Thursday, June 16, 2011

Douglas Messerli "A Necessary Vacuum" (on Gypsy with Patti Lupone)

A NECESSARY VACUUM
by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) Gypsy / New York, St. James Theatre / the performance I saw was on the evening of May 10, 2008

My brief summary of the plot of Gypsy in an earlier essay clouds the fact that it is nearly impossible to say anything coherent about this musical. Words seem out of place in a work centered around such a stock figure as this notorious “stage mother.” Better to just sit back and watch this monster (a word taken from the Latin, meaning “to show”) than to attempt to describe what one is being shown.

Most of the women who have played this role—Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, and, in the recent production I attended, Patti LuPone—had long played powerful women before they attempted the role (Bernadette Peters is perhaps the exception). For Mama Rose is the kind of dominating woman who, before the operetta is over (and I think of this American musical as having more links to opera than many other musical works), must devour nearly all the other characters on stage, even the audience itself, to get the attention she craves. Ultimately, these performers, like full force hurricanes, leave little in their paths except the shy, naked girl who has no choice but to retreat into the mind she has never been permitted to develop.

The audience can do little but sit in stony silence or madly applaud! As if witnessing the death dance of the mad Medea or the passionate self-willed rape of Salome, one recognizes Rose’s last long screed (“Rose’s Turn”)—performed supposedly in an empty theater where we sit as voyeurs—as something nearly unbearable to watch. Her daughter’s lame response, “You could have been great, mama,” is a death knell to this woman born too early and come to performance too late. “Could have, would have,” Rose bites back, knowing that despite all the living she has done vicariously through her daughters, she stands alone on the stage, bowing to an imaginary audience. The fact that we sit there, madly applauding her desperate lament, only reiterates the fact that, within the drama itself, she faces the silence of death.

Yet, as I title the next essay, “What a way to go!” Despite her utter selfishness, Rose has also been utterly, unintentionally selfless, destroying her children and lover at the very moment of building their characters into the kind of strong-willed pioneer woman that she herself is. Gypsy Rose Lee may seek all of her life for the love her mother was unable to provide, but, as she herself admits, she will now live her life by herself in her own manner. Her new identity has transformed the poor little untalented girl that once stood behind it.

What is remarkable about Patti LuPone’s substantial performance, particularly when she opens her mouth in song, is that in her characterization of Rose we understand, perhaps for the first time, that she was able to hold on to her children and agent-lover Herbie for so long because she was not only willful, powerful, and deter-mined woman, but a siren, a beautiful female who could lure any man, woman, child into her clutches far better than Gypsy will ever be able to seduce her male audiences. It is no accident that Gypsy’s allurement lies in her being a refined lady who stands at a remove from the audience she entertains, an unattainable goddess of love. For Rose, contrarily, is the last of the red hot mammas, a course, down to earth, sexual predator who is nearly impossible to resist. Perhaps only the Midler performance came close to this.

I never saw the Ethel Merman production, but after seeing this version of the musical play, it now seems hard to imagine such a rock of flesh as having been able to entice anyone to do anything, let alone perform loony amateur skits, as Baby June and Louise did, year after year. One understands in LuPone’s performance why Herbie can “never get away” from her, staying on until the last shred of human decency is dropped, like Gypsy’s long white gloves.

New York, May 11, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (June 2008).
Copyright (c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli

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