The divine Miss M plays the lead role in ‘Gypsy‘
December 12, 1993
HOLLYWOOD – Bette Midler passionately recalls the first time she heard the score of “Gypsy” 30 ye a rs ago.
“I remember 1 heard the overÂt u r e ,” she says warmly. “I neverÂ got over it. It was the most excitÂing overture I have ever heard. IÂ would imagine the curtain goingÂ up and hearing these wonderfulÂ songs.
“I saw Angela Lansbury and IÂ liked her. I thought Tyne Daly didÂ a fabulous job. But I had my ownÂ ideas. My memory, my idealÂization of it was so extraordinary.Â I never thought I would get oldÂ enough to play it.”
Midler, 48, pauses and smiles.
“But I did.”
And does she. The Divine MissÂ M makes the formidable MamaÂ Rose her own in CBS’ lavishÂ three-hour edition of the musicalÂ in its Sunday premiere. The proÂduction also features CynthiaÂ Gibb in the title role, in additionÂ to Peter Riegert, Ed Asner andÂ Michael Jeter.
The memorable score, with musicÂ by Jule Styne and lyrics by StepÂhen Sondheim, includes suchÂ standards as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “Small World”, and “Rose’s Turn”.
The late Ethel Merman starredÂ as Rose, the ambitious stageÂ mother of child performers LouiseÂ Hovick, who later became knownÂ as Gypsy Rose Lee, and BabyÂ June, who enjoyed a successfulÂ Broadway and movie career asÂ June Havoc.
Though the Broadway producÂtion was a huge success, the 1962Â film version with Rosalind RussellÂ as Rose and Natalie Wood asÂ Gypsy, proved to be a major arÂt i s t ic and
c o m m e r c i al Â disÂappointment. But two BroadwayÂ revivals in 1974 and 1989 starringÂ Lansbury and Daly, respectively,Â as Rose were enormous hits.
Midler on a one-to-one basis is aÂ presence far different from herÂ larger-than-life stage persona.Â Petite and trim, she’s serious,Â thoughtful and speaks softly and with affection as she recalls theÂ intense experience of makingÂ “Gypsy.”
“The music is wonderfully conÂstructed and the book is wonderÂfully constructed because theseÂ echoes of what really set peopleÂ on the path of their life is conÂstant,” she says. “They never stopÂ echoing throughout the piece.”
Had “Gypsy” been a theatricalÂ film, it probably would have had aÂ six-month shooting schedule. ThisÂ being television, the schedule wasÂ whittled down to a grueling eightÂ weeks. But the cast did get sevenÂ weeks to rehearse.
“We insistedÂ on it,” Midler says. “We insistedÂ on it because it is really a BroadÂway show. We were doing a play;Â we were not doing- a movie.”
Indeed, t h is production of “Gypsy” utilized L a u r e n t s’ origiÂnal book.
“When I first looked atÂ it, I said, ‘Gee. Are you going toÂ make any adjustments in t h is toÂ make it more cinematic?’ ”
The producers told her the onlyÂ way they were able to obtain theÂ r ights was to agr ee that the bookÂ would not be a l t e r ed.
“So wc had to do major memoÂrization,” Midler recalls, “andÂ major blocking r ehe a r s a l s. OnceÂ we s t a r t e d, we knew where weÂ we re going. Once we got on t heÂ s e t, we knew what all of ourÂ moves we r e. We didn’t have toÂ stand th e re in the morning andÂ block it as people usually do. SoÂ we saved a lot of time t h at way.”
Midler, who didn’t think theÂ 1982 film was “that bad/’, foundÂ L a u r e n t s’ book amazingly strong.
“Once you fall into the rhythmÂ of it, it practically sings itself,”Â she says. “All the big speechesÂ a re rhythmic. You can hear theÂ music in them and the charactersÂ a re right
t h e r e. Right on the page.Â If you sing it in the way it isÂ meant to be sung â€” and I don’t
mean songs, I mean the words. IfÂ you speak the way it is supposedÂ to be spoken, you don’t have toÂ hardly do anything at all.”
The cast, she says, really gotÂ into it.
“There were a lot of t e a r s ,”Â Midler says. “People just criedÂ because they never get a Â chanceÂ to do (a musical). They came backÂ from seeing ‘Eve rything’s ComingÂ Up Roses’ and people went up toÂ Emile and said, ‘I can’t thank youÂ enough for l e t t ing me have this
experience, because it was soÂ magical that we could get to doÂ this material and hear these songsÂ and see this on film again.’ It wasÂ blessed.”
Gibb acknowledges that it wasÂ a “big deal” to do such a greatÂ musical and to work with the legÂendary Midler.
“It’s hard to say in a word whatÂ i t ‘s like,” says Gibb. “She’s soÂ talented and so powerful. She’s aÂ very, very s t r o ng woman. She’sÂ very sharp. She’s really the mostÂ powerful person I have everÂ worked off of. She gave me soÂ much to work with.”
As part of her r e s e a r ch, MidlerÂ read-books on the vaudeville eraÂ depicted in “Gypsy.”