PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tammy Blanchard and John Dossett

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tammy Blanchard and John Dossett
John Dossett and Tammy Blanchard, the 2003 Tony Award-nominated featured performers in the new Broadway revival of Gypsy recently sat down with "Radio Playbill" host Robert Viagas to discuss the staging.

Blanchard plays the title role, growing from gawky girl Louise to the famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and Dossett plays Herbie, the candy salesman-turned-agent who falls in love with Louise's selfish stage-mother, Rose, played by Bernadette Peters. "Radio Playbill," a weekly news and entertainment magazine show of theatrical interviews, features and music, is broadcast multiple times each week on Sirius Satellite Radio's A&E, Stream 137.

What follows is an edited version of the complete interview, excerpts from which were heard on the "Radio Playbill" show in June.

Playbill On-Line: You were developing this show in New York, without out-of-town previews. The real story is how you guys were able to develop this hit during previews on Broadway. Could you tell me about how you developed Gypsy?
Tammy Blanchard: I think it's an ongoing process. She's not an easy woman to play, I pretty much trusted in [director] Sam [Mendes] and everyone else and all the cast members' support. I knew I would be able to do the job. For me, it's still an ongoing process, I don't think I am quite there but I will get there.
John Dossett: She's too much. You are too modest.
TB: No, its true, I have a lot of work to do.

PBOL: When you came on to do Louise, what was your idea of how you wanted to create that part? She goes through a tremendous evolution in this. She's a mousy character in the shadow of her sister. When her sister leaves, her mother wants to thrust her into the spotlight in her place. She doesn’t seem ready for that, but then her moment comes…
TB: Yes, she comes into her own. I think that she was always a sweet, kind, special little girl but her mom had her playing a boy since she was 10. There was always something special about her — I mean, coming from a woman like Mama Rose, of such strength and survival, she has to have special kids. It's just a matter of letting go of her mom and finding what's special to her and what means a lot to her. I don't know… it's a process.

PBOL: The show evokes a lot of different emotions. There's a moment when a lot of people in the audience are close to tears. That's the moment you are directed at center stage and you are looking the mirror. It's the first time you are all dressed up in the costume to become the person that is Gypsy Rose Lee. It's the first time you see yourself in a beautiful dress. That's the "Mama, I'm a pretty girl" scene. It's throat-catching. How were you directed to do that scene? Did Sam Mendes talk to you about that scene?
TB: I think that just comes naturally, playing Louise for two hours, wearing those frumpy clothes and hanging out with the boys. I think after you put on the dress and you see yourself for the first time in a dress it just comes naturally, the emotion. PBOL: So you weren't given any special direction on that? He just said stand in front of the mirror and do your thing?
TB: Sometimes after I play it over and over again, he sometimes reminded me to be shocked. After a while you have to keep it fresh, and that's the one note he gave me: to remember to be shocked about how you look.

PBOL: Can you describe what the early rehearsals were like?
JD: That's one of the things that's unique about Sam, our director: The first two weeks he and the entire cast [came] there every day and we just played theatre games.

PBOL: What kind of games?
JD: We started at the top of the show and we formed a circle, there was a big patch of carpet and the people in each scene, we went through the show in order. They would read the lines and they'd get up and Sam would say, "Now Rose can move around. Rose now you have to sit still. June can move around." It was so exciting, I know it doesn't sound exciting but I had never experienced something like that. Sam does not come in with an idea of where the table is going to be, where the door is going to be; it is an evolving process based on interactions that the actor has, how they move, how the scene develops. Things are constantly changing. From [the] first run-through in front of an audience, we almost reblocked the entire show before opening. Every time we thought a scene was great; he'd make it better. Rehearsal is kind of a necessary evil to me. You do it and you get through it but I have never enjoyed coming to rehearsal so much."

PBOL: Sam Mendes started as a director as a very young man. He was already directing on a major global level in his early 20s.
JD: He had two shows in the West End when he was 23, still at university.

PBOL: You have both worked with many interesting directors. What's is a unique quality of Sam Mendes?
TB: I think he directs you personally; he gets to know you first. He challenges not only your acting abilities but your professionalism. He is an all-around director. He directs everything about you and the character. For me, anyway, it's been a great learning experience, he kind of took on the fatherly role and changed a lot of ways about me. Knocked out my insecurities. I would come in and say my body's disgusting and he would say, "Tammy, shut up. You are boring me." He's a tough guy but it's all worth it in the end.
JD: This is Tammy's first professional Equity show. Isn't that amazing?

PBOL: I was reading in your bio that you had done The Wizard of Oz in high school. Had you not done other stage besides that?
TB: I had done The Sound of Music, too, in grammar school. No it's the same thing, really, even though the pressure is a lot harder. When I got on the stage at the Shubert Theatre, I felt like I was in high school all over again. I just take it all with a grain of salt and have a great time with it.

PBOL: When you are singing "Let Me Entertain You" the character is like a deer in the headlights. She's out there as a pretty girl for the first time and she's in front of people who want her to take her clothes off. Do you tap into the experience you were just describing when you do that scene?
TB: Most nights…most nights I feel not sure what I am supposed to, I am not sure if I am good enough for this, I am not sure if I am going to make it through this strip. It's all naturally there, its all real emotion. ...I went in a week before everyone else to start the strip. I was terrified, terrified of taking my clothes off and being on the stage all by myself. It's still a little nerve-wracking, but they are totally supportive.

PBOL: Is that the number that's giving you some anxiety?
TB: It's going away. It's almost completely gone. But I did have a lot of anxiety taking my clothes off, standing there "naked." I am really covered up. It's like a bathing suit. The more I do it, the more I get over it. I am over the whole thing, I don't want to ashamed of my body or being naked. This is opening me up and its making me grow up a lot, too.

PBOL: I once interviewed a stripper who said she doesn't feel like the audience has the power, she feels like she has the power. She's in charge. She can make people feel the way she wants them to.
TB: Thank you, I'll take that to the show tonight. That's a good note.

PBOL: Did you ever talk to any real strippers? Did you do any research?
TB: No, I just got a book, "The Innermost Guide on How To Find Your French Girl." There's so much good information. Gypsy wasn't your typical stripper, she was a classy lady who just wanted to survive and make money. To do it the best way she could. I don't think I could find a stripper now who could relate to how I would have to feel playing Gypsy Rose Lee. She was a totally unique girl — that's why she is a legend.

PBOL: I met Ann Corio, she was one of the strippers from that period. I never met Gypsy Rose Lee but I have seen pictures, and she was not a fantastic beauty.
TB: Well, I think she was. I think there was something classical about her. She was beautiful without being perfectly featured and all that, she was just dynamite.

PBOL: Have you seen any of her performances in recorded versions?
TB: Briefly. Rehearsals take up so much of your time.

PBOL: I am interested in that, because your opinion counts a lot more than mine in this case. You are Gypsy! What kind of things did you pick up from her?
TB: Her big brown eyes, her sexy hips, her subtle moves, smile… She used her sweetness and her poise as sex, not "look at my ass."
JD: You know at the time, that's opposite of what most people were doing.

PBOL: What's is it like working with Bernadette Peters on the show? Do you pick up things from her? Some stars like to go off to the dressing room and don't deal with the cast. Is Bernadette like that?
JD: No, Bernadette is an amazing woman, not only as a performer but also as a person. She is genuinely one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. There's no ego about her. For a star of her caliber there is no ego at all. She works as hard as anybody. She takes direction. I think if there is one uniting thing at our theatre, it's our love of Bernadette.
TB: She's the magic, she's like light. She's so sweet and she shares that stage with you. She makes you better. She's not out there by herself and putting you in the back. She's sharing that stage. I am so glad I get to hear her sing to me every night.
JD: She gets to sing to me. One of my favorite memories of this production will be at the sitzprobe, which is where we sing with the orchestra for the first time. When I got the part, everyone was, like, "Best overture ever written!" "Eh," I am thinking, "an overture is an overture." But I had never heard it before. Then I hear these musicians play, and I went, "Wow this is really incredible!" I was excited all the way through it, but this really heightened it. And then Bernadette and I got up and started singing "Small World." It just hit me, what I was doing. I looked back at the company and said, "I'm singing with Bernadette Peters!"
TB: She's a legend. A little person with a big voice just like Judy Garland. She's the best!

PBOL: Herbie is a nice guy, but he says in the first act, "I have things inside of me, things you don't want to see." In the second act he explodes and finally loses it because Rose is forcing Louise to become a stripper.
JD: It's not only that. It's also the realization that [in] the scene prior to that my character is finally getting married after talking about it for seven years. This is the day, they are done with theatre, burlesque, vaudeville is dead. Then Rose hears about this opportunity and grabs it. After being so depressed, she's excited — she's alive again. I think the realization is, "Look at her. She's happy. This is what her life is. She's never going to be with me and that's it. I can't lie to myself, I can't lie to you — we are not getting married. I am out of here."

PBOL: What happens to Herbie? He goes back to selling candy?
JD: He becomes a depressed alcoholic. No! [Laughs.]

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