Do you remember my mentioning in the last column that I grew up with a fairly sizable collection of Original Cast Recordings? They weren't really mine but belonged to the family. I just sort of helped them find a permanent home in my room where they would be appreciated. Gypsy, one of the most famous shows of the late 1950s, was not in that collection. Mother, hailing from upstate New York, was unimpressed with anything that struck her as being too New York City, and Ethel Merman was far too crass and NYC to be allowed in our house, even in vocal form.
It wasn't until I moved into my first apartment that I finally bought a copy of Gypsy for myself. (It was the Angela Lansbury revival recording of 1974, so I was safe if Mom decided to drop by.) Unfortunately, this was back during the gas shortage, when record companies were trying to cut down on the cost of vinyl by pressing the disks as thinly as they could. I played the disk maybe three or four times, and it warped beyond all usability.
Hopefully, this will explain why, until I started researching this column, I wasn't really familiar with the score. Sure, I had seen the movie with Roz Russell and the much improved remake with Bette Midler, but watching a film isn't the same as listening to a score a dozen times or more. So when I sat down to listen to the OCR (Merman, 1959), the London revival (Lansbury, 1974), the Broadway revival (Tyne Daly, 1989), and the television remake of the film (Midler, 1993), two things happened. First, I had to explain to Der Brucer why it was necessary to buy four different CDs of the same musical. Second and more pleasantly, I found that this show is loaded with pop standards! That's right, Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for a half-dozen well-known popular songs of the late 50s/early 60s!
Sondheim? Popular? How the heck did that happen?
The key to Gypsy, it turns out, is the new member of the creative team, songwriter Jule Styne. With almost every other person we are dealing with creative talent who, having worked so well with other talented people on other shows, brought those people on board, sort of creating a theatrical incest. Producer David Merrick chose Ethel Merman to star as Madame Rose. Because she had worked so well with choreographer Jerome Robbins in Call Me Madam, he was enlisted to stage the whole show. Because Robbins was so impressed with the book Arthur Laurents had written for West Side Story, Laurents was brought in as the show's scribe. Laurents, in turn, brought in Stephen Sondheim to write music and lyrics, again because of the West Side Story connection.
This is where things break down a bit. Sondheim was not a well-known songwriter, and Merman didn't want a repeat of her previous Broadway experience, Happy Hunting. That show's songwriters, Harold Karr and Matt Dubey, were only able to provide her with one really good song, "Mutual Admiration Society," and were never heard from again (Karr apparently returning to his other occupation, dentistry). Merman needed guaranteed good material. That meant getting her an experienced songwriter who knew how to write good songs, and lots of them. That is when Merrick turned to Jule Styne.
Styne wrote shows that were star vehicles for Nanette Fabray, Carol Channing, Judy Holiday, and Mary Martin. He also had a knack for writing hit songs, like "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," and "Just In Time." What he didn't do was write his own lyrics. Thus, he wrote High Button Shoes with Sammy Cahn. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was written with Leo Robin. Bells are Ringing teamed him with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with whom he had already written additional material for Moose Charlap's Peter Pan. (Funny Girl, which he wrote for Barbra Streisand with Bob Merrill, wouldn't come along until later, in 1964.) So, the question was whether or not Sondheim would agree to write just the lyrics.
This brings us to the often-told tale of how Sondheim's mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, told him that writing for a star such as Merman, even if it was "just the lyrics", was too big an opportunity to turn down. Besides, it would only take up six months of his life. Sondheim took Hammerstein's advice, and the collaboration was on.
What I find fascinating is the way Sondheim's lyrics mimic Laurent's book. Just as the gangs in West Side Story had their own vernacular, so do the vaudevillians of Gypsy, particularly Madame Rose. Most of the songs fall into two particular categories. The people who appear on the vaudeville stage tend to sing vaudeville songs, even when they are off-stage. Madame Rose, on the other hand, is not a stage performer, and almost all of her songs are couched in the terms of the "popular standard." It makes for an interesting mixture of styles.
Enough of this historical stuff, let's get to what is actually on the disk. To simplify things, I'm sticking to the Original Cast Recording of 1959, starring Ethel Merman, Jack Klugman, and Sandra Church. Not that the other three albums aren't worth considering. It's just that this time through I want to focus on the songs. So, going Track by Tracků
I know I took the position last time that overtures tend to be ear candy. Would it upset too many people if I reversed myself just a little? Because there are times when ear candy is exactly what is called for.
The Overture for Gypsy opens with a quick reference to Rose's phrase "I Had a Dream", a line that occurs in several songs (particularly in "Some People"). This is followed with a medley drawn from "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "You'll Never Get Away From Me," and "Small World." Suddenly, a trumpet lifts us into the stratosphere as some of the stripper music to be featured in "Rose's Turn" kicks in, followed by a quick quote from "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You," and then a final repeat of the "I Had a Dream" phrase. All in less than five minutes.
Ear candy? Sure it is, with those lush strings and muted brass. But this overture is doing double duty. It not only gives us a hint of the songs to come, particularly the popular songs Merman will be introducing to us, it also serves as a buffer for a very weak opening number.
Here's an idea. Go to your collection of older Broadway musicals and listen to some of the overtures. If you can, pick an overture from a show that didn't become a hit. Notice how the focus, almost every time, is on songs that the writers were hoping would become popular? The songs they were hoping Annie Ross or someone like her would record, or include in her nightclub act? This is music from a different era than ours, from a time when the Broadway musical was still regarded as a major source of popular music. Keep this in mind for later.
It's a good thing the Overture is so strong, because this version of "Let Me Entertain You" is not, and deliberately so. The scene is an audition for a kiddie show in Seattle, some time in the early 20s. The little girls sing their song, while Momma Rose bellows instruction from the back of the auditorium. The song the girls sing is nice enough, nothing special. That holds true with them, too. Just don't tell that to Momma.
The generally held theory is that any musical needs a really good opening number, to tell the audience what the show's style is going to be. We've already seen this with Do I Hear a Waltz, which opened with the bright and perky "Someone Woke Up", and with West Side Story opening with the dangerous and rude "Jet Song." So why does Gypsy open with such a tiny number, sung by two little children? Because this is ultimately the story of a family, of two little girls that we are going to watch grow up and the driving force behind them, their mother. The song itself isn't terribly important. Momma Rose constantly interrupting and yelling at them is what matters here. That is what is memorable about this opening number.
And that is why the Overture to Gypsy is so very important, because the Overture also works as a stand-in for the conventional opening number, telling us what the rest of the score will sound like. Alone, "Let Me Entertain You" wouldn't work. The contrast in scale from that giant Overture to this little song is what sets us up for the rest of the show.
I have a theory about second songs in musicals: they're really more important than the first songs, because while the first song will set the show's musical style, the second song tells you what the story of the show is all about. The reason for this is that it takes the first song to adjust the audience's ear to the music. By the time the second song comes around, the audience is ready to actually listen to the lyrics.
This isn't a hard and fast rule by any means, but in general it works. "Something's Coming" tells us a lot more about West Side Story than does "The Jet Song". In Oklahoma, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" gets our ears in shape, while "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" tells us what Curly and his friends want in life. (I'll admit that "This Week, Americans" from Do I Hear a Waltz? doesn't do a very good job as a second song, unless that show is really about the jaded attitudes Europeans have towards each other.)
In any case, Styne and Sondheim make up for that weak opening number with this knockout second song, in which Rose tells her father about her dreams of getting herself and her kids out of a sedentary life at home, and onto the road as a vaudeville act. We learn about the way Rose talks ("That's peachy for some people" she sings, putting a different spin on the word "peachy"), and how she claims to be clairvoyant. We'll be hearing her sing "I had a dream" many more times before we're through.
Merman was absolutely correct about getting a proven songwriter. Styne's music has the right amount of bounce to get us involved in Rose's desire for a more exciting life than what she's had. Laurents was in turn correct in insisting on Sondheim as lyricist, because it is Sondheim's use of subtext (Rose trying to get money from her father) that lifts this song beyond the ordinary. The opening bars of orchestration sound like there was sweetening going on in the strings, but that's a small nit to pick. By the way, if you listen carefully, you can hear Merman's characteristic finger snapping while she describes what Mr. Orpheum told her in her dream. And yes, that's Stephen Sondheim in his recording debut as Pop, telling her "You ain't gettin' eight cents from me, Rose!" Who'd have thought that a classy guy like him would be using words like "ain't gettin'!"
Would you believe Styne had a fit when he first heard the lyric to this wonderful song? Sondheim had Rose sing "Lucky, I'm a woman with children," which meant to Styne that a man couldn't ever sing the song! That cut half of the singers in the world out of using his song in their acts! That cut down on royalties! That was the way popular music was written in the 50s.
In spite of that sexist line, this song is a gem. Again, there's the subtext of Rose trying to get something, this time the something being Herbie to be her agent. I suppose I could also quibble about her using romance as the bait to lure him in. But this song is about romance based upon reality, Rose taking what is true about herself and Herbie and showing how well they could work together. The song ends up feeling good, exactly the way popular music felt back then.
Live, on stage, it's Baby June squeaking her way through "Let Me Entertain You" again, only now she first has a troupe of boys singing "Extra! Extra!" and proclaiming to their vaudeville audience how wonderful she is. It's all Mama's doing, of course. The number is just terrible. But don't tell Mama that, or she'll have Baby June sing it once more, just to prove you wrong.
If Gypsy were a brand new show opening on Broadway today, could this song or anything like it be included, given our altered point of view ever since Jon-Benet Ramsey died? Just a scary thought.
We go from a number that is supposed to be terrible, to one that is terrible all on its own. Rose becomes a babbling idiot when she learns that the act has been booked on the Orpheum circuit. I suppose it works on stage, with everyone running around, but slapstick is visual, and none of it lands on the disk. The lyrics really have no place to go, so they just keep repeating without getting funny. Sad.
Here again we have a study in contrasts. Where "Mr. Goldstone" is noisy and loud, "Little Lamb" is small and intimate, as a forgotten Louise sits in the bedroom with her stuffed animals (and a genuine lamb), pretending that everything is fine.
When I first heard this song, I hated it. However, repeated listenings have won me over. I'm still not the song's greatest fan, but I can better appreciate what it does. It is remarkable in its restraint. Working within a very tight structure, Sondheim rejects conventional sentimentality in his portrait of Louise as a practical girl who will not admit how hurt she is feeling. Up until now, Louise has been in the background. This song puts her center stage, and from this point on it is Louise, not June, who will be holding our attention. Come to think of it, June ends up being a thankless role. Dems da breaks, kid.
So far, Ethel as Rose has sung an anthem, a romantic ballad, and what is supposed to be a comic song. Here, she gets to sing another kind of popular song, a dance number. Specifically, this is a foxtrot, and Rose urges Herbie to "Come on and dance" as part of the song. And, in all those nightclubs across America, couples danced with each other to a song called "You'll Never Get Away From Me," and related to the song as their own.
Of course, in the show the song stems from Rose and Herbie having an argument, with him threatening to leave her if she goes too far. The song is her response, her con job to convince him that he will never leave her. Herbie has to be one of the best Broadway musical roles ever written for a non-singer. Jack Klugman, admitting he was not a singer, rejected a solo song that would have made his role a little bigger. Still, this non-singer's role is featured in a couple of songs, here and in "Together Wherever We Go", and Klugman (and all who have followed him) not only sings but sings harmony! Supporting roles don't get any better than this.
She's back! Now known as "Dainty" June, she is introduced by her Farmboys (who still sing "Extra, Extra" the same as when they were the Newsboys), and still squeals her "Hello, everybody" the same as she did in the old days. But now she adds a song about her favorite cow, Caroline, while Louise accents the song with appropriate mooing, Momma having found a way to hide Louise in a cow costume. The song is an appalling collection of puns on the word "moo", and leads to a fun dance segment. The sequence on disk is cut short, due to the time limitations inherent in vinyl recordings.
In a sweet and upbeat waltz, Louise and June sing of their wish that Rose would marry Herbie, so that they could all settle down and get out of show business. Louise is singing from her heart, wanting her mother to be happy. June, however, shows more resentment of their life on the road. Almost all of her comments, from getting the hair ribbons out of her hair to getting rid of her toe shoes, are about how getting Momma married will affect her. Which sets us up nicely for what happens next.
Track 11: All I Need is the Girl
Tulsa, one of the Farmboys, shows Louise what the nightclub act he's putting together is going to look like. It is a typical I'm-getting-ready-for-a-date dance, with lots of glitz and not much substance. He has programmed the whole number to show off what he can do, which includes dance with a partner, but it isn't until towards the end of the dance that he encourages Louise to join him just this once.
If you can, listen to this number with a headset. The stereo separation is incredible. You can actually hear Wallace dancing around the recording studio, with his tap shoes quietly clicking on the floor during the waltz step.
The scene, a lonely train station. The Farmboys are all quitting the act, and June has secretly married Tulsa and split for Kansas City. "Dainty June and her Farmboys" is history, and with no act, Rose has no choice but to marry Herbie and settle down. Right? Wrong. In one of the most deservedly famous reversals Rose turns to Louise, declares that she will be the new star, and delivers the show's most well-known anthem.
What I hadn't realized until I started researching this column is that Sondheim invented the title phrase. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" has become so ingrained in our verbal consciousness that we now automatically associate it with success. That and getting up early on New Years Day to watch that parade from Pasadena.
If "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is Gypsy's most famous song, this one is a close second as Rose, Louise, and Herbie affirm their solidarity and love for one another. With some lyric changes made, depending on the situation, this song was performed on practically every television variety show for years. Those changes were necessary because the song's lyrics tend to be plot-specific, including Rose's reference to the cow. But this friendly ode to camaraderie gives the show a needed boost, getting the second act moving again after the intermission. (No, I don't have a second-act-opening-number theory yet, but I am working on one.)
From one of the friendliest numbers in the score, we go to one of the most fun. "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" is a brassy, sassy mock-competition between three of the strippers at a burlesque house where Louise and the others have finally landed. Mazeppa playing her horn, Electra turning herself on, and Tessie Tura acting oh-so-genteel is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Unfortunately, the song has been cut to shreds on the OCR, again because of problems with disk time, so the fun of the number is likewise shredded. What we are left with here is a general impression of the bit, a very good impression but one that leaves you wanting not just more but the whole dish.
You've heard this song before. It's the opening number, reprised by June over and over. This time, we get to hear Louise sing it, as an adult. She's stepping onto the boards as a stripper, and discovering that she's got talent after all. This version of the song has been stripped of all the dialogue, and is not a full representation of the song as heard in the theatre. However, as a presentation of the song as a popular song, this recording does very well.
The method behind the song's metamorphosis is fascinating. What was a quick quarter-time dance step is now a strut backed by a triple beat rhythm under each of the original quarter-time beats. This shift transforms the original bright and child-friendly song into something sultry and adult. The lyric also shifts because of this time change, taking on the glow of the double entendre. Styne should take a bow for this one, as should Sondheim.
After writing so many great numbers, each one better than the one that came before it, Styne and Sondheim had a monster of a task. The final song had to be Merman's, and it had to be bigger than anything that had come before it. So what did they do? They put her on stage, alone, with no set, no visible support. Just Merman and her talent. That took guts. And then they topped it all off by writing for her one of the most original numbers ever written for the American stage.
"Rose's Turn" is a recap of everything that has come before, and at the same time is something fresh and new. The song quotes from "Let Me Entertain You," "Some People", "Mr. Goldstone", and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (and probably other places that I've missed) as Rose reassesses her life. And boy is she pissed! Everything she has worked for has been for naught, everyone she has sacrificed for has rejected her. What's a girl to do but challenge the world to recognize her and what she can do? She struts and prowls the stage, declaring that she's got "it". She lists what she, Momma, can do. But when she hit's "Momma's lettin' go" she starts to fall apart. She picks up the pieces, but slams to a dead halt when she confesses "Momma's gotta let go." She finally admits to herself that her life has been led with no profit for herself. All of her dreams have been for others. And she finally determines that she deserves a turn. It is a strange, bitter moment, but she frees herself from her past.
Tour de force is an overused phrase. Unfortunately, I can't come up with a better one. Styne's music takes the brassy roar of the burlesque house, upends it, and comes up with something deeply personal. His shift towards the end from a minor key structure to a major key, somewhere around where Rose sings "Then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee!" is especially dramatic. Equally dramatic is Sondheim's sharp turns of phrase ("Scrapbooks full of me in the background" grabs my attention every time). The duo faced their challenge, and met it.
And the curtain rings down.
Consider: the big hit song of 1959 was "Mack the Knife," from The Three-Penny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. That's right, a show tune. But the version that became a big hit was the Las Vegas hipster track cut by Bobby Darin, not the brooding version heard in the show. Bobby Darin was playing to his audience, the teenagers, a new audience that was only then being recognized as separate from their parents.
Earlier, in the 30s and 40s, everyone basically listened to the same music. There was no youth audience. But one of the side effects of World War II was a division between the old and the young. The older generation was proud to have served in the war. Anyone who hadn't served was looked down upon as less worthy, and that included anyone who hadn't served simply because they weren't old enough to serve. This, naturally, had an alienating effect on the younger generation. They began to see themselves as separate, and began to search for things they could call their own. This included searching for their own music. Broadway musicals were being written for the older generation. Darin's crossover twisting of "Mack the Knife" was a fluke.
As time has gone by, there have been fewer and fewer crossover hits. Just as Momma Rose's quest for her daughters' fame in vaudeville was doomed by the demise of vaudeville, so has the popular Broadway melody been doomed. Popular songs are coming from other venues. The audience has moved on to other arenas. So, perhaps it is just as well that Sondheim has not been interested in writing pop songs, and instead has turned to writing good theatre based on character and situation. The infrastructure of music moving from Broadway to general public popularity is gone.
Enough of this melancholy. It's high time for me to start researching my next column. I've got four recordings of this show to compare, if I'm going to justify buying all four to you-know-who.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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