By Peter Filichia
There are plenty of raised eyebrows at Connecticut Repertory Theatre as soon as many theatergoers hear the first note of the overture.
Long-time fans of Gypsy – and who isn’t? – are startled to hear a shortened version of what many consider to be the greatest of all Broadway overtures. The amputation eliminated some splendid Jule Styne music: the “I had a dream” fanfare, “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Small World.” It simply started with the burlesque-flavored trumpet riffs.
But Leslie Uggams does not give short shrift to Rose Hovick, aka Madame Rose -- and not “Mama Rose,” as many say; that term is never used in the script.
Rose starts the show as the mother of two tots. And yet, Uggams makes the audience forget that she isn’t even a summer chicken, let alone a spring one. After all, this legendary lady sang at the Apollo as an opening act for Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald during the Truman Administration. She was nine then, so she had to wait fifteen years before winning a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical -- for Jule Styne’s Hallelujah, Baby! -- when she was a mere twenty-four.
All right, full disclosure: Uggams tied for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony with Patricia Routledge of Darling of the Day. And who wrote the music for that one? Yup, Jule Styne again. That put him in a unique position that he will certainly never relinquish. Can you imagine another tie between performers who each sang melodies by the same composer but in two different shows? Ties are rare enough as it is, but even rarer would be a composer’s now having two musicals open in one Tony season.
Rarely does a performer still take the stage forty-six years after a first Tony-win, but here’s Uggams getting us to say “Hallelujah!” Baby June and Baby Louise – Alanna Saunders and Madison Young – show their fear of Rose right at the start.
While Gypsy deals exclusively with whites and Hallelujah almost solely with blacks, this production shows how times have changed. Uggams and Michael James Leslie, playing daughter and father, are black while Saunders, who portrays both Junes, and Young and Amandina Altomare who share Louise’s part, are white – and the audience seems to think nothing of it. Non-traditional casting has been around long enough that most of the theatergoing public have become accustomed to it and have indeed become metaphorically colorblind.
That’s quite a difference from the story Hallelujah told us in “The Slice.” The song took us to the South in the early 1900s, an odious time when a black man would win a card game but would be prevented by whites from taking his rightful money.
And yet, there are some similarities between the two shows: some profound, some small and some fortuitous. Listen to the Gypsy original cast album with Ethel Merman, the London cast album with Angela Lansbury and Hallelujah, Baby! You’ll see.
First and foremost, both have excellent lyrics, too -- although they weren’t the same ones: on Gypsy (1959), Styne had then-up-and-coming lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and on Hallelujah (1967), he wrote with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. These two lyricists were long-established Broadway and Hollywood royalty before Sondheim even had his first show on the boards.
Both shows -- not so coincidentally with books by Arthur Laurents -- have daughters who have issues with their mothers. In Gypsy, June and Louise dream of how wonderful their lives would be “If Momma Was Married.” Oh, yeah? What would the eventual Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc have become if their mother had been content playing bingo and paying rent? These girls probably (if silently) ultimately thanked Rose for keeping them from cooking and cleaning.
Hallelujah’s ambitious Georgina Franklin, living in 1900, wouldn’t mind doing those tasks if she were doing them in “My Own Morning” – meaning in a house that belonged to her. That’s her dream.
Georgina has issues with her Momma (Lillian Hayman, who won a Best Featured Musical Actress Tony), who’s content to be a cleaning woman. Worse, her (unnamed) mother thinks that Georgina’s boyfriend Clem has “a good job for a colored boy” as a Pullman porter. (To be fair, Rose’s Pop in Gypsy was working on the railroad all the livelong day, and he was happy doing it.)
Rose doesn't want her girls to age, claiming a tenth birthday for June three years in a row; in Hallelujah, the conceit has everyone – Georgina, Clem, her Momma and Harvey, her staunch white admirer -- staying the same age from 1900-1967. (They’re more symbols than characters.)
Both shows include songs that are diegetic, which means the characters know they’re singing and are blatantly performing on stage. In the ‘20s, while Baby June and Her Newsboys (and, um, Louise) are doing their “Let Me Entertain You” act, Georgina, along with Tip and Tap, are performing “Feet Do Yo’ Stuff” in a Harlem nightclub.
In the ‘30s, not long after June was done with “Dainty June and Her Farmboys,” Georgina does “Witches Brew” in a reimagined Macbeth for the WPA Theatre with fellow actors Mary and Ethel. (They’re names that obviously appealed to Comden and Green; the two had used them more than once in “Drop That Name” in Bells Are Ringing).
Although Hallelujah mentions that in the ‘40s Georgina stars in a wartime USO show, it doesn’t show her doing it. But Gypsy lets us see the newly dubbed Gypsy Rose Lee requesting “Let Me Entertain You” to audiences in Wichita, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. Although Gypsy finishes up shortly after that, Hallelujah shows Georgina in the ’50s in a swank non-Harlem supper club (things are improving!) where she sings the show’s jaunty title song.
This may sound trivial, but each musical happens to have a song that features an off-key note: Momma goes flat during “I Don’t Know Where She Got It” to prove that Georgina’s show-biz talent came out of nowhere. Gypsy’s “Together Wherever We Go” has Rose, her beau Herbie and Louise note that if they all sing B-flat, they can “be flat” together, which they underline by singing just below the note.
You won’t hear that exchange on Gypsy’s original cast album, for it was recorded when “long-playing” records didn't play that long. Technology advanced a bit in the following fourteen years, so the London cast album accommodates this section.
The original LP of Gypsy was so truncated that it eliminated the section of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” that started with “Dressy Tessie Tura is so much more demurer.” The London cast album included it, but eventually the original cast album did, too, after reissue producers Thomas Z. Shepard and Didier Deutsch found the once-excised section in the vaults and could put it on a more commodious CD.
Another similarity between the two musicals is one that Styne might not have wanted pointed out: he recycled songs from other projects.
Gypsy’s “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” was once “I’m in Pursuit of Happiness” in the 1957 TV musical Ruggles of Red Gap and “Everything’s Coming up Roses” was originally written as “I’m Betwixt, I’m Between” a dozen years earlier for High Button Shoes.
At least Styne reduced the recycling to one for Hallelujah. “Witch’s Brew” began life as “Call Me Savage” in Styne-Comden and Green’s Fade Out—Fade In three years earlier.
And which show won the Best Musical Tony? You readers are smart enough to know that Hallelujah, Baby! -- which on the night of the awards had already been closed for more than three months -- won the 1967-68 Tony for Best Musical; Gypsy, when it was a month away from its first birthday on Broadway, lost the 1959-60 Best Musical Tony to both The Sound of Music and Fiorello! which tied.
But ho-ho-ho, who’s had the last laugh over the last forty years? Gypsy has had more Broadway revivals (four) than all of its 1959-60 rivals put together: The Sound of Music, Once upon a Mattress and Take Me Along have each had one while Fiorello! hasn’t yet had its second Broadway production (although neither, for that matter, has Hallelujah).
How impressive in Connecticut to see Hallelujah’s leading lady become Gypsy’s star. Better still, Uggams brings many new qualities to the role. When Miss Cratchitt says that mogul Mr. Grantziger wants to develop June but no one else, Uggams doesn’t say “But how will we live?” in Rose’s usual foot-stomping demanding way. She gives out an entreaty bordering on a cry for help; this woman is worried.
When the day comes that she’s to marry Herbie and leave show business forever, she seems to be awaiting her execution. Later, when she criticizes the newly-minted Gypsy Rose Lee, she puts her lips up to her daughter’s ear to ensure that each of her objections is heard. Finally, her “Rose’s Turn” is one of the most successful I’ve seen in suggesting a nervous breakdown – and I saw Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Linda Lavin, Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. I wish there were a recording of Uggams’ doing it, and I don’t mean a bootleg.
But in the meantime, there are those original Broadway and London cast albums of Gypsy, and Uggams herself in Hallelujah, Baby! And while you’re at it, give Patricia Routledge a try, too. Styne was an inveterate horse player, so he’d enjoy your listening to his Gypsy, Hallelujah and Darling trifecta.