Bernadette Peters on Gypsy
GABRIEL MILLER: Is the production of Gypsy still going forward?
BERNADETTE PETERS: Oh yeah, definitely.
GM: When is it scheduled to open?
BP: It opens in April.
GM: And you go into rehearsal in January or February?
GM: Has the rest of the cast been cast yet?
BP: No, it has not, because Sam [Mendes] is… we had one person, Tammy Blanchard – she played the young Judy Garland in The Judy Garland Story. But Sam is in London, he’s doing the last two productions there. Then they’re coming to Brooklyn Academy of Music, so he’ll be in town in October to finish casting.
GM: How long have you known Arthur Laurents; how far back do you go with him?
BP: I first heard of him, and then I would hear through Steve [Sondheim] – he’s a dear friend of Steve’s – when I would do Steve’s shows, like in Into the Woods, I would hear, “You know who thought you were wonderful in the show? Arthur Laureats.” I thought, that’s wonderful, because I always knew who he was. So, that was lovely to hear, then I guess when I had real contact with him, Steve brought me to a New Year’s Eve party at Arthur’s place, and we got to talking and we just had a very lovely connection.
GM: Is this the first show of his that you are going to be starring in?
BP: Yes, absolutely.
GM: You were in a benefit show of Anyone Can Whistle?
BP: Yes, that’s right.
GM: Was that only a one performance show? Was it at Carnegie Hall? An AIDS benefit?
BP: Yes, Carnegie Hall for the GMHC, the Gay Mens’ Health Crisis Center.
GM: And which part did you play?
BP: What was her name? I played the part Lee Remick played.
GM: Was it Fay?
BP: Yes, Fay, that’s right. Steve said “Gee, this is a wonderful role for you”-it just fit really well. It was great.
GM: Why do you think that play didn’t do well?
BP: It was very complicated I think, it had not your run of the mill story. Nowadays they do complicated things, but back then it was about a mental institution, who’s really crazy, the people in the mental institution or …
GM: The people who locked them up?
BP: Exactly. It was the first musical that Steve wrote the music and the lyrics for, I believe. It just was – There are great songs in that show.
GM But it was ahead of its time?
BP: It was way ahead of its time.
GM: I read a quote by Stephen Sondheim, who said that he didn’t feel the show would hold up to a revival because so much has happened, and it would make the show which seemed ahead of its time in 1964 seem very hackneyed now.
BP: I don’t think you could ever call it hackneyed. He’s being hard, but when I had heard it years ago, it did seem very avant-garde, and it certainly wasn’t when we did it , so I think he’s right in a sense that now it doesn’t seem ahead of its time. I don’t know, they can probably tell you better why.
GM: Is playing Madame Rose for a musical comedy actress the equivalent of playing Hamlet?
BP: It really is. It’s just a great show, a great part, the music is incredible, and the lyrics are incredible. When we started doing some auditions and I was reading with people, the script is just something else. I’m looking at it and then I look down to see what the next line would be and the script is just a masterpiece. I can’t believe what comes out of her mouth. I was reading ahead thinking “Oh my God, what is she going to say next?” I’m reading a scene with Herbie, I’m reading a scene with Louise, and in that scene, if I’m not familiar with it, I look down and its exactly what that character would want to say next. His writing is impeccable.
GM: How are you going to get into the character? What do you find in her that makes you want to play her? She’s certainly one of the most unlikable characters in musical comedy, I think, if not the most unlikable.
BP: You know, she has her needs and that’s what you have to find out. You have to keep reading the script, the script tells you everything. And also don’t forget, I grew up as a child actress in show business, so I didn’t even realize how much I had to call on, but there’s a lot there.
GM: Was your mother a stage mother like Rose?
BP: No, not like Rose. I had a deal with her, but I could leave anytime I wanted to.
GM: What do you find good in Rose? Is there something good in her that you’re going to delve into in your interpretation of the part?
BP: Yes, it’s interesting, but I don’t like talking about something I haven’t quite worked on yet. I have some ideas, but I don’t like talking about the inner workings because I like to keep them to myself as an actress. I just don’t like talking about that kind of prep work because what we’re doing, and what I’ll be doing, is using such personal things to keep them working and fresh. It’s like Sada Thompson said, “Oh God, you never talk about something because then its gone forever.” But that’s how you work on things, you just find such personal things that they surprise you.
GM: I guess it is somewhat unfair to ask you about that, you haven’t even started rehearsing yet.
BP: No, but even besides, I know that she has her hopes and dreams and desires; she has her disappointments; she has her dreams for her daughters; she has where she puts all her love. She has all those things and those are her Achilles heels.
GM: She seems to be so very blinded by her hopes for her daughter that she never seems to hear what anybody says to her. In the “Some People” song she seems to be trying to trick her father; in “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” Herbie’s trying to declare his love and she doesn’t respond or seem to hear what he’s saying. She’s very tunnel visioned.
BP: It’s desperation. You know, a song can seem to be saying one thing, but there’s a lot of layers going on, lots of layers, and that’s what I’ll be looking for, and that’s what Sam, the director – that’s what we’ll all be looking for. And you know, what drives her. She may be seeming to trick her father, but what’s the drive that makes her do that?
GM: This may be an unfair question, but is there going to be a different thrust to this Gypsy than some of the previous famous ones?
BP: I don’t know, I don’t think so. The script is so great, but then you have Sam Mendes. We don’t know yet, he may have something in mind, but he hasn’t said anything yet. The script is so perfect, it just may be in the delving into it more. Years ago I never wanted to do revivals because they were always a walk down memory lane. It was always just like, let’s put it up and let’s just look at it again and enjoy the music and enjoy the songs. But nowadays, they’re done in a way where you really have this experience unfolding from the very first moment that curtain goes up. It should take you on a journey, a new journey. It should engage you.
GM: But Gypsy seems to have been done quite a number of times in the past few years – why do you think its all of a sudden become so hot? Angela Lansbury did it and Tyne Daly and Bette Midier did it, and now you’re doing it, all in the space of about twenty years.
BP: That’s a pretty long time, and it’s a great show. The last time on Broadway was over ten years ago, when Tyne did it, maybe twelve years – I’m not sure. It was Arthur’s idea to have me do it. Arthur said, “You know, they want to do Gypsy again, and I keep saying no, no, no, no, but I would do it again with you, because you would be a different kind of Rose than the way it’s usually cast,” except for Angela, who was very different I think than Ethel Merman’s. But the reason was that the real Rose was 5’2″ and blonde, she wasn’t the way it had been played.
GM: Angela Lansbury said, “Gypsy is really a tragedy of good intentions. Rose is a pathetic person but her guts make her riveting, exciting and extremely stage-worthy.” Do you agree with that?
BP: I do, I really do. I don’t see her as just a hard nose. I feel that she is pathetic, I feel that she has great needs, great desperation, great passions, and great dreams and desires. I also think she’s very disappointed.
GM: Arthur Laurents said that in the original production with Ethel Merman, that everything built up to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” at the end of act I, and that unbalanced the show. When he directed it again with Angela Lansbury, everything led up to “Rose’s Turn” and that made that number more compelling and the show more emotional and real. Do you know what kind of emphasis there is going to be in this production?
BP: I don’t, but I’ve thought about those two songs, because they’re both very powerful songs. You have to find power within each song, the passion – you have to be able to bring it to an even higher place at the end. You have to keep surprising the audience, that’s what’s important.
GM: Do you think musicals in general suffer from having most of the good stuff in the first act and the second act sort of lags?
BP: I don’t know.
GM: I mean just looking at the script of Gypsy, there are twelve numbers in the first act and six numbers in the second act.
BP: I don’t know exactly. Sometimes you want the second act to culminate everything and you want it to move along. I’m not a writer, but perhaps the first act sets all the characters, situations, and crossroads up and then in the second act, you see what the culmination is, if there is one.
GM: Stephen Sondheim says he thinks the reason Gypsy was not a real smash hit when it originally opened was that it is not a terribly likable story, and what makes hit musicals are stories that audiences want to hear. And he says it’s always the same story, how everything turns out terrific in the end and the audience goes out thinking that’s what life is all about. Do you think that’s a problem with Gypsy in terms of the audience’s reactions to it, that it’s not what they want to hear? That they have to hear that children eventually have to take care of their parents and that parents become your children?
BP: You could look at the end that way if you want, that Gypsy takes care of Rose. But I think that certainly in the days when Gypsy started, that wasn’t the norm for a show. The shows usually had very happy endings and it all turned out fine; there’s a lot of drama in this show.
GM: What do you think of the last scene of the show? Do you think it’s sort of an anti- climax after “Rose’s Turn”? Or do you see it as a real, structural, and dramatic addition to it?
BP: You know I was in the show when I was a kid.
GM: No kidding.
BP: I was on the road, and that’s how I remember it. I haven’t really examined it yet, so I may be speaking out of turn. What I feel though is that it could be that what’s nice is that Gypsy, even though she was fighting her mother in the scene before that, in the end, she gives her her coat, she loves her, and she accepts her for who she is. Maybe it is that thing, where she’s going to take care of her mother forever, which actually happened in life. She bought her a farm as they say, she lived out of the city on a farm with all the animals. She loved animals, the mother.
GM: My daughter was a music major in college and she likes to be in musical comedies, and one of the shows I took her to when she was little was Tyne DaIy’s Gypsy. My daughter said that one of the things that always bothered her about Gypsy is how the characters seem to disappear from the story – june disappears, Herbie disappears, and there doesn’t seem to be any confrontation between those characters before they walk out on her. They don’t get to say to her why they’re doing this or what they feel.
BP: Herbie does; he really has a scene. june just leaves, which leaves Rose devastated. You have these characters, as Angela said, and it’s kind of sad because these people are just gone and the audience feels it and she’s feeling it. They’re gone and then she never wants to talk to june again or talk about her again. There’s a hole that the character’s feeling, and the audience has that hole, too. When Herbie speaks his mind, it just happens to – there’s that hole again that she chooses.
GM: I’ll look forward to seeing you in this.
BP: Thank you, Gabriel.
September 25, 2002
Copyright American Drama Institute Winter 2003
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