Saturday, March 3, 2018

Douglas Messerli | on Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from My Favorite Musical Theater Songs

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”
Composer: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Ethel Merman
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Rosalind Russell, 1962
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Shirley Bassey, 1965
Composer: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Angela Lansbury, 1989
Composrs: Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Performer: Tyne Daley, 1989
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Bette Midler, 1993
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Bernadette Peters, 2003
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Ruthie Hensall
Composers: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim
Singer: Patti Lapone, 2008

Composer Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, I must admit, is not at all my favorite musical, the fact of which I  have loudly expressed over the years despite my having seen the film version, Angela Lansbury and Patti Lapone on stage, and the TV production with Better Midler.
     Yet I love Styne and his compositions, and both Howard and I know, personally, his lovely granddaughter, Caroline Styne, who opened, with Suzanne Goin, the popular West Hollywood venue, Luques. And I can never  quite put down Gypsy, listening to its songs again and again.
     Part of the problem with the musical is that the most brilliant song, “Rose’s Turn,” is an almost impossible piece to perform, and is totally impossible for the audience to take home as a “best song,” although it is clearly one of the most consummate musical performances of the theater; Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lapone have all remarkably attempted it, but it still is not a hummable, take-home song. Memorable, yes, but not something except the most remarkable of singers might even tackle; it’s truly not hummable, not what I’ve ever demanded of any song included here, but still not one of my most memorable experiences: it’s a painful expression of life lost and talent ignored, and even the singer diminishes it with her “could have / would have” comment. She might have been great, but she wasn’t, and she knows it. And the song truly exposes those problems.
     Once again, this musical is filled with lovely and memorable tunes: “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” “Little Lamb,” and many, many more. And all of them make you want to cry.
     But there is only one song that expresses the fierce determination of the central character, Rose, who controls her children so severely that both must eventually escape her handling of them. That song, so very forcefully sung in the original production by Ethel Merman, establishes not only her previous hold of her daughter, Baby June (June Havoc) but her attempt to hold close her other daughter, Louise (the later Gypsy Rose Lee). Merman sings it so utterly strong that you know she will most certainly prevail, and her poor daughter will simply have to endure it. Well, that’s the plot.
    Yet others such as Angela Lansbury, and, particularly, Bette Midler, and Bernadette Peters sang it much more subtly and ironically. Although the song never lost its powerful demands of the future, Midler and Peters, particularly, were able to express the utterly insane demands in which everything is turning up “daffodils,” “Santa Claus,” etc, without actually mocking those same simplistic tropes. We know that they are utterly impossible requirements for the very untalented Louise, but we also recognize the powerful demands or her desperate mother, desperate not only for her daughter to achieve her talent, but to represent herself (best expressed in “Rose’s Turn”) her own mother’s would-be achievements. It is perhaps one of the most painful songs ever sung, a ballad to a future that is totally impossible to achieve, despite the frenetic insistence of a truly mad mother. If the child does ever accomplish anything—and, obviously Gypsy Rose Lee did—we already know it will be nothing of the kind that the mother demands. And the sad truth, when this child becomes a strip-tease artist, tells us about how Rose never could quite comprehend her transformation into the lowest levels of American culture, even though Gypsy Rose Lee struggled throughout her life to return to redemption through her pretense of sexual sins. It was a pretense that is so sad that, today, we can hardly assimilate it.
    Gypsy is a harsh and hard musical which I could never quite embrace. But its aspirations, its desires are at the heart of the American experience, which, of course, is the problem of the American experience. Yet, her emblem to possibility, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” is something no one can truly ignore.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2018

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