct GYPSY sometime before I die, I will definitely give you a call and beg for your help! Wonderful analysis of this piece of musical theatre and all of it's productions.

Gil said...

Quite well written and thought out.

I'm curious though, what would you do if you were to direct a revival? Frankly, I've only seen the Bernadette and Encores versions and wasn't thrilled by either (but preferred the Encores one, mostly because of the performances). I can't tell if the show now feels outdated, or if I just think it's a silly uneven show...

Anonymous said...

i take a bit of issue with your exagerrated facts. That production of Gypsy lasted until sunny lovely May of the following year and closed true at a loss but with many, many fans. check for facts sometimes.

Playgoer said...

Thank you, Anon. for setting the record straight. I do indeed usually rely on IBDB. But in this case I was combing through the NY Times archive and happened upon this article titled, "'Gypsy' to Close Feb. 28, At a Loss of Millions." (the url is:

So now--with the help of've reconstructed that the Feb 28 closing notice was indeed posted but soon revoked when sales picked up in Feb. The show finally did close on May 30.

However, I think my larger point still stands. Even though the producers mau have recouped part of that initially lost $4 mil, I doubt they suddenly turned a profit in just 3 more months. The Broadway Grosses reports are still available for 2004, and you'll see that while capacity did spike in the 90% range during February and April, it seems to have averaged around 70% and then plummetted to 50% by closing time in May.

But still, yes, not AS much a commercial failure as the Times made out in February.