BootLeg Betty

BetteBack December 12, 1993: Bette Midler Is Pulling Out All The Stops

The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
Pulling out all the stops
December 12, 1993 | Bruce McCabe, Globe Staff

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There are theater buffs who believe that “Gypsy” is the best musical ever to grace a Broadway stage.

One of them is Neil Meren, one of the executive producers of the three-hour CBS television movie “Gypsy” that airs tonight (Channels 6 and 7 at 8), starring Bette Midler.

In a telephone interview, Meren called “Gypsy” “the best musical ever written” and made a particular point of noting that “we’re presenting it — we’re not adapting it or changing it.”

Meren, a friend of Midler who’s now trying to raise money for a theatrical film with Midler as actress/singer Lotte Lenya, doesn’t spare the horses when talking about her. He calls her performance in the telefilm “the best ever” and asserts flatly that “there’s no reason for anyone to ever do it again.”

“Bette’s power derives from the fact that she’s both an actress and a magnificent singer,” Meren said, comparing her to a few other stars who have essayed the lead role. “Tyne Daly is an actress but she isn’t a singer. And Angela Lansbury didn’t get to the vulgarity of the woman. Bette pulls out all the stops. She goes for it. She gets the dementia of this woman, which others who have done her have not explored. What she does is real and dark. It’s not exaggerated. It’s an elevation of reality.”

“Gypsy,” adapted for the stage from burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, starred Ethel Merman in its long Broadway run (702 performances) in 1959.

Meren says Midler’s “Gypsy” came about because the 1962 theatrical film starring Rosalind Russell was “poor.”

“Russell, a favorite of mine, was miscast and was not bold enough. They made arbitrary changes. The movie was ugly,” he says.

The musical is about Mama Rose, Lee’s formidable stage mother who, according to the legend, attempted to escape a mundane life by pushing her daughters’ careers. When her oldest daughter (Lacey Chabert) runs off to get married, Rose turns the firehose of her fixation on her less talented youngest daughter.

“Rose gets away with what she does because she has so much charm. She can convince anybody to do anything. Her victims didn’t know they were being manipulated. She could go both ways. She could bludgeon you or charm you,” Meren said.

“This musical shows how serious you can get while being entertaining. It functions as entertainment and yet it’s very serious. `Gypsy’ makes you recognize who you are and who you can be.”

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