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  • Finian Hackett

Gypsy - A Diva Filled History

Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy first opened on Broadway in 1959 and has since had four Broadway productions, two West End productions, two film versions and various regional productions in many countries. The true story of Mama Rose and her daughter Gypsy Rose Lee has become one of the most iconic pieces of musical theatre from the 20th Century. Below, we take a look at the show's multiple productions and stars: a look back behind the curtain of this scintillating success.

"May We Entertain You?"

Legendary producer David Merrick and Broadway diva Ethel Merman were the two initiators of the project. After reading the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, both of them were extremely keen to create a starring role for Merman. Arthur Laurents was brought in to write the book and Jerome Robbins to choreograph, but finding the composer was slightly more complicated. Major composers Irving Berlin and Cole Porter both turned down the opportunity to compose the score and eventually they went to Stephen Sondheim, who was relatively new at the time and had never done any major composing (only lyrics for West Side Story). Merman had just had a horrendous time with two new composers on the musical Happy Hunting and thus wanted Sondheim to just write the lyrics. After some persuasion by Oscar Hammerstein, he agreed to this, and renowned composer Jule Styne was brought in to create the score. Gypsy was ready to hit the stage.


The show had a pre-Broadway tryout after which many songs were cut, including 'Nice She Ain't' (a song for Herbie), 'Who Needs Him?' (a song for Rose when Herbie leaves her) and 'Mama's Talkin' Soft'. This number can still be heard in a segment of 'Rose's Turn', one of Mama Rose's show-stopping numbers. All the cut numbers were included as bonus tracks on the 2008 cast recording. Below is 'Smile, Girls', where Rose is teaching all her untalented performers how to, well, smile!

The show opened on Broadway's second-largest stage, the Broadway Theatre in 1959. It was a critical success, garnering top-notch reviews and 8 Tony Award nominations. The show had stiff competition that year from The Sound of Music and surprise hit Fiorello!, both of which went on to pick up the 'Best Musical' Tony, the only joint winner to date! Gypsy didn't win any - even for Ethel Merman's Rose (she was beaten by Mary Martin as Maria). It moved to the Imperial Theatre the following year where it concluded a 700 performance long run. A US tour followed with a reluctant Ethel Merman in tow...

"You Gotta Get A Gimmick"

The film adaptation of Gypsy came about when producer Mervyn Leroy saw the show multiple times during its run and promised the part to Merman (she had never been a huge film star). Rosalind Russell was awarded the role due to her husband Frederik Brisson making a deal with Warner Bros. Merman found this out during the final part of her run in Gypsy and was devastated! Leroy came back to Merman during the US tour and told her she might have the part as Russell was ill. Lo and behold she had been played, and Merman never got the chance to play her iconic role on film. The film, however, was fairly well-received and gained 3 Oscar nominations. Rosalind Russell beat fellow star Natalie Wood to the Golden Globe - the film's only major award win!

"All I Need Is The Girl"

The show didn't hit UK shores until 1973 - 14 years after its original Broadway run. Elaine Stritch was cast as Mama Rose and tickets were put on sale. However, it was not smooth sailing; Stritch was not a big enough star and the show was not selling. Due to this, Stritch was replaced with the more well known Angela Lansbury! Ticket sales soared and the show opened to rave reviews for Lansbury and her supporting cast including Zan Charisse, Barry Ingham, and a teeny Bonnie Langford. Actress Dolores Gray took over from Lansbury when the show went on a 24 week US tour. Then, some of the UK cast joined her in the 1974 Broadway revival, with the addition of Rex Robbins in the role of Herbie. Lansbury went on to win her third Tony for this iconic role. Above is Lansbury talking in 2013 about her performance in Gypsy (and her reactions to seeing the footage for the first time).

"Everything's Coming Up Roses"

The late 80s and early 90s saw two major productions of Gypsy - one on stage and one on screen. Tyne Daly led the 1989 Broadway revival as Rose after various regional tryouts. The 500 performance run started at the St James and moved to the Marquis with Linda Lavin taking over the lead role. The show won the Tony for Best Revival and Tyne Daly became the second actress to win the Tony for Best Actress for this role. 4 years later, after much deliberation with the 5 rights holders to Gypsy, Bette Midler gained the rights to adapt the show for a TV film. Gypsy Rose Lee's real-life son Erik was heavily involved in the production of the film and provided much information. Midler starred alongside Cynthia Gibb, Peter Riegert and theatrical legends Michael Jeter, Christine Ebersole and Andrea Martin. The CBS film won Bette Midler a Golden Globe and the film itself gained 12 Emmy noms.

"You'll Never Get Away From Me"

Just ten years after Bette Midler's film, Bernadette Peters led the cast of the third Broadway revival. Tammy Blanchard and John Dossett starred alongside her as Louise and Herbie and Sam Mendes and Jerry Mitchell led the creative team. Running for a year, the show had mixed reviews, praising Bernadette's performance but criticising Sam Mendes' bleak design and direction (something that Arthur Laurents, the show's book writer and director of the last three major productions, did agree with). The show gained 4 Tony nominations for the 3 lead actors and for the show itself, but failed to win any. This marked only the second time to date that the actress playing Mama Rose has not won a major theatrical award. The show also failed to regain its initial investment and closed with quite a substantial loss.

"Small World"

Gypsy didn't stay away for long. Patti LuPone headed an out of town revival directed by Lonny Price in 2006. Producers were very keen to get it to Broadway and the show made its way to the "Encores!" series at New York City Centre. Directed by Arthur Laurents once more, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines joined the cast. It was praised by most and was taken to Broadway just FOUR YEARS after the closing of the Sam Mendes production! It was an extremely risky move that could've gone very wrong. The show did end up closing at a financial loss like its predecessor but it swept every acting award going. It was the first time that Rose, Louise and Herbie all picked up a Tony (and they each got a Drama Desk Award too). Broadway has yet to see Gypsy since this one closed in early 2009 but it won't be long I'm sure! Above is a video of Laura and Patti in the final scene where their award-winning performances shine through.

"Together Wherever We Go"

Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver and Kevin Whately starred in a new production at Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex in 2014. The show was reimagined for the thrust stage auditorium and received much acclaim (as do most shows at Chichester). The following year, the show transferred to the Savoy in London marking the first time the show had been in the West End since 1973. Peter Davidson took over as Herbie but the rest of the cast remained the same. London audiences loved it too with the limited run selling out. The show gained 8 Olivier nominations and ended up winning four for Best Revival, Staunton as Rose, Pulver as Louise and for the lighting design (the most awarded show that year). It was also filmed for the BBC and is available to buy online right now! A Broadway transfer was an option but never evolved.


It's not just Broadway and the West End that have had major stagings:

1998 Paper Mill Playhouse - Betty Buckley, Deborah Gibson and Lenny Wolpe

2012 Leicester Curve Theatre - Caroline O'Connor, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and David Fleeshman

2014 Connecticut Repertory Theatre - Leslie Uggams, Amandina Altomare and Scott Ripley

2019 Royal Exchange Theatre - Ria Jones, Melissa James and Dale Rapley

And many many other productions across the globe! But what about the future of Gypsy?

A film remake has been in development for the last decade predominantly with Barbra Streisand attached to play Rose but, in my opinion, Streisand is too old now (she is 78!). Even Patti LuPone agrees with this! The film has gone from studio to studio and was last reported in February 2019 to have The Marvelous Mrs Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino at the helm. Hopefully, if this film does ever get made it won't be with Streisand!

Stage future? Another revival of Gypsy is always being discussed and actresses names are always thrown about including Jane Krakowski (she has expressed interest before), Alice Ripley, Sutton Foster and many others. Audra McDonald seems to be the next big star destined to play the role. She has a huge voice and an acting ability that is renowned. I mean, just give her the Tony now!

Let me know in the comments below what your favourite production was and if you have any Gypsy memories!

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