A Big Bundle of ‘Roses’

Recorded Roses
by Ken Mandelbaum
March 31, 2003

On a recent episode of “Will & Grace,” Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) made it clear that, for a young, male gay-in-training, all three cast recordings of Gypsy are required listening. The same probably applies to others, regardless of sex or sexual persuasion. If you’re reading this, I’m fairly certain you possess the first Gypsy, Columbia’s 1959 Broadway cast album.

As was his wont, producer Goddard Lieberson avoided preserving lead-in and integral dialogue on his show albums. On Gypsy, Ethel Merman is deprived of the spoken lead-ins to “Some People” (replaced by a few bars of music created for the recording), “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn” that subsequent Roses got to preserve. And there are numerous trims in the score, notably in “Small World,” “Together Wherever We Go,” and the kiddie numbers.

But in 1999, the recording received a Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissue that, in addition to featuring a vibrant remastering, supplied some additional material. It included expanded versions of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” and Louise’s strip. An alternate take of the second half of “All I Need Is the Girl” allowed Louise’s presence to be felt. And there was even an alternate reading by Merman of a line in “Rose’s Turn.” The reissue also provided demo recordings of two cut songs, “Nice She Ain’t” (which would have been Herbie’s only solo) and “Momma’s Talkin’ Soft.” And Merman is heard in early versions of “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone,” and “Little Lamb” from a demo or rehearsal tape.

Just as nothing need be said here about the quality of the score, little need be said about the performances on the ’59 recording of Gypsy. Sandra Church’s “Little Lamb” remains the most haunting rendition. Paul Wallace had the perfect sound for Tulsa. And Merman is simply towering. If she sounds less vulnerable here than in live performance, the singing and personality are monumental. The Columbia Broadway Masterworks Gypsy CD reverted to the lovely poster art; the first CD and later LP versions featured a photo montage.

Gypsy’s 1973 London premiere was the occasion for the second cast recording, and it features another top musical theatre star. Without even trying, Merman was a force of nature. Angela Lansbury had to work harder to make her effects and convey the character’s drive. But she’s in fine voice on the recording, the singing full of character, “Rose’s Turn” almost as much of a stunner as it was in the theatre.

After London, Lansbury took the show on a U.S. tour then played a limited run on Broadway. For the U.S. release of RCA’s London recording, Lansbury re-recorded “Some People,” and sounds even better in that song than on the other tracks. (The CD offers the U.S. version; it’s easy to tell the two apart, as the London version has Lansbury taking the final note of “Some People” up, while the American release has her singing the same final note that Merman sang.)

The London recording of Gypsy condenses the three kiddie numbers into one track, preserving some material not on the ’59 album but cutting the cow section. Also heard is a new strip sequence, fashioned for Zan Charisse’s Louise and featuring some spoken words.

Jack McFarland is correct to maintain that the Lansbury Gypsy is a must. I would also second him on the next Broadway cast recording, but some would not. Indeed, its leading lady, Tyne Daly, told a friend of mine who asked her to sign a copy of it that he had wasted his money by purchasing it. Daly was ailing and not in her best form when she recorded the Elektra Nonesuch album of the 1989 Broadway revival; every time I saw her play the role, she sounded better.

But then divorcing Daly’s technically insecure vocals from her presence and her performance was probably doomed to failure. Daly’s Rose was a total package; her musical numbers were thrilling in the theatre, but one had to see her do them. On the recording, Daly sounds hesitant, perhaps aware that listeners would not be able to see her act the songs the way she was doing at the St. James.

But Daly was perfect for Rose, and, serious imperfections and all, she’s at least a warm, stellar presence on the recording. As was the case with Lansbury’s leading man, Barrie Ingham, Daly’s Jonathan Hadary gets to sing more than did Merman’s Jack Klugman. There’s lots of lead-in dialogue on the ’89 set, as well as the first complete preservation of the “Farm Boys” number. The Tyne Daly Gypsy was among the last Broadway cast recordings to be released on LP as well as on CD.

You may have to scour e-bay to find our next cast recording of Gypsy, of which Jack McFarland is understandably unaware. This would be Philips’ LP of the 1976 South African production, closely following the tunestack of the London recording, and featuring that production’s Baby June, Bonnie Langford. The Rose is Libby Morris, a Canadian stage and cabaret veteran who has worked extensively in England, and sounds something like a cross between Merman and Lansbury. She’s strong in every number, so the recording (the cover of which bears a photo of Morris doing “Rose’s Turn”) is worth tracking down.

In 1997, a Theater des Westens, Berlin production got a six-track CD (in German), with three of Rose’s songs included. They’re performed by the terrific Angelika Milster, who has played leads in German productions of Cats, Song and Dance, and Hello, Dolly!. Like Lansbury on the London recording, Milster takes a high note at the end of “Some People,” and also delivers a powerhouse “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

One of Mexico’s foremost stage and screen stars, Silvia Pinal, can be heard on Mexican cast recordings of Annie Get Your Gun, Hello, Dolly!, Mame (two of them; unlike Lansbury’s, Pinal’s revival of the show was a success), and, more recently, a full-length CD of Gypsy. The novelty of this version is that the Louise is Pinal’s real-life daughter, Alejandra Guzman (like her mother, she’s a baritone). Pinal’s Rose has a guttural tone that’s not terribly pretty, but it works for the character, and she’s quite effective. The surprise of the disc: During her strip sequence, Guzman sings a sensuous reprise of “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.”

I need not spend time on the soundtrack albums for the 1962 and 1993 film versions, as both movies are available on DVD, and I’ve reviewed both of those releases. Rosalind Russell is a mostly wonderful Rose. But while she avers in her autobiography that what you’re hearing in the film are her vocals, that’s clearly not the whole story. Indeed, it’s fairly obvious where Russell leaves off and dubber Lisa Kirk takes over. Bette Midler’s vocals in the ’93 version are more enjoyable when viewing the film than when listening to the CD.

There are two English studio recordings of Gypsy. The full-length one stars Kay Medford, best remembered for playing another Jule Styne stage mother, Mrs. Brice in Funny Girl. Upon its release in 1969 on the Music for Pleasure label, this became a popular party disc, as Medford is woefully overparted. Indeed, her final note in “Rose’s Turn” is among the most painful in recorded history. Joyce Blair (the West End Dames at Sea and Bar Mitzvah Boy) applies an effective vibrato to five of Rose’s songs on a recording that was issued as an EP in England and as one side of a Richmond/London LP (backed with The Music Man) in the U.S. Blair is a warm and winning Rose.

Dolores Gray, who replaced Lansbury in the West End Gypsy, can be heard (in less than top form) in “Rose’s Turn” on First Night’s recording of the 1989 London gala Stairway to the Stars. (Lypsinka has put this track to good use.) “Your Hit Parade”‘s Gisele MacKenzie did Gypsy in stock, and recorded three of Rose’s songs on her live album at the Waldorf Astoria’s Empire Room. To mention just a couple of non-cast items, there’s jazz singer Annie Ross, backed by the Buddy Bregman band, in a solo treatment of the score. And Florence Henderson devoted one side of an LP to five of Rose’s songs, the flip side featuring songs from another of this season’s revivals, Flower Drum Song.

With Angel recording the new Broadway production, Jack McFarland will soon have a fourth Gypsy CD to recommend.

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