What’s so gay about Gypsy? In its current Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters, the iconic musical remains a must-see for gay audiences
Gypsy * Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim * Directed by Sam Mendes * Starring Bernadette Peters, Tammy Blanchard; and John Dossett * Shubert Theatre, New York City (open run)
This summer, the top destination for gay theater-loving visitors to New York will undoubtedly be the Broadway revival of Gypsy, starring Bernadette Peters. One of the all-time great musicals, it has a score packed with glorious top-drawer tunes. Based on the autobiography of world-famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the show centers on her relationship with her mother, Rose, who drove her to fame and then drove her away. The parental concern that slides into narcissism, the child’s rebellion that is required for individuation–the themes of Gypsy are as universal as any Greek myth.
Yet for all its resonance with gay audiences, Gypsy is not what you’d call a gay musical. While some of the original creators were gay (Arthur Laurents, who conceived the show and wrote the book, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics, and Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed), the composer, Jule Styne, was not, and the current director, Sam Mendes (who directed the film American Beauty), is not. There’s no overt gay content, even though in his memoir Laurents indicates that both Gypsy and her mother had lesbian relationships. So what gives this show its gay appeal?
Partly it’s the diva thing. Just as opera queens relish debating the relative merits of Callas and Tebaldi in every role they ever sang, show folk can’t resist measuring subsequent Roses (Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Rosalind Russell, Bette Midler) against the ferocious standard set by Ethel Merman in the original production of Gypsy. Bernadette Peters may be the most unlikely Rose to date, and before the opening many wondered whether the sweetheart of Broadway could transform into the scary tyrant that Rose must be. Thankfully, her performance provides no definitive answer. Some critics went wild for it, but this picky queen (and ardent Bernadettephile) felt that for all the pain and ruthless determination she mustered, there was ultimately something missing, that her “Rose’s Turn” was more temper tantrum than nervous breakdown. Nonetheless, it’s worth seeing. And aficionados of minor divas will enjoy long-time Charles Busch associate Julie Halston, who practically steals the show as an uproariously minimal bump-and-grind dancer.
Backstage musicals often carry a strong gay subtext. Before coming out and sometimes after, putting on a show” (acting straight) is a way of life for gay people. In Gypsy, notice how virtually all of the women put on an elaborate but unconvincing charade of heterosexuality. The one boy-girl romantic scene between Louise (the girl who’ll become Gypsy, played by Tammy Blanchard) and tap dancer Tulsa (David Burtka) has all the sexual sizzle of a date between Tommy Tune and Cherry Jones. And despite her three marriages, Rose’s heterosexuality is as utilitarian as that of the burlesque strippers–it’s a way to get where you’re going. It’s never clear whether her lack of juice is an intended feminist point–born two decades later, someone as driven as Rose might have been allowed to succeed in business (like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest?)–or a failure on the part of the show’s creators to imagine motherhood coexisting with sexuality.
Literary critic D.A. Miller spends half of his book-length essay on the Broadway musical, Place for Us, on a fascinating, homocentric analysis of Gypsy, detailing his own ardent identification with the character he insists on calling Boy Louise. (Until she transforms into Gypsy, the stripper, Louise is always seen in pants.) And he expounds upon “the organized appeal made to gay men by the post-[World War II] Broadway musical,” suggesting that ostensibly hetero shows like Gypsy may serve better than specifically gay shows like La Cage aux Folles to convey “the homosexual desire that diffuses through ‘other’ subjects, objects, relations, all over the form.”
A nutty thesis, in some ways. But considering the gay energy driving this season’s crop of Broadway musicals, from the hit Hairspray to the flop Urban Cowboy (which some wags called Chelsea Cowboy) to the kid show A Year With Frog and Toad (about two male amphibian best friends who have tea and make cookies together), I’d have to say, Miller’s got a point.
Shewey writes on theater for The New York Times.
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