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Gypsy - 50th Anniversary Edition

GYPSY: INDEED A FABLE By Peter Filichia

“A musical.” 

“A new musical.”

Hundreds if not thousands of Broadway shows have used these terms to define themselves. But sixty years ago this week, Broadway received one of its greatest properties with an atypical description after its title:

GYPSY: A musical fable.”

That disclaimer took the pressure off librettist Arthur Laurents to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For that matter, we’ll never know how honest Gypsy Rose Lee was when writing her 1957 memoir on which the musical is based. Even if she meant to be accurate, the memory, as Jacques mentioned in THE HAPPY TIME, plays tricks.

Certainly Carolyn Quinn worked extraordinarily hard to find out what really happened to Rose Hovick and daughters June and Louise. We learned quite a bit from her 2013 biography MAMA ROSE’S TURN.

Now we ALL know that Rose is never referred to as “Mama Rose” in the show. “Mama,” yes. “Rose,” yes. “Madame Rose,” yes. “Mama Rose,” no, no once, never.

Quinn knew that, too, but had an editor who felt the general public thinks of the former Miss Thompson as “Mama Rose.” Quinn acquiesced, for she was much more interested in letting readers know about the real Rose – the good, the bad and the very ugly.

The book is heavily documented with plenty of quotations from newspaper clippings and court records. (Yes, Rose was litigious.) And we find where the story strays from the stage musical.

The act was actually called “Dainty June and her Pals” and it was once quite successful. One reason that Baby June and Dainty June were called Baby Claire and Dainty Claire during the Philadelphia tryout (and I have a Playbill to prove it) is that June was insulted that Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne made the act an artistic and commercial failure. It was actually commanding $1,250 a week at a time when a Coke cost a nickel. In today’s money, that’s almost $16,000.

(How do you like them egg rolls, Mr. Goldstone?)

Mr. T.T. Grantziger, who offered to take June under his wing, was actually mogul Roxy Rothafel of The Roxy Music Hall fame. (Hope you know the marvelous Rodgers and Hart song that celebrates it.)

Lest we feel too bad for Louise when she thinks she has a chance with Tulsa not long before he runs off with June, Quinn lets us know that Louise actually had feelings for another lad in the group. The character we know as Tulsa was actually named Buddy. He wasn’t Rose’s buddy as was proved when she pulled a gun on him.

She certainly wished she had pulled the trigger once June and Buddy ran off to get married. The irony is that it wouldn’t have happened had Rose not made her kids older on their birth certificates so that she could circumvent child labor laws. Once June realized that her certificate said she had reached an age where she could tie the knot, she did, although she was quite aware that she was underage.

Anyone ever wonder why after GYPSY’s first act of boys supporting June that Rose had girls backing up Louise in the second? After Buddy ran off with June, Rose didn’t want history repeating itself. With only lasses in the act, no one was going to elope with Louise. Hence we had Madame Rose’s Dancing Daughters, the name they had before they actually did become The Hollywood Blondes. (All the girls were, not so incidentally, June’s age. You don’t have to be Doctor Freud to infer what that meant.)

When the act was to play before a Spanish audience, Rose thought Louise would go over by singing the novelty song “I’m a Hard-Boiled Rose.” Unfortunately, the translation they got was a poor one, so when Louise sang what amounted to “I’m a Hooker,” the audience guffawed in pleasure.

Herbie was really named Gordon, and was married when he first hooked up with Rose. GYPSY tells us he mistakenly booked the act into a burlesque house and Rose was furious with him for not knowing better. In actuality, Rose’s agent called her and asked if she’d work in burlesque. Louise overheard the call, grabbed the phone and accepted.

Little did she know that this would be her ticket to fame and fortune.

“Wichita’s one and only burlesque theater” was actually 200 miles away in Kansas City. There worked a stripper named Tessie, but she didn’t have Tura as a last name. Chances are she wouldn’t have understood the clever play on words that Laurents would devise: “Tessitura” is a musical term meaning “the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range for a given singer.” 

Laurents made the burlesque world a tad seedier. The star stripper who was arrested and couldn’t perform — giving Louise her big break — was nabbed for assault, not prostitution, as he had it. By then, there was no “Herbie” around to object to Louise’s descent into stripping. Burlesque also proved profitable for The Hollywood Blondes; they wound up getting work in the theater’s chorus.

In the musical, the announcer of the burlesque show mistakenly says “Gypsy Rose Lee” instead of the “Gypsy Rose Louise” that mother and daughter had coined. In actuality, Louise thought up the moniker.

So did Gypsy really put up a sign backstage banning her mother? No — it was burlesque impresario Billy Minsky who commissioned it.

Rose eventually reconciled to some degree with June. When she was running a boarding house and held parties that catered to lesbians, June was often the hostess. (Five bucks got you in.)

Once Gypsy Rose Lee became a star, Rose wrote June to brag about it. Soon after, June landed a role in a musical and gave Rose a ticket to see it.

Rose sold it. 

And if you ever wondered about that papier-mâché head of Caroline, June’s moo-cow, new-cow and true-cow, Quinn tells us that Rose threw it into her fireplace and burned it.

And yet, Quinn wants us to know that Rose wasn’t out to have her daughters achieve what she hadn’t. Rose wasn’t unhealthily living through her children but simply thought that show business was a good way to make a living.

What’s most compelling is Quinn’s observation that Rose was far less like Ethel Merman, who of course originated the role, and in reality much more a Mary Martin type. (Well, when people rang Rose’s doorbell in Rego Park, they heard it play “Ave Maria,” a song beloved by many nuns.)

This brings up an intriguing question. Merman, you’ll recall, lost the 1959-60 Best Actress in a Musical Tony to Martin’s Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Merman then delivered what is still one of Broadway’s most quoted quips: “You can’t buck a nun.”

So if Martin HAD done GYPSY, would she have lost to the actress playing Maria von Trapp? By late 1959, when THE SOUND OF MUSIC was going into rehearsal, Julie Andrews was winding down her Eliza Doolittle days. As we now know, she had no problem playing Maria. Would Mary Martin have been able to buck that nun?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.