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With Tyne Daly in the 1989 revival of Gypsy, the defining moment between star and director happened, not in her dressing room, but in the rehearsal room. From the first day of rehearsal, it was apparent she and I were headed for that Showdown at the OK Corral.
I liked her from our first meeting, which was at her audition on the stage of the Imperial Theatre. She had an irresistible smile, a lust for life in the theatre-and great legs. I was surprised how well she sang; the timbre of her voice was oddly similar to Ethel's. This Rose could be sexual, a motor I could use to drive the whole production. From what I had seen of her work, I assumed she was a good actress-perhaps a questionable assumption, since I'd only seen her on TV. She'd begun in the theatre, though, and came from a theatrical family. As it turned out, my assumption was justified: she was a very good actress-a stubborn one, but a damn good one.
She arrived for rehearsal with her beamish smile and armed: she called me “Mr. Laurents.” While she didn't overtly question any direction I gave her, there was always the slightly raised eyebrow, the polite question, the little grin that came and went like a sudden threatening cloud on the beach. Unexpressed challenge was always polluting the air, filling the rehearsal hall; the whole company was waiting for the gas to catch fire and explode. Which it did, when we came to the last scene of the first act, where Rose reads June's letter of defection.
Every actress who plays Rose approaches that moment as though she's crawled across the Sahara and seen water at last. She wants to cry and blubber her way into the lead-in to “Everything's Coming Up Roses,” even though Rose explicitly says, quote unquote, “This time I'm not crying.” Actresses, however, point to the text when it suits them; when it doesn't, they discover subtext.
I had told Tyne Rose is totally without self-pity: she never cries, not a tear, until the final scene of the play, where, in dialogue added pace Ethel Merman, Rose realizes she has never given her daughter the love she wanted. Then Niagara, Victoria Falls-go for all of it. Holding back on tears is unnatural for actresses. Wait two and a half hours before being allowed to go mad with waterworks? Very hard, and Tyne wasn't about to wait. She started to cry at the first rehearsal with the first words of the letter speech. The moment had arrived and we both knew it. So did everybody else in the room.
“I told you Rose doesn't cry” was all I said, but it was a fire alarm. Actors, pianists, stage managers, assistant stage managers, all went hurtling for the exit. In thirty seconds, only Tyne and I were left, mano a mano. In retrospect, it seems funny; at the time, it was scary, because it was the moment of Hemingway truth in the bullring for the director and the star. The director loses, he loses control of the show.
A director often has to be a psychologist, or lucky; I was both. I intuited Tyne was challenging me because she wanted me to be strong. This was her first musical; it was Broadway bound; she needed a strong director she could depend on to get her there-and more, belong there. That meant she would willingly, even happily, go as far as I wanted her to.
It took time. Rose is a rewarding experience, but it takes a good deal of work before her skin fits. Luckily, we had a substantial period on the road. The necessity for that cushion is too often overlooked by directors because they're overconfident. Also, they don't want to trek to Dallas and St. Paul and all the oversized barns in between. By the time we came into New York, Tyne had gone even farther than I asked. Rose was hers, she was her Rose-savage, sexy, funny, common as dirt, and absolutely wonderful. And there was a bonus: we had become good friends.
The other big change to Gypsy occasioned by “Rose's Turn” began with a piece of advice given by Oscar Hammerstein during the Philadelphia tryout and unfortunately taken. It took fourteen years to rectify the damage.
Hammerstein was in Philadelphia for Steve Sondheim, who made anything but a secret of his gratitude to the mentor who guided his career. But it wasn't Steve Oscar was concerned about when he saw the show in Philadelphia; it was Ethel's bow. Gypsy is so designed that Rose is on stage alone after a number ends only once in the entire evening. Thus there is only one place for the star to receive her applause and bow in direct response to her audience-at the end of “Rose's Turn.” As written, however, just as Rose finishes and starts to bow, Louise comes on applauding, thus killing the audience's hand before it can start and getting the final scene under way. This was exactly what we all wanted. Oscar, however, felt Ethel Merman wasn't getting the applause the audience had been waiting all night to give her; and because they had been waiting in vain, they were frustrated and didn't listen to the last scene.
No matter how grandiose theatre people appear to be or perhaps even are, out-of-town can make the most hubristic unsure of anything. Philadelphia had made us unsure of everything. Even that now legendary overture: at one point new orchestrators kept arriving like immigrants. In addition, this estimation that our failure to give Ethel her due destroyed the impact of the last scene was coming from Oscar Hammerstein, aka God. His advice was heeded: at the end of “Rose's Turn,” Rose left the stage while Ethel Merman took her bow. Bows. Endless. She brought the house down and the show went out the window. No one listened to the last scene; it was even suggested it be cut. Ethel was happy, the audience was happy, and if I wasn't, how could I complain? After all, Gypsy was a musical and Oscar Hammerstein was God.
Fourteen years later, I figured out how we could have our cake and eat it.
Ethel had refused to do Gypsy in London. The consensus at the time was that without her, there was no show. By 1973, the show had begun to acquire a reputation; London was eager to see it. Angela Lansbury, who had been living in Ireland helping her children grow up, came over to London to play Rose with me directing. Just the knowledge that an actress was going to be at the core of this Gypsy made it a very different Gypsy in the preproduction in my mind. If she hadn't been Rose, I doubt I would have found how to keep those bows to the audience at the end of “Rose's Turn” and justify them. What was needed wasn't just a musical star but a superb actress and a courageous one: Angela Lansbury.
The solution didn't come from examining the five-six-seven-eight of the “Rose's Turn” choreography or the lyric or even of the subtext; it came from going back to why the number was in the show and where it was taking place. Directors of musicals don't do that often enough, not even when they're trying to figure out why a number doesn't work. They'll examine the number, what came before it, the way it's being performed, even where it is in the show, but not why it's in the show. It's the why that will reveal what the number is, or isn't but should be.
When I began to write Gypsy, I began at the end. The story of Gypsy Rose Lee obviously had to climax with the striptease that gave Louise her name. But even though the show was called Gypsy-contractually, it had to be-it was about Rose. Louise's strip couldn't be the eleven o'clock number; Rose had to have that. Louise would have to settle for the ten-forty-five. The catch was that whatever number Rose did, it had to top the strip, which was more than just a striptease. It was the transformation of a scared, self-esteemless, awkward girl into a confident, sexy, sophisticated young woman-and one who is almost nude to boot. How does a middle-aged woman, star or no, top that?
The answer surprised me, it came so quickly. Louise's strip is topped by another strip, this one by a desperate, crazed middleaged woman who doesn't actually strip because it's all taking place in the only place she could strip: in her recognition-hungry head. It's Rose's turn in the limelight, and high time, too. In her head, she is the greatest striptease queen in the world; in her head, she can bring down the house; in her head, she is the star of stars and an take all those bows. Challenge: how to show they are in her head?
The stage is ablaze with ROSE in huge lights. There's a huge spotlight on Rose as she bows to thunderous applause, even cheers. . . . And bows again. The spot goes with her as she moves to one side and bows again. Then the ROSE lights begin to drop out. She bows again. Now the ROSE lights are gone and the stage light is diminishing. Still, she bows again. Only her spot is left now; the applause is dying out. Her spot is reduced to a dim glow. A work light comes on; the applause peters out, then ends-but not for Rose: she still hears it. She takes a slow, deep, regal bow to deathly silence-and at that moment the audience gets it: there never was any applause for Rose; it was all in her head.
When I explained this to Angie, she thought for a moment and then said: “If it doesn't work, I'll look as though I'm milking the bow.”
“It'll work, because you're good.”
She gave me a very Angie skeptical look and laughed. “Well, let's give it a try.”
We rehearsed with nobody around - no choreographer, no dance captain, just the two of us and the rehearsal pianist. She had a beautifully cut red dress for the number, but for the preceding scene in Gypsy's dressing room, she herself had bought a ratty gray cardigan in a musty store across the alley from the stage door to wear over the red dress. That sweater was what she used to propel her into the strip: she whipped it off, twirled it around, and flung it into the wings. Everything came easily and naturally to her, except the down-and-dirty vulgarity. That was as natural to Rose as being common, but not to Angie. She had to work hard to get that part of Rose. If Rose had been Cockney, it would have been a piece of cake: look at her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. But all of it was leading up to the unanswered question: would the audience know everything -every word, every note, every bump, every grind, every bow - was in her head? Would they get that she was bowing to applause that didn't exist, even though they themselves were applauding?
With the second bow, something odd crept into her eyes. You can read Angela Lansbury's eyes from the back of the balcony. They began to dart around. By the time all the ROSE lights were gone and she was taking the last bow in a dim spot, she had made the by-now-unsettled audience aware something was awry; just what, they weren't sure. And then, as she took that last deep bow, she smiled to no applause-to a dead silence. She was acknowledging what wasn't there. It was frightening, chilling; it brought an audible gasp from the audience. They got it.
For me as director, it was one of the most satisfying moments I have ever had. That audience went wild. Standing and applauding and cheering Angela Lansbury, yes, but it wasn't Angela Lansbury bowing to them, it was still Rose. And she never stopped being Rose. The last scene played as it never had before. Fourteen years, but oh, so worth it.
I don't fault Oscar Hammerstein: that was his truth he told. There are times, even in the theatre, when the truth can be an option. Telling it can difficult for the director and harsh for the star. That telling depends on who is the director, who is the star, who is the producer, and who cares how much about the show and what is at stake.