Saturday, April 19, 2014



I remain at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany where I continue to recover from my Iraqi ordeal and the collapse of my fabulous USO show, Vicki Lester is Shocking Awful after all of our valuable costumes, props, and set pieces were stolen by looters. Of course, I was mistaken for a piece of scenery by some near sighted Baathist and neatly packed away in a hamper as well. I have no idea where I was taken, wadded up amongst some teaser curtains but we seemed to bounce along some rutted ox track for days. 

I was eventually able to cut my way out of my temporary prison with the aid of slivers of glass that I broke from the lens of a Fresnel light that occupied the same box. I finally wiggled my way out into fresh air, tearing several holes in my rhinestone burka, to find myself in a garage in some town called Falafel or Babaganoosh or some such thing. The streets were deserted and I dared not reveal myself or who knew what might become of me. I knew that I must return to Baghdad. I inquired of some of the locals, who were less than helpful, no matter how slowly and loudly I spoke English, but eventually found a helpful road sign and started off. I do not recommend desert walking in stiletto heels. The burka soon became too hot so I took it off (I had a lovely little harem outfit underneath from the I Dream of Jeannie number) and continued on my merry way. Several blocks later, I was arrested on what seems to have been some sort of trumped up morals charge. Apparently theatrical costumes are illegal in rural Iraq. 

I'll discuss more of my time in custody later, time now to move on to another thrilling film. Or as thrilling as the limited selection of the Ramstein Air Force Base lounge will allow. As I was having vivid flashbacks of removing my burka in public, I decided a film about the joys of the strip tease might help me work through any post traumatic stress disorder I might have left. Fortunately, I ran across a copy of the 1962 film version of Gypsy with Rosalind Russell, Karl Malden, and Natalie Wood. Based loosely on the biography of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, the film recounts how she went from humble origins in Seattle and vaudeville to become the most famous stripper of the century. As a famous artist of the theater myself, I do like a good backstage story. 

Gypsy is much more the story of Gypsy's mother, Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell). Rose, a frustrated performer herself, who has been hurt by life circumstance and bad choices, decides that she can fix it all by making her daughter, Baby June (first Morgan Brittany, later Ann Jillian) into a vaudeville star. She packs up June, her older untalented sister Louise (first Diane Pace, later Natalie Wood), gathers some young boys and off she goes to bulldoze them to stardom on the Orpheum circuit. She's aided by her boyfriend, Herbie (Karl Malden), an agent turned candy butcher, who finds the emotional strength he lacks in Rose's whirlwind personality. As the children age and vaudeville dies, the act becomes washed up; June, unable to take being a baby at thirteen, defies her mother and runs off to get married. Rose, unable to let go of her dreams of stardom, turns her attentions to Louise. Louise is so bad and the act so terrible, that the only booking they can get is in a seedy burlesque house where, when the star stripper can't go on, Rose forces her unwilling daughter in the spotlight. Louise, now Gypsy Rose Lee, soon realizes her lack of talent makes her well suited to this profession and she metamorphoses from a dull caterpillar to a brilliant spangled butterfly, moving beyond her mother and forcing Rose to examine herself and her motivations in a devastating musical breakdown (Rose's Turn) 

The film, and the great stage musical on which it is based, are about much more than a life in the theater and the cheap sensationalism of stripping. It's a show about what it means to be a mother; the relationship between parents and children as the children mature and take their own place in the world; the mistakes that parents make living through their children; the complicated nature of relationships with self serving and self destructive people. The role of Rose is every bit as psychologically complex as one of the great heroines of Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen plus she has to belt out seven songs. It has become the role to which mature musical theater actresses aspire. 

Gypsy began life as a rather fanciful memoir written by Gypsy Rose Lee in the mid 50s detailing her early life as a vaudevillian. In it, she told of her tyrannical stage mother, Rose, her little sister Dainty June (later actress June Havoc), and their time as performers all over the country in the roaring 20s. Many of the details were fictitious and Gypsy herself never claimed that she was telling the truth. The book and show were so fictionalized, that June was exceedingly upset by the content and threatened lawsuits to stop them and there was an estrangement between the sisters for years. The basic outlines of the story are true, even if the details are the fabric of an artist's imagination. In fact, much of the real truth was toned down for 1950s sensibilities. The real Mama Rose's marital difficulties were caused in many ways by her lesbianism and no mention is made of the incident in which she tossed a hotel manager from a window to his death. 

The stage show, which premiered in 1959, was a follow-up to West Side Story and featured many of the same creative team. Jerome Robbins again directed and choreographed (some of his original staging is preserved in the film, especially All I Need Now Is The Girl, the vaudeville routines and You Gotta Get a Gimmick). Arthur Laurents again wrote the book and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics. Music came from the prolific pen of Jule Styne rather than Leonard Bernstein. Ethel Merman was the original star and gave a powerhouse performance of legendary proportions in the role of Mama Rose. Broadway revivals have starred Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and, more recently, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone.

The film is a competent transfer of the stage show to the screen. There is some reordering of scenes and one song, Together, was inexplicably cut just prior to release. It's a bit set bound and stagey with a lot of wide shots of the proscenium arch in the vaudeville sequences and some really hokey looking desert sets in the second act. The film makers tried to keep the look of the stage costumes, especially in the show within a show numbers going for the divinely tacky and there's a good use of color throughout. Much of Laurents' original dialogue is preserved and the film does not drag the way some film adaptations of stage works do. 

The performances are, for the most part, spot on. Rosalind Russell is a more insinuating Rose than Merman was, drawing on her fast talking career woman persona from her earlier film work to build a woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but who is more likely to use guile than sheer force of will. She's at her best in her dialogue scenes and never seems quite comfortable with her musical numbers. Russell was not a singer (anyone who doubts this has only to listen to the original cast album of Wonderful Town) so most of her voice work was dubbed by Broadway veteran Lisa Kirk and this may explain some of it. Karl Malden is an understated Herbie. It's a part that's subservient to the women of the piece. He's perfectly believable as a man who would give up his identity for Rose. Natalie Wood is better in her early scenes before her transformation. After she dons the beehive and the mascara, she seems a little too arch and not quite down home enough. Several of the supporting players from the original stage production recreate their roles, especially Paul Wallace as Tulsa and Faith Dane as the stripper who can bump it with a trumpet. If you look closely, you can also spot a very young Harvey Korman in one scene. 

Gypsy remains one of the great American musicals and this film version is a reasonable alternative for those who cannot see a first class stage production. It's also fun to see Madame Rose in action, back in the days before she became my publicist. 

Burnt automobile. Solid gold plaque stealing. Dancing cow. Patriotic finales. Nasty telephone receptionist. Alley dancing. Spoon stealing. Lamb in diapers. Peroxided chorines. Strip ballet. 

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