BootLeg Betty

BetteBack September 3,1993: Midler magic in ‘Gypsy*

Chronicle-Telegram
Midler magic in ‘Gypsy*
Hal Boedeker
September 3,1993

The TV musical, a rare but beloved form, will come roaring back to life in December when Bette Midler brings “Gypsy” to CBS. The star showed TV writers meeting here only a tantalizing clip of Mama Rose singing “Some People” to her father (Ed Asner). But “Gypsy” is such an ambitious TV project that it qualifies as one of the major events next season.

“I love that score,” Midler said. “It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s bright, it’s American, it’s full of fun, it’s full of jokes.”

In other words, tailor-made for the Divine Miss M. But will they come if CBS shows it? Does the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Cynthia Gibb) and her pushy stage mother have enough oomph for a TV audience used to true-crime stories? And will young viewers weaned on rock, rap and MTV let Midler entertain them in one of the greatest Broadway musicals?

“I feel bad that the whole nation doesn’t get to celebrate these traditions more often, because it is valuable and it is well-crafted, and it’s something we should be proud of,” Midler said. “Yet we seem to throw the magical things that we’ve made aside.”

The makers of “Gypsy” are doing their best to create magic. The care lavished on the production is unusual for TV. The cast rehearsed for seven weeks, as if it were putting on a Broadway show, before starting the 40-day shoot.

“This was treated like a feature film,” Midler said. “And nothing was scrimped on. Except my salary,” she joked.

Midler, the producers and director Emile Ardolino (“Sister Act,” “Dirty Dancing”) met with the men behind the 1959 Broadway musical: director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Arthur Laurents.

Ardolino, who saw “Gypsy” on stage 25 tunes as a teenager, was “a little nervous” about directing because the show’s creators are his idols. But Laurents came to see the complete rehearsal and gave his blessing. “He was over the moon,” Midler said.

The star has the toughest task in following so many memorable Roses. Ethel Merman played the role first; Rosalind Russell starred in the 1962 movie; and Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly each won Tonys for Broadway revivals.

“I was a little intimidated by the memory of Ethel Merman, but what could I do?” Midler asked. “I did the best I could and had a wonderful time doing it.”

Peter Riegert, who plays Mama Rose’s beau Herbie, recalled a race-track meeting with Jack Klugman, who originated the role. Wugman said Merman told him, “You do the acting and I’ll do the singing, and we’ll have a big hit.”

The brassy Bette posed “no problems at all,” director Ardolino said. “She inspired the rest of the crew. Everybody realized that this was unique material, something you don’t find in the usual stream of television fare.”

CBS will capitalize on that angle. The two hour, 20-minute musical will be presented with fewer commercial interruptions than usual in a three-hour block on a Sunday.

“This is real ‘event’ programming,” said George Schweitzer, CBS senior vice president of marketing and communications. He predicted “Gypsy” will be “a shared national experience.”

Asked if today’s TV audience will buy a Broadway musical, Schweitzer drew a Comparison to “Lonesome Dove,” which showed
the public’s appetite for westerns when the form had been written off.

“We can interest enough people,” Schweitzer said. “You don’t see Bette Midler on TV.”

“Show tunes are such a peculiar thing in American life,” she said, “because most people who are interested in rock ‘n’ roll or popular music or rhythm-and-blues music don’t want anyone to know that they’re closet show-tune listeners. But I am!”

The star most enjoys “Rose’s Turn,” the bravura number that ends the musical. “It’s a terrifying piece of music because it’s one of the two most famous arias in the musical comedy lexicon, the other being ‘Soliloquy’ from ‘Carousel,’ ” she said.

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