Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Gypsy On Disc

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Gypsy On Disc At its Broadway premiere in 1959, Gypsy was praised by most critics as a very solid late-career vehicle for the top musical theatre woman of her generation, Ethel Merman. It was only years later that the show was acknowledged as one of the finest works of the American musical theatre, and that the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score came to be regarded as a towering achievement in terms of character delineation, theatricality, and pure Broadway razzmatazz. And while the show was initially viewed as nothing more than a Merman-fest, the role of Rose -- the frustrated "pioneer woman without a frontier" who attempts to vicariously fulfill her dreams by pushing her daughters onto the stage, only to be left out in the cold when they grow up -- has, unlike most of Merman's roles, proved to be adaptable to a wide range of actresses.

At its Broadway premiere in 1959, Gypsy was praised by most critics as a very solid late-career vehicle for the top musical theatre woman of her generation, Ethel Merman. It was only years later that the show was acknowledged as one of the finest works of the American musical theatre, and that the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score came to be regarded as a towering achievement in terms of character delineation, theatricality, and pure Broadway razzmatazz. And while the show was initially viewed as nothing more than a Merman-fest, the role of Rose -- the frustrated "pioneer woman without a frontier" who attempts to vicariously fulfill her dreams by pushing her daughters onto the stage, only to be left out in the cold when they grow up -- has, unlike most of Merman's roles, proved to be adaptable to a wide range of actresses.

This week's survey of Gypsy recordings is in honor of the opening of the Paper Mill Playhouse production starring Betty Buckley as Rose. The show has had three Broadway productions, and it should go without saying that Columbia's original Broadway cast recording is essential to even the most casual collection. I have had several occasions in this space to mention that the label's distinguished cast album producer Goddard Lieberson was in the habit of eschewing even minimal lead-in or integral dialogue and frequently reconfiguring numbers for disc. The 1959 Gypsy recording is particularly notable for this, with Merman deprived of the spoken lead-ins to "Some People" (replaced by some bars of introductory music created for the album), "Everything's Coming Up Roses," or "Rose's Turn," all of which later Roses got to put down on disc. There are also more trims in the score here (notably in "Together Wherever We Go," "You Gotta Have A Gimmick," and the kiddie numbers) than on later recordings.

But this is quibbling, as the disc preserves the powerhouse that was Merman in peak form, an outrageous, unstoppable force of nature, a bulldozer with charm to spare and considerable vulnerability as well. She is simply towering and unlikely to be equaled in Rose's seven numbers; the supporting performers (Jack Klugman, Sandra Church, Paul Wallace, Maria Karnilova) are wonderful, and the recording has palpable electricity from start to finish. It is scheduled for its first full-scale remastering in the Columbia Broadway Masterworks series, and wouldn't we all like to see them find some alternate Merman takes (not that Merman ever varied her delivery much), or simply some studio wisecracks from the star?

Next up was Angela Lansbury, who starred in the 1973 London premiere then toured the U.S. and brought the show back to Broadway for a limited engagement. Her RCA Victor recording features the London cast, but she re-recorded "Some People" for the American issue of the LP, restoring the original final note as opposed to the alternate high one with which she ends the number on the London LP (the CD issue is the U.S. LP version). Lansbury, a thrilling musical theatre star in her own right, lacks Merman's steel pipes but sings with enormous gusto; as in the theatre, her "Rose's Turn" reaches opera-mad-scene proportions and is a stunner. The London recording was the first to preserve portions of the score and bits of dialogue omitted on the Merman album.

Tyne Daly was an unexpected and fortuitous choice for the 1989 Broadway revival, and her Rose was remarkable for its almost frightening degree of unpleasant verisimilitude: One felt one was seeing the actual woman upon whom the role was based, rather than a fabulous star playing the role fabulously. Daly had a huge triumph in the production, but you might not know it from the Elektra Nonesuch cast album (one of the last to be issued on LP). An erratic singer who possesses all of the voice required but whose technique is not always reliable, Daly was unfortunately committed to preserving the role during a period of vocal distress; she sounded infinitely better every one of the four times I saw her play the role in the theatre than she does on the recording. Still, Daly comes across on disc as a warm, stellar presence, and those willing to overlook the serious imperfections should find the recording (with strong co-stars in Jonathan Hadary and Crista Moore) of interest. There is one other notable full-length stage cast recording, Philips' LP of the 1976 South African production starring Libby Morris, a cabaret and stage performer who has worked extensively in Canada and England (she was part of the recent BBC Radio 2 broadcasts of Mame and Follies). The production and recording were modelled on the Lansbury version, and Morris, whose singing is something of a cross between that of Lansbury and Merman, is terrific. Good luck trying to find this LP (which has a photo of Morris doing "Rose's Turn" on the cover). Morris reprised five of her Gypsy numbers on a live BBC Radio 2 concert this year, now available on a CD to be reviewed in this space next week.

Last year's Theater des Westens, Berlin production starred Angelika Milster, who has played the leads in Cats, Song and Dance, and Hello, Dolly!. A six-track CD preserves "Some People," "You'll Never Get Away From Me," "If Momma Was Married," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Gimmick," and the strip sequence. Milster is her usual exciting self here.

In addition to their availability on video, the two film versions also produced soundtrack albums. Rosalind Russell's Rose in the 1962 movie remains controversial, and part of the problem stems from the fact that Russell's singing was mixed with that of Lisa Kirk, who tends to take over in all of the difficult passages. (While Russell avers in her autobiography that what you're hearing in the film is all her, that is clearly not the case.) Any actress who takes on Rose must score heavily in the numbers, and the fact that the star's singing voice is often being provided by someone other than the star saps Russell's performance of some of its potential force. The album includes "Together Wherever We Go," shot for but cut from the released film, and "You'll Never Get Away From Me," trimmed in the released version (both numbers in their entirety have surfaced on video, but have yet to be added to the commercially available video releases).

On Atlantic's soundtrack of the 1993 CBS TV film remake (which, unlike the '62 movie, follows the original stage text closely), Bette Midler sounds less vocally strong than she does when one watches her in the actual film; a better bet than the disc is the released video, which offers Midler in an exciting star turn, even if one never quite forgets that she's Midler playing Rose.

There are two British studio cast recordings. The 1969 Music For Pleasure LP stars Kay Medford, whose best known musical work was playing another Jule Styne stage mother in Funny Girl. There are those who maintain that Medford's acting abilities make up for her vocal shortcomings here, but I find the singing an insurmountable problem. The final, sustained note of "Rose's Turn" is among the most painful in recorded history, and this album was a popular "party disc" in the '70s. Five of Rose's songs are heard on a recording issued in Britain as an EP and in the U.S. as one side of a Richmond/London LP (backed by The Music Man); Joyce Blair is the excellent Rose. Note too a solo version of the score sung by jazz singer Annie Ross, backed by the Buddy Bregman band.

Some other Roses and their partial preservations: Daly's successor in the last Broadway production was Linda Lavin, who performed "Some People" on a Jule Styne PBS tribute. Lansbury's London successor was the great Dolores Gray, who can be heard (in far from her best form) in "Rose's Turn" on First Night's recording of the 1989 London benefit concert Stairway to the Stars. Gisele MacKenzie, who played the show in stock, recorded three of Rose's songs on a live album made at the Waldorf Astoria's Empire Room.

I suspect there's every chance that the Paper Mill production will give us yet another Gypsy cast recording, and there can never be too many.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com