From Judy to Gypsy

Special Features   From Judy to Gypsy
Gypsy's Tammy Blanchard has carved out a red-hot career playing high-octane theatrical legends
Tammy Blanchard as Louise in Gypsy.
Tammy Blanchard as Louise in Gypsy. Photo by Joan Marcus

Tammy Blanchard wasn't born in a trunk in Pocatella, Idaho, but she was star-kissed from the start all the same. She was named after a Debbie Reynolds flick, and the die was cast.

It has been a short career but a star-powered one. Currently you'll find her at the Shubert Theatre, bringing new meaning to the word revelatory as celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and, like all the Broadway Gypsies before her (Sandra Church, Zan Charisse and Crista Moore), she did not let the tassel touch the ground: She, too, was nominated for the Tony.

It seems one thing has led, as things will, to another. She won this plum part because producers saw her Emmy-winning work in "Me and My Shadows: Life with Judy Garland."

She played Garland from 13 to 18 as she started to flower on film, and — because that TV movie was based on the autobiography of Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft — the Blanchard footage served as introductory notes to the story proper. It was the most calculated concentration of extreme highs and lows since sad little Sophie Nelson in "The Razor's Edge," a role Garland coveted and campaigned for (Anne Baxter won it, and the Oscar). Blanchard negotiated these histrionic hairpin turns like a veteran of the track — usually in no more than two takes — all the while looking uncannily like the young Garland doing it.

"That's Robert [Allan] Ackerman," she says, crediting her director with her stunning success. "I spent two weeks on that movie, so it was a really quick in-and-out. The hardest thing was just to go through that emotional roller-coaster ride she went on. Every day I felt there was something hurting me. I guess that just happens naturally to actors when they have to dredge up those feelings for a scene. The great thing about doing that part was that, in between these big emotional rides, I got to sing along with Judy Garland." Still, lip-synching to Garland soundtracks — no matter how expertly done it is — does not necessarily qualify one for a big-league Broadway musical, so Blanchard gingerly tiptoed into this arena. "The acting, I was okay with — I knew I could act it — but I had fears about the rest. I can't believe I'm singing on Broadway. It's just coming from my heart and soul every night. That's all I use, and I'm surprised people aren't annoyed."

Chalk it up to an early calling. When she was in grammar school back in Bayonne, she did a skit as Dorothy Gale slapping The Cowardly Lion. By the time senior high rolled around, she was skipping down The Yellow Brick Road in a full production of The Wizard of Oz. Re-creating that scene for the TV movie was très déjà vu — but even that she made happen: "The first day I met my manager, I told him if he ever saw anything about Judy or something she had done before, I'd like a shot at it. Then, he found an audition in Variety for "Me and My Shadows" and called them up. I went in — twice — and got the part."

Call it kismet: "Judy has always been around for me. I used to pretend that she was with me, and those feelings are with me still. I have her picture on my dressing-room mirror."

The mama-manipulation she's put through on Broadway now is not as draining as the Garland shoot. "It's not as intense," she admits. "There's a strength in Gypsy that Judy lacked. I read Gypsy's memoir, and I was amazed how in love with her mother she was."

Arthur Laurents, who adapted the book and directed the two previous revivals of the show, saw the mother-daughter relationship differently, darker — but did not give her any notes until after the show's opening. "Sam [Mendes, the director] was mediator and would pass along what Arthur thought. Then I saw [Arthur] the other day in the hallway, and he said, 'When you say, "I am Gypsy Rose Lee, and I love her," you love her — because you should,' and he gave me a kiss on the lips. It was like this magical moment that changed my whole idea of what I was doing. For some reason, I was feeling ashamed and holding back. When he gave me that kiss, it cured me."

Reaching stardom in two giant steps should give a girl pause, but Blanchard has her antenna up for her next dream. "Well," she drawls with a coquette coyness, "I hear they're turning ‘A Star Is Born’ into a Broadway musical, and you never know, y'know...."

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