There’s something inherently fascinating about the painted-on glamour and inevitable tragedy of showbiz – after all, how many films, plays, novels and TV shows have been made about the rise and fall of troubled stars? But perhaps the most famous backstage tale in Broadway history is the musical “Gypsy,” which combines high comedy and lurid melodrama to tell a glorious story of unstable maternal dysfunction.
“Gypsy” has been a theatrical staple since its 1959 premiere, and it’s generally considered one of the best and most influential musicals ever performed. It has been successfully revived a number of times over the years – most recently in 2008 – and it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1962 film starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. Tonight it premieres at Spokane Civic Theatre, directed by Troy Nickerson, his first show with Civic since 2011’s “A Christmas Carol.”
“It felt a little strange at first,” Nickerson said of his return to Civic, “but I’ve been there since I was 13 years old, so it felt right again. It’s nice to be working with the staff, the costumers and the sets they have there.”
“Gypsy” is based on the entertaining memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a popular burlesque performer in the ’30s and ’40s. In her teenage years, Lee, who then went by the name Louise, was half of a touring vaudeville duo with her younger sister June, an act managed by their domineering stage mother Rose Hovick.
In the show, Rose’s overbearing nature causes a rift between sisters, and a frustrated June runs off, leaving the moderately talented Louise to work alone. (June denied much of her sister’s memoirs, and later wrote her own account of what she claimed had actually happened.) To spite her disobedient daughter, Rose vows to make the moderately talented Louise a star, pressuring her into a career of burlesque and striptease that would eventually bring her notoriety.
“Mama Rose is one of the most classic characters,” Nickerson said. “I think every diva and musical theater woman in the world has a dream to have the chops to one day play Mama Rose.” Ethel Merman originated the role on stage, and she was succeeded by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone; Marianne McLaughlin portrays her in the Civic production.
Nickerson said the key to the success of “Gypsy” is its colorful cast of characters, and the fact that it’s based on real people and situations lends it an authenticity. “We decided to go for a real honest approach,” he said, “to really try and show Rose’s problems and her flaws as a parent and her real desperation, her sickness to get these children to be stars.”
The songs, written by Jule Styne and a post-“West Side Story” Stephen Sondheim, are some of Broadway’s most iconic: “Together (Wherever We Go),” “Small World,” “All I Need Is the Girl,” “Let Me Entertain You” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” which is still closely associated with Merman.
“But it’s not just another big musical,” Nickerson said. “I hope (the audience) gets the story and that they’re moved and they laugh, that it evokes something from them. … It still holds up. The story’s good and it’s about something.”