Could it really already be forty-two years later?
I knew she’d be marvelous. By then I had gleaned what Lansbury could do, thanks to her two previous musical appearances that had won her Tonys. At this same Shubert in 1966, she’d tried out Mame when the theater had suddenly become available because a Pinky Lee musical Little World, Hello! canceled its booking. (Money problems, of course.) Two years later, Lansbury was at the nearby Colonial, reunited with Mame’s Jerry Herman in Dear World.
Actually, the real reason I knew that Lansbury could handle this role — despite its being as difficult as Norma in opera — is that a cast album had been released some months before. As it turned out, this recording didn’t quite represent the same production that I would see in September. Lansbury recorded her album while she was debuting the show in the West End in 1973. So what we had here was Gypsy’s Original London Cast Album.
Some of you may be thinking that Lansbury’s recording had to be a Revival Cast Album, for surely in the fourteen years since Gypsy’s 1959 Broadway premiere some production had to have played a first-class West End theatre. When you consider that London had played host to Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Do Re Mi, Once upon a Mattress and Sail Away – all of which didn’t have Broadway runs as long as Gypsy’s – surely the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Jerome Robbins masterpiece would have made its way to London in the early ‘60s.
Nope. Although everyone had expected that Ethel Merman would take the show overseas, she didn’t. Surprisingly enough, The Merm never brought any of her Broadway vehicles to London at any point of her forty-year career.
So Lansbury’s Gypsy was indeed an Original London Cast Album, recorded early in the show’s 300-performance run. No new album was made after Broadway beckoned, although only Lansbury, Zan Charisse (Louise) and Bonnie Langford (Baby June) had crossed the ocean. (Why call it a pond when it sure doesn’t travel like one?)
The London recording giveth and taketh away, which was actually smart of record producer Norman Newell. After all, who needs a carbon copy of the original? Every new cast album should be, in a manner of speaking, a variation on a theme.
Some may mourn the loss of “May We Entertain You?” in its seventy-two second entirety, for it does ably set up that Rose was using this song during the first stages of Baby June and Baby Louise’s career and that she’d turn to it time and time again. But not much time must pass before we get “Let Me Entertain You” from both “Baby June and her Newsboys” and “Dainty June and her Farmboys.” In between come two notable musical passages: Rose’s picking up boys to be in the act and then Robbins’ masterful strobe-light effect when June, Louise and the boys change from tweens to teens.
This album was the first to display that “Small World” wasn’t solely Rose’s solo and that Herbie eventually came in to finish it with her. Barry Ingham, who played the role in London, nicely crooned his way through his section. For those of us who like dance music (count me among them), there’s a section in “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” that we can all relish. One must concede, though, that Andrew Norman’s “All I Need Is the Girl” is less Tulsa and more Twickenham.
Many of us had already learned from the 1962 Gypsy soundtrack that Tessie Tura had had five more lines in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” than we’d heard on the original cast long-playing record. But they’re here on Lansbury’s recording as well, courtesy of Valerie Walsh. Years later, when the original cast album was released on a more time-accommodating CD, we’d find that Maria Karnilova, the original Tessie, had indeed recorded the section in 1959, but for time purposes, something had to be omitted on the limited vinyl disc, and these lines were the sacrificial lambs. But what this London album also offered was a song-ending fugue among the three strippers.
This was the first recording to include one of Sondheim’s cleverest lyrics thanks to an expanded “Together, Wherever We Go.” Rose sings “If I sing B-flat” and then comes out with the note. Louise adds “We both sing B-flat” and echoes the note. But Herbie then adds “We all can be flat together.” Terrific!
But when Newell recorded “Together,” he did eschew what is arguably Sondheim’s cruelest lyric ever — and that includes Forum’s “Hear the whips on the galley slaves.” Late in the song, Rose and Herbie start their exit and notice that Louise isn’t following them. “No, this way, Louise,” they growl. Although at this point Louise hasn’t shown any show-biz aptitude, this makes her look inept. Sondheim would maintain many years later that “Nice is different than good”; I insist that “Talent-impaired is different from incompetent.”
The 1959 original cast album gives us one and only one rendition of “Let Me Entertain You,” so we see the newly minted and very nervous Gypsy Rose Lee playing Wichita’s one-and-only burlesque theater. The soundtrack doubled that by not only giving us her start but also her most recent triumph at Minsky’s, the apex of the burlesque world. On the London cast album, however, we get the interim step of Gypsy’s Detroit engagement. Better still is that this five-and-a-half minute sequence is peppered with some of bookwriter Laurents’ most witty writing. Charisse delivers both song and story quite adeptly.
But in the end, it’s Lansbury’s recording. It’s quite a first-act display with the ferocity at the end of “Some People” the tenderness in “Small World,” the flirting in “Mr. Goldstone,” her advanced flirting (and pursuit of happiness) in “You’ll Never Get away from Me” and her complicated reaction in “Everything’s Coming up Roses”: worry just under the surface even while pretending that all’s right with the world and her life. Perhaps the writers wanted to give her a break in the second act, for her only solo is “Rose’s Turn,” although quite the solo it is. And while plenty of performers I’ve seen in the role do a “Rose’s Turn” for the worse, you won’t say that when you hear Angela Lansbury in her third Tony-winning performance.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.