Like we knew she would and could. The night I attended Gypsy (July 11, when the Encores! engagement was celebrated with a pre-opening party, three days before the official opening July 14) sustained applause welcomed Patti LuPone to the role she was born to play — Gypsy's uber-Monster Mom, Rose — as drawn (and perhaps quartered) by Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jule Styne (music) from the I-Remember-Mama-With-a-Vengeance memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee.
Saturday's opening night coincided with Laurents' 89th birthday, and he marked his birthday week with a minor miracle: Directing his own script almost as if he were seeing it for the first time, he improved on perfection, something you might think impossible. The hilarious and harrowing saga of a stage mother pushing her two daughters on the stage during the last gasps of vaudeville (the very wicked stage of burlesque, in one instance) is richer than one remembers, deepening the humor and the heartbreak. Grown men were heard crying in the audience. Words like "seminal" and "definitive" and "historic" flew about like Tinkerbell at the intermission while a plethora of producers made lazy circles in the sky.
A tumultuous curtain call — hollering coupled with clapping — lasted a short eternity Thursday night till LuPone pulled Laurents and Sondheim on stage. Then the crowd really went wild.
That night's pre-opening party was held at The Redeye Grill. (Actually, the celebration started with the previews. The buzz around town was pretty deafening.)
Having given at "the office," La LuPone put in only a drive-by token appearance at the party, posed for a few fotogs and was off to her Connecticut abode in a limo, pleading vocal rest. The other hero of the evening, La Laurents, stayed the duration but was buffered by a beefy entourage to keep the pesky paparazzi at bay. One of them said, "The press have been all over him tonight, and he said, 'Keep them away from me.'" So be it. At 89-minus-two-days, this theatrical Hercules eminently deserved to be cut a little slack.
Sondheim, in his best rumpled white suit, was positively beaming, unlike a lot of his openings, making himself accessible and fielding compliments graciously and modestly.
"A lot of that has to do with casting," he dirt-kicked. "The cast is so wonderful." And, indeed, Jay Binder did a brilliant job of outfitting the right roles with the right actors.
Even when they didn't at first seem right. Boyd Gaines admitted he was taken aback when he was pitched the role of Herbie, Rose's doormat lover and road-manager.
"He's a wonderful character who's played all different ways," said Gaines. "In fact, when they called and mentioned it to me, I said, 'Oh, gee, I — really?' Because he is usually played archetypally different than I was, so I went to Arthur, and he told me what he had in mind and the story of the character was a guy who really wanted a family.
"I think a lot of us have come to this without a lot of preconceptions or history with the play. I'd seen it once a long time ago, but I'd missed the big productions in New York, so what's kinda nice is that Arthur got us through this and made it seem like a new work."
Audiences were thoroughly braced for LuPone to hit it out of the park, but not necessarily Laura Benanti, who proved to be a solid, friction-making foil for her in the title role. Binder who found her in high school, made her Rebecca Luker's understudy in The Sound of Music and then let her take over the part. The rest is history.
"This is the best written thing I've ever done, and you're only as good as what you're in," she was quick to counter. "I love this role. I'm going to cry my eyes out when it's done. I'll be truly devastated. It has been the best experience of my life."
Tony Yazbeck for Tulsa was particularly dead-on casting. He cut his teeth on Encores! in the chorus and, last season, worked his way up to A Chorus Line (from which he just exited). In short, he knows the tap turf pretty well and has thought about it even longer.
"Tony dreamed about doing this since he was kid," relayed his Chorus Line producer, John Breglio. "His parents sat right in front of me tonight so I asked them, and they confirmed that for me. They said, 'Absolutely true, since he was 12 years old.'"
"All I Need Is the Girl," a showstopper out of nowhere that brings him out of the chorus and up to the plate, showcases a surprisingly fine singing voice in addition to some spectacular hoofing. "It's one of those things where they peg you as a dancer until you can finally say, 'Oh, wait, I act and sing, too,'" he said rather confidently right after his stunning triple-play. "The audience felt good tonight, and I felt so relaxed, like I wasn't working as hard. I felt I had fun for the first time this week and could play with it more."
The unknown commodity among the principals — Leigh Ann Larkin — presented a Dainty June of stainless steel, the logical consequence of too much stage-mothersmothering. Notice in her otherwise-sprightly "If Momma Was Married" duet with Benanti how she stubbornly holds on to her anger.
"Arthur and I talked all the time about that number," she said. "He was very specific with it. He knew right from the first day what he wanted to accomplish with that number. He said, 'It's going to be difficult,' but he didn't want it to be like it's ever been done before. I worked really hard on what I thought I'd like to bring to the table as June, and he just layered it and layered it from there. He gave me all the tools for exactly what he wanted."
She hopes June Havoc, the real Baby-Dainty June (now 90 and living in Stamford, CT) gets to see the show. "It's a really, really special production, and I think she'd love it."
The three veteran comediennes playing the over-the-hill, around-the-block strip-tease artists who bump, grind, whine, brazen and finesse their way through the roof-raising "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" have fantastically funny, fresh takes on their roles.
Mazeppa, who bumps it to a trumpet, is played with a stevedore's swagger and rasp by the marvelous Nancy Opel. Her crash course on Trumpet 101 was conducted by Trevor Newman, a trumpeter for A Chorus Line. "I started two and a half weeks ago and went from 0 to 60. There was a steep learning curve on the trumpet. I did a lot of woodshedding on that trumpet, and that's pretty hard when you've never played it before. Your mouth gets really tired really fast. And, coming from a stripper, I should know."
Alison Fraser milks her high-pitched voice hysterically as the fluttery, flirty Tessie Tura, who is, by sharp turns, squeaky and strident. She cast a decided yes vote on the evening: "It's an honor and privilege to be on stage, with Patti, in the best musical ever devised. Arthur is a genius, a treasure of the American theatre and a testament to living well."
Marilyn Caskey's Electra moves about the stage with a slow and cautious tentativeness as if (1) she is the world's oldest stripper or (2) she has had some very rude jolts doing her electric-light show. During rehearsal once, she gingerly exited into the wings and regaled the backstage crew by uttering, in character, "My head . . . is made . . . of glass."
"Nancy and Alison and I say we're one organism," laughed Caskey. "To work with those ladies is such a treat for me. I've known of them, but I've never worked with them before. Also, I think the script was ahead of its time when you think of when it was written and produced. It's about so many women's issues. It's only now we're ready to hear all that.
"We have had such a good time in rehearsal, and Arthur has been amazing. He set up great guidelines and was very clear about them but let us be free within those guidelines. He nudged us this way or that and couldn't have been more encouraging to get us in the right direction. The experience of working with him was one of the best I've ever had."
One poignant image at the party was the sign earmarking an empty table near the entrance: The Estate of Jule Styne. And if there was a short, redheaded ghost sitting there, he was smiling. When the composer died at 88, wife Margaret explained he just ran out of keys. She was very much present at the party, sitting with Floria Lasky, the venerable showbiz lawyer who was pals with both Laurents and Gypsy's original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins. "Arthur said Jerry would have loved this evening," she relayed.
"I never saw Ethel," admitted Styne's widow. "My first Gypsy was with Angela in London. I had always heard about Gypsy, that there's this incredible integration of the book, the lyrics and the music — it's perfect. I've never understood all of that till I saw it.
"Tonight was exciting, but each is different. It's a bit like offsprings. You can't pick one."
But she loved that her husband's score had been restored to the Broadway sound of old. The brilliant orchestrations were by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzier. "Sid was the original orchestrator, and he went to the first reading this time. The conductor, Patrick Vaccariello, was on the last one with Bernadette as assistant conductor, and he learned it well. He did a very good job."
Vaccariello confessed it was a kick to conduct the overture — only the best in Broadway history, they say — and this particular evening was peppered with prolonged applause. It wasn't completely unprecedented, he said, "but this was very special — really terrific."
"I was thrilled by it," admitted Rob Fisher, who put in a good decade wielding the Encores! baton (including LuPone's two outings, Pal Joey and Can-Can). "I know the show, love the show, was excited to see the show, but it seemed like the most important show I'd ever seen. Patti made it seem like the greatest story ever told. I was blown away. I thought that everybody, from top to bottom, was shown to their very best advantage."
After Sondheim, Laurents and Ramin, the only carryover from the original 1959 Gypsy is (Seymour) Red Press. "I'm now an orchestra contractor — that's what I did for this show," he said. "Then I was a simple woodwind player. It was my second Broadway show. The first one was a flop, The Body Beautiful, and we ran about eight weeks. Gypsy was a hit, of course, and all I could think of was, for the next year, I would get a check every week."
Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, who seems to be working his way through the G's this summer (Grease will follow Gypsy next month), went well beyond the G-string basics and fashioned some stunning show-piece gowns for Benanti to take off.
"She's the sexiest woman I've ever dressed," Pakledinaz said, "and the thing is that she's unaware of it. She's a competent, beautiful professional. Backstage, convent girl — sorta goes to a different place when you're fitting the G-string — then, all of a sudden, on stage she's not Laura Benanti. That first time she sees herself in the mirror, to me it's so touching — that line that every drag queen and non-drag queen has said, 'I'm a pretty girl, Mama.' Then when she hits the stage in that green dress, she's Gypsy Rose Lee."
His funniest creation is an oversized hat with a gigantic rose which, when it has to, covers all the points of interest — "a blooming flower, perhaps symbolic," he helpfully annotated.
Just back from "Calshakes" (Oakland Shakespeare Festival in California where he was Richard III), Reg Rogers seemed an unlikely reveler at a musical bash — and was. "I've never seen Gypsy before," he admitted, not at all sheepishly. "I just know Patti, and Patti has a special place for me. She was beyond perfection tonight. She really blew it out."
Michael Cerveris, LuPone's Tony-nominated Sweeney Todd, was just beside himself with happiness after the show. "I think maybe I don't ever have to see it again," he beamed. "The acting performances were so extraordinary, and they all sang it so gloriously — and to get to hear it with the entire orchestra — and Patrick did such a great job. Laura was great. You come expecting gloriousness from Patti, and she delivers, but Laura was fantastic. Arthur directed it so simply, beautifully and smartly. Then, at the end for him and Steve to get on stage, I just felt like it was a moment of history, and I was thrilled to be there."
As for his own immediate plans: "I'm taking the summer off to recharge my batteries, then it looks like some Shakespeare in the fall here in town. I'm not sure what right now."
Jack Viertel, artistic director for Encores! and this seasonal offshoot he calls "Summer Stars," said the idea of expanding the series from the usual five or six performances to 22 was to give a star a shot at a part he (or she) has always wanted to play. LuPone as Mama Rose is such a definitive example of this, he was hard-pressed to give a second example.
"It was a little bit hard to get everybody to understand what it was going to be — that it wasn't an Encores! but it was produced by Encores! at City Center, but once everyone sorta understood what the scope of it was, it was all about Arthur Laurents. He has done the most unbelievable work. I just can't say enough about it. He basically took the reins and said, 'I know what I'm doing, and I know how to do it. Trust me.' And that was it."
There's also a backstory to this elongated Encores!: "It's a combination of wanting Encores! to grow into a bigger and newer direction — always a secret desire of mine — and the fact City Center finally got air conditioning. For the first time in many years, we can be open in the summer. It was a city-and-state-funded project to put air conditioning in the building."
His brother, producer Tom Viertel, admitted he definitely plans to take the LuPone Gypsy and run with it, somewhere. "It's just a question of where and when," he said. [The rumor rampant at the party was that London would get the production before Broadway.]
"This is the best version there's ever been," he declared boldly without asterisks or qualifiers. "I didn't see Merman, but I saw the other Broadway productions. And it is finally the thrilling drama that it always was. It's got brilliant songs, and it's hysterically funny at times. There's nothing not to like. We always sorta knew it was the best musical that was ever written. And, now, this production tells you there are no doubts about it."