February 6

March 23, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

a Musical Fable
book by Arthur Laurents
music by Jule Styne
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
directed by Gary Griffin

Q&A with Director Gary Griffin

Director Gary Griffin discusses Gypsy and his plans for pairing this classic of American musical theater with Road Show, a piece that continues to occupy Sondheim’s imagination.

Why did you decide to take on two Sondheim plays— one so familiar as Gypsy and the second as unfamiliar as Road Show?

Here at CST, where I’ve been the associate artistic director for the past fourteen years, we stage Hamlet and Lear, alongside Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens—and Barbara Gaines, with the entire artistic and production teams, lavishes the same love and soul into all of them. Throughout my own career, Sondheim’s work has been the touchstone. As with Shakespeare, I believe that we’ve got to take the classic Sondheim and ask questions of it that haven’t been asked before. In 1959 Gypsy lost to The Sound of Music and Fiorello! in a tie for best musical that year. How could that happen?—but often in the world of Sondheim it takes time. We evolve, and we come to understand more about these shows. That’s my hope with Road Show, and in pairing it with Gypsy. Time and a Chicago production. I hope something that you feel very familiar with will somehow jar you a bit: “Oh, I didn’t know that about Gypsy.” And I hope that Road Show, a show that may seem strange now, will become familiar.

What do you hope will be revealed by the two productions being paired?

I hope the audience will see them as companions to one another; that, as they watch one, they’re also thinking about the other. “Frontier” and “pioneer” are not words that we immediately associate with Sondheim, but they are words spoken repeatedly in both plays. Gypsy and Road Show are these American stories, about real American people. They are about versions of the American dream and spirit, the America between the wars. They’re both stories in which the characters are always traveling. You could call Gypsy a “road show.” That spirit of the unknown frontier shaped the American character: “We’re going to make something of ourselves.” Family, the American family, is at the center of both pieces.

Talk about the character of Rose as we will see her on our stage.

Louise Pitre is our Rose. It is the bravest thing in the world to say yes to playing Rose. So often with this show, it’s “Well, did you see the Bernadette?” “Did you see the Patti?” It is Rose I see when Louise steps into her character. That was the goal.

This is a story about a wildly gifted person who suppressed her own talent. “Oh, she’s a stage mother monster.” She’s not that. She’s a lot more interesting. There’s far more love. She has an empowering energy. Her ambition and her crazy belief in things make people better—and then they leave her. I hope it’s a more ambivalent experience about Rose in our production. Rose is someone I would love to spend time with. She’s certainly never boring.

This is a show about an American woman alone, forging a life in that early part of the century. That pioneer woman is what makes it a great American play—about family and our obsession with success, with result and not the process of getting there. Rose doesn’t understand process.

You’ve talked about the idea of talent being a shared undercurrent in these two stories.

Look at how fascinated we are by talent in reality shows like American Idol.

There’s something very American about that celebration of talent. Both Gypsy and Road Show talk about talent: what talent is, how having it affects you, how not having it affects you. Louise is able to take limited talent and become an international celebrity—a girl who, until about the age of nineteen, is dressed as a boy, and becomes one of the first major American sex stars.

What can you tell us about the set design for Gypsy?

Re-imagining these shows that were originally created as proscenium art and making them extend out on to the thrust forces you to distill the production to the essence of the story. With our set designer, Kevin Depinet, we have created a proscenium arch grown wild, which extends up and over the entire thrust stage. Above are all of the things that Rose needs to tell the story—a collage of her journey through life, all floating up there. There’s a lot in Gypsy about home and the perception that these people, these children, this mother, didn’t have one. They did. It was the theater. So we’ve tried to create this home, where there are props and an orchestra, and there’s an arch and a curtain. The props become their pieces of home. There was a home. There was an upbringing. There was an education. Maybe not an education that’s in any way conventional, but Rose understood that if you stay in your small town, you will not experience the world.

What’s important for us to know about the orchestration for this production?

Arguably, with Candide, Gypsy is the greatest overture ever created. The musical scores in the 1950s and ‘60s all basically shared the same approach to orchestration, and it was actually Sondheim who started to explore other ways that a show could sound. With our music director for this production, Rick Fox, we discussed how to make our orchestration more authentic to the time period. Rick mentioned how the size of vaudeville and burlesque orchestras of the period were about the same size as our orchestra. Gypsy’s original twenty-eight-piece orchestra is simply the wrong scale for our production and this theater. With an orchestra of fourteen, where do you cut? The most obvious is a simple reduction: fewer brass, fewer woodwinds, fewer strings, filled out with keyboards to try and emulate the original orchestration. Wanting to be more specific to the period, Rick added more “color” instruments not in the original, like the tuba and banjo, and eliminated others associated with the iconic Broadway scores, like the oboe and English horn. There will be no electric keyboards, no electronics of any kind, except amplification.

Because they’re not on the nose, I think that both productions musically will hopefully lead you into the worlds of these pieces. I strive all the time to connect the audience with how the music is generated, both visually and aurally because there’s so much storytelling in orchestration and in how musicals are realized.

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