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Based on the autobiography of GYPSY ROSE LEE

First produced at the Broadway Theatre on May 21, 1959, with Ethel Merman as "Rose", Jack Klugman as "Herbie" and Sandra Church as "Louise".

GYPSY was the musical comedy adaptation of Gypsy: A Memoir, the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, who has become famous in burlesque as a striptease artist. With her sister, June (the distinguished motion-picture star, June Havoc), she had had a rich career in the theatre, always driven on to ever-greater successes by an over-ambitious and persevering mother.

The play opens in a little vaudeville house where several child acts are being rehearsed for a contest. The team of Baby Louise and Baby June are one of the attractions; their mother, Rose, seated in the back of the house, continually thunders out bits of advice to her children. When the three return home Rose prevails on her husband to provide funds with which to build a vaudeville act around June. That act "Baby June and her Newsboys" tours the vaudeville circuit for a number of years.

We next encounter the girls and their mother backstage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Herbie, a salesman, saunters in. Now he gives the theatre manager advice to put a motion-picture into his show; now he urges Rose to allow her kids to grow up in a normal home under the normal guidance of parents. Something about Herbie impresses Rose that he has the makings of a good agent. She suggests that they team up to further June's career ("Small World"). Now the act reaches Akron, Ohio. It is Louise's birthday, and a celebration is taking place in the family's dingy hotel room. They eat chow mein and egg rolls; Louise gathers her gifts, one of which is a live pet lamb; and the talk is all about a new farm act Mama Rose has in mind for June. When Herbie appears, he brings with him Mr. Goldstone, who represents the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. His influence and connections are tapped.

When the act arrives in New York they contact T.T. Grantziger, a producer. In their hotel room Herbie tries to convince Rose to marry him, give up show business and relax the control she has over her daughters. But Rose has a single mind and a single purpose, and will permit nothing to deflect her. She promises Herbie she will marry him, but only when June's name finally goes up in lights on Broadway.

Grantziger signs the act for a week in one of his downtown theatres. He is convinced June can be a star, but only if she is willing to go through an intensive period of study and preparation, and break off the ties that bind her mother to her. Mother Rose, of course, would have nothing of this preposterous idea. June also lacks interest, but only because by now she has come to hate the stage, the act and the kind of life she has been forced to lead.

When the act comes to Buffalo one of its boys, Tulsa, confides to Louise his ambition to devise a song-and-dance routine of his own with some female partner and tour cabarets and night-clubs. He improvises a few steps to demonstrate what he has in mind, using a broom as a partner; then he tosses the broom away and dances with Louise ("All I Need is the Girl"). By the time the act arrives in Topeka it begins to fall apart. The boys are demanding more money. Worse still, June has deserted, having eloped with Tulsa. Mother Rose may be beaten, but she is surely not defeated. She will devise a new act, this time around Louise. And as she begins to make plans, she can hardly contain her excitement ("Everything's Coming up Roses").

The new act is not much better than the old, nor is it much more successful. It goes from town to town playing in musty old theatres; even so, bookings are not plentiful. To endow a bit more sex appeal to the routine, Louise comes up with the idea of having the girls appear as peroxide blondes. Billed as "Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes", the act is booked for a burlesque house in Wichita, Kansas, though the company is deluded into believing it is a legitimate theatre. When Rose discovers the truth she is determined to take her act away, but Louise reminds her that they have no place to go, and no money. Besides, Louise has no qualms whatsoever about appearing in the burlesque. She now assumes the name Gypsy Rose Lee, is taught a few burlesque routines by Tessie, a veteran, and goes on the stage as a strip-tease artist. The audience loves her. Louise has become a burlesque star.

By now, Herbie is convinced that Rose will never marry him, or loosen her hold on Louise. He decides at last to go his own way, and bids Rose a permanent farewell. But Rose can think of only one thing: her daughter is a star; she has been signed as the stellar attraction for Minsky's Burlesque in New York. There, sensing her newly found power, Louise decides to break away with her mother once and for all. Henceforth, as Louise tells her mother firmly, she, and she alone, will handle her own career in her own way without parental guidance; she suggests to her mother she find a new interest, like running a school for children. Rose is at first defiant, insisting she knows more about show business than anybody in the world. She mocks her daughter for being a burlesque queen and even taunts her by imitating some of her routines. But when the storm blows over Rose realizes that Louise is right, after all. They part as friends; but as partners in show business they are through for good.

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  • Gypsy - A brief history of the musical by Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne.
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This document was originally published in The Complete Book of Light Opera. Mark Lubbock. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. pp. 923-5.

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