The All-American Original
The creative team that had assembled, along with the opening night
audience, at New York City’s Broadway Theater on the pleasant spring
evening of May 21, 1959, had every reason to be nervous wrecks. They
were about to make theatrical history, but they certainly didn’t know
it yet, and where Broadway shows are concerned, nothing was every
certain anyway. All the creative team knew at the moment was that this
show, Gypsy, so loosely based on the memoirs of performer Gypsy Rose Lee
that it had to be billed as “Gypsy, A Musical Fable,” had been
nothing short of beleaguered with difficulties during its creation,
rehearsals, and out-of-town run in Philadelphia.
Gypsy Rose Lee, born Rose Louise Hovick and initially called
“Louise,” had written a book that was the charming, and sometimes
uproarious, story of her childhood spent in the background of a Jazz Age
traveling vaudeville act starring her adorable and talented little
sister, child star “Baby June.” The act was managed by the girls’
enchanting yet slightly less-than-moral rogue of a mother, Rose Thompson
Hovick. When June reaches her teens, she outgrows her babyish act,
realizes that vaudeville, as a form of entertainment, is dying out, and
elopes with one of the backup dancers. Mother Rose creates a new act
around Louise, which is no easy feat: by her own admission, Louise has
no talent whatsoever. The duo prevails. Burlesque is the only form of
Vaudeville still thriving by then. It’s considered, in the late
1920’s, to be about the lowest entertainment genre of them all.
Louise enters it out of financial necessity - and becomes Gypsy Rose
Lee, comic Burlesque star extraordinaire. June, on her own, eventually
becomes the respected actress June Havoc. The book ends as Gypsy Rose
Lee temporarily leaves the stage, which has been the only permanent
“home” she’s ever known, to appear in movies in Hollywood.
Readers were delighted with the story, and the book landed on The New
York Times Bestseller List. Arthur Laurents, a gifted playwright and
author of previous theatrical hits Home of the Brave, The Time of the
Cuckoo, and most recently the book of the musical West Side Story,was
hired by producer David Merrick to write the script. Laurents initially
was not intrigued by Lee’s story on any level…until he spoke with an
acquaintance at a party.
The woman, dark-haired, funny Selma Lynch, had known the real Rose. She
described her as charming and charismatic but a ball-buster.
Laurents, suddenly, had found a basis for the main character. It would
not be Gypsy Rose Lee, but her mother, Rose. He left out most of the
real Rose’s delicate charm and created, instead, the more dramatic
character of an issue-laden human steamroller.
Tough Broadway belter Ethel Merman was signed to play the role of Rose.
Once Laurents knew the identity of the actress for whom he was writing
the part, he wrote the character of his fictional Rose to match
Merman’s boisterous personality. Laurents developed an absolutely
brilliant script about a take-no-prisoners stage mother, taking off and
soaring with it. The focus of Lee’s story was changed away from the
two performing children and onto Rose, presenting her as their driven,
fame-obsessed mother-from-Hell who wanted her children to become stars
to fulfill her own exaggerated need for recognition. Laurents came up
with script conflicts that added considerable spice to the storyline.
In the show’s penultimate mea-culpa number, “Rose’s Turn,” the
character of Rose breaks down and admits that she had chased after
onstage fame for her children simply because she had always been starved
for attention. Then she declares she’s going to henceforth start
dreaming for herself, yelling, five times in a row with increasing
volume, the phrase, “For me!” This ends with Rose letting out a
long, frustrated, mad scream. The relatively relaxing read that Gypsy
Rose Lee had put together was transformed into a riveting, but almost
entirely fictionalized, script.
Jule Styne, who had composed the hit shows Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,
Bells are Ringing and High Button Shoes, was hired to write the music
for Gypsy. A relatively new songwriter named Stephen Sondheim was
brought on board to write the lyrics. He’d recently been the lyricist
for another hit, West Side Story, and initially wanted to write both the
music and lyrics for Gypsy, but both producer David Merrick and Ethel
Merman wouldn’t allow it. Sondheim was too inexperienced to be
trusted with both.
Styne had once played the piano in a burlesque orchestra so he knew
exactly how to capture the percussive flavor of the joyfully brash
burlesque music and incorporate it into his score. Styne was a
compulsive gambler. He owed so much money to his bookies that at one
point Arthur Laurents was shocked to see enforcers chasing Styne down
the street, threatening to break his legs.
Styne outran them. His place in the show’s collaboration was off to a
flying start – literally.
Sondheim was disappointed over having to work with a collaborator again
yet he genially went along with the plan. Styne and Sondheim worked
well together, coming up with so many song numbers that the show was too
Director/Choreographer Jerome Robbins, on the other hand, did not work
well with anybody. He was considered infamous among the New York
theatrical community. In one almost incredible incident, Jule Styne got
fed up with Robbins when he blamed him for not authorizing the building
of a platform he’d requested to raise the height of the orchestra
members; the pit in the theater was so low that his music could not be
heard properly. Jule Styne asked for this platform many times, but it
Styne was not exactly a bastion of restraint. He threatened to pick
Robbins up and throw him into the orchestra pit, from whence no one
would hear either Robbins’ screams or Styne’s music. It’s almost
a wonder the volatile Robbins survived directing Gypsy without getting
Then the real June, actress June Havoc, decided to create disruptions...
Excerpted from "Mama Rose's Turn: The True Story of America's Most Notorious Stage Mother" by Carolyn Quinn. Copyright © 2013 by Carolyn Quinn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.