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This question comes from Christine O'Donnell of Fair Lawn, NJ.
Answer: On opening night of every Broadway musical that has a chorus — basically every Broadway musical except for purely ensemble pieces, such as Falsettos — the chorus member with most Broadway chorus credits receives an honor known as the Gypsy Robe.
The Gypsy Robe ceremony takes place about an hour to an hour-and -a-half before the opening-night performance. All of the performers (and sometimes the crew members as well) stand onstage in a circle. The person who received the robe for the previous Broadway musical will arrive with the robe, stand in the middle of the circle and announce the winner. The recipient puts on the off-white, muslin robe — which looks like a combination of a dressing grown and a kimono — and walks counterclockwise around the inside of the circle three times, as everyone in the circle touches it for good luck.
"People are wound up, frankly," says Tom Miller, who was recently appointed director of outreach and career development at Actors' Equity, and who — through his duties as one of Equity's Chorus Councillors — has attended almost all the ceremonies over the last few years. "People are just excited."
Amy Heggins recently received the Gypsy Robe for Young Frankenstein. "Honestly, I wasn't surprised because when you're in the rehearsal process and you talk amongst yourselves, we all know what we've accomplished," she says. "But the first time I received the Gypsy Robe I didn't expect it." That was for Dream 1997. Heggins also received it for Thou Shalt Not in 2001.
"It's really emotional," she says of the ceremony. "My eyes watered up. It really sums up your whole career to date, and the fact that you're actually being acknowledged for all that you've done is rare, and it really it means a lot."
Equity representatives and past winners will also attend the ceremony. If multiple people have the same number of chorus credits, the previous recipient selects the winner.
After the ceremony but before the performance, the recipient brings the robe to each dressing room in the building. "That's a little personal moment of whatever your relationship is with that person," Heggins says. "You can go into a room and no one's in it, but you have to go into each room. It's a moment of you going in and blessing their room with that robe, and there could be a hug, there could be a kiss. You'll sit and talk about the process, and how you're feeling at that moment."
At some point in the days after the ceremony, the recipient collaborates with the costume department to create a small panel to attach to the robe to represent the show, typically with every cast member's signature on it. The Color Purple's was a patchwork quilt-type panel, for instance, and Tarzan's included elements of the set, costumes and curtain.
The robe itself is then typically stored in the show's wardrobe room, Heggins says, before the recipient brings it to the next musical's opening night to give it to the next recipient.
According to Equity's website, the ceremony began in 1950 when Bill Bradley, who was in the chorus of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, got a chorus girl's dressing gown and sent it to a friend on opening night of Call Me Madam.
"It began very casually, just a very sweet, under-the-radar kind of thing," says Miller. Eventually, during the 1970s and 1980s, the ritual became more formalized, Miller says. Recipients have included Jerry Mitchell (for The Will Rogers Follies) and Hunter Foster (for Footloose), though most recipients are veteran chorus members who are well-known within the musical theatre acting community but unknown to fans.
Since the panels fill up the robe, Equity usually creates a new robe at the beginning of every season, and has by now built up quite a collection. There's one robe on display on the second floor of the Equity building in Manhattan, and Equity is planning on setting up displays in its offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Orlando, Miller says. Equity has given robes to the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. In addition, Miller says, "We have ten of them at Equity that we would very much like to get archived in an appropriate way."
For more information on the Gypsy Robe — including a link to a list of recipients dating back to 1982 in the top right corner — visit the Actors' Equity website by clicking here.