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

A Scholar's Perspective

Stage Mother
by Stuart Sherman

We hear Momma Rose before we see her. From somewhere in the auditorium she shouts words of reproach and encouragement—“Sing out, Louise!”—and then makes her bustling way onto the stage, where her little daughters are rehearsing for a kiddie show whose star, she’s sure, isn’t giving them a proper shot.

Two things become quickly clear. First, that Rose doesn’t really belong on that stage: “All mothers—out,Uncle Jocko shouts in the play’s first line. And second, that she can’t be stopped from taking possession of it: within minutes, she has extracted from Uncle Jocko every concession she strutted up there to seek.

Gypsy is drawn from real life. Its genius consists partly in a magician-like act of misdirection deftly executed by its creators: Arthur Laurents (libretto), Jule Styne (score), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics only, but for the last time; henceforth he would craft both words and music in every show he wrote). For Gypsy’s first audiences, the show’s title would have seemed to point insistently toward the now-famous daughter at whom we hear Rose shouting in those first moments: the savvy stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who had recently published a memoir with the same title, on which the show was based; who had begun her stage life as mere “Louise,” pallid backup to her starrier sister; and who was sitting in the audience on Gypsy’s opening night fifty-five years ago (21 May 1959), poised to see her story on the stage.

“All this is about my mother,” Gypsy’s son and escort Erik Preminger remembers thinking on that big night. In truth the show is a more complicated compound. Though it does track the arc by which the shy Louise metamorphoses into the audacious Gypsy, it is mostly about her mother, Rose Hovick—“a larger-than-life mother,” as Laurents describes her, “a mythic mesmerizing mother,” played in that first production by the matchingly galvanic Ethel Merman. Gypsy traffics in the force and pain and strangeness by which Rose eventually made stardom happen for both her daughters, June (who became the stage and screen actor June Havoc) as well as Gypsy. Trekking the vaudeville circuits with her wary kids in tow, Momma Rose was, so the title quietly suggests, this dynasty’s first, most fervent gypsy.

From the start, a roving restlessness is her stock in trade. “Anyone that stays home is dead!” she declares to her sedentary, disapproving father. “If I die, it won’t be from sittin’!” As if to clinch the point, she promptly restates it, in motile, soaring melody:

Some people can get a thrill,                                                           
Knitting sweaters and sitting still …

It must be pretty much impossible to listen to this glorious number in a state other than wholehearted assent, soul-surrendering identification. We’re not just “some people.” We’re Rose.

There’s a catch though. At the very moment that we identify with Rose, we’re also doing what she most deplores: we’re sitting still, in theater seats whose varied costs (time, money, parking, babysitting) may well measure how intently we, like Rose, want to get as close as possible to the stage.

This then is the show’s second trick: the sleight of hand by which it at once prompts and thwarts our self-identification. Ordinary backstage musicals fuse us hard and fast with some luminous young theatrical aspirant, ramp up our vicarious desire as s/he pushes past formidable obstacles, and finally release our tension in the protagonist’s triumph (putatively unexpected, wholly predictable) on opening night.

Gypsy’s different. Here the most fervent aspirant is not some preternaturally gifted juvenile but Momma Rose herself, who like us is ardently channeling her desires through others more talented than she. As the show establishes in those first moments, she longs to take possession of that stage, but can never belong there the way her daughters will (“All mothers—out”).

This layered vicariousness makes our identification with Rose both more exact (most of won’t make it on to that stage either) and more exacting, as we gauge the toll her fervor takes. Gypsy, for all its razzle-dazzle, becomes one of the subtlest reckonings ever staged of theatrical costs and benefits, of what show business does both to and for everyone involved: this mother, these daughters, us in the audience. In song after song, Sondheim traces the ways in which showbiz solipsism shuts out those—vulnerable young Louise most conspicuous among them—who long for the simpler and more complex connection of ordinary love and good will.

And then (last trick) the show gives Rose what she wants. In the final number she gets the stage to herself, and fills it with feelings so seismic as to trigger every response that Aristotle, millennia ago, deemed indispensable to tragedy: pity, terror, astonishment, catharsis. And a smattering of precarious self-insight.

By the time Gypsy premiered more than half a century ago, Momma Rose had been dead five years. During the curtain call on opening night, Erik Preminger urged his mother to take the stage and receive her proper share of the ecstatic applause. As he remembers it, “she knew better,” and remained at her seat. She had after all been bathing in her own spotlight for many decades. Tonight the stage belonged to Merman. And to Momma.


Stuart Sherman, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and the author of Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785.

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