December 10, 1993
Irving Berlin and Cole Porter both turned it down. But Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim didnâ€™t, and so one of the classic musical comedies was bom in 1959: â€œGypsy,â€ the story of Rose Hovick, the ultimate stage mother from hell, and her daughter Louise, who would grow up to be the queen of the strippers.
â€œGod will protect us,â€ Madame Rose used to say. â€œBut to be sure, carry a heavy club.â€ Rose carried just such a cudgel, and she used it often, prodding her children onward, beating down anyone who stood in their way. Her life was a mess, but it became the template for a great stage role, one that served Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury and, most recently, Tyne Daly well.
Now Bette Midler comes to â€œGypsyâ€ (CBS, Sunday, 7 p.m.), and itâ€™s a logical, even inspired pairing of performer and material. Sassy and brassy, the divine Miss M brings just the right brand of obnoxious charm to her role. She has the flounce and the bounce, the sashay and the strut, the flaming red hair, the imperious forefinger and the mouth that just wonâ€™t quit. And, of course, she knows how to belt out a tune. Ms. Midler has not had much success with her recent screen roles (â€œFor the Boys,â€ â€œHocus Pocusâ€), so itâ€™s a pleasure to see her fitting right into the story of Madame Rose.
In the midst of the Great Depression, a single mother with three ex-husbands and two young girls is dreaming of vaudeville glory on the Orpheum circuit. She lacks money, talent and a spouse, but she has ambition, in spades. By sheer force of her domineering will, she drags her kids off to auditions, thrusts them onto the stage and into paying jobs as Baby June and Her Newsboys. â€œSome people can be content, playing bingo and paying rent,â€ she sings â€” not her.
Hauling her troupe across America, she meets a warmhearted former agent, Herbie (the always appealing Peter Riegert). He flirts with her: â€œYou look like a pioneer woman without a frontier.â€ She flirts back: â€œAfter three husbands, it takes a lot of butter to get you back in the frying pan.â€ And soon theyâ€™re on the road as one big pseudo family, taking their Shirley Temple act from Cheyenne to Topeka to Walla Walla.
Eventually, of course, the act will grow stale for Herbie, the girls and the audiences â€”- for everyone except Rose. And even after a transfusion of dancing cows and “Toreadorables,â€ itâ€™s obvious that the troupe, and the family, is destined to split up. Thereâ€™s plenty of heartache ahead for Madame Rose, but thereâ€™s also the dubious pride of introducing her ugly duckling daughter, Louise, into the rock-bottom world of burlesque.
CBS is crowing about this production as a â€œmajor musical dramatic event,â€ and it has a certain right. As far as can be told, this is the first ever made-for TV musical comedy. The cast is strong, light down to incidental characters played by Ed Asner and Andrea Martin. So is the backstage talent: the costumes are by Bob Mackie, the direction by Emile Ardolino (â€œDirty Dancing,â€ “Sister Actâ€).
As a holiday special, â€œGypsyâ€ is well-positioned, a megaproduction stacked up against all those animated Rudolph specials. Itâ€™s good old fashioned family entertainment, a trifle somber perhaps, but in the end everything comes up roses. And the enduring songs (â€œWherever You Go,â€ â€œI Had a Dreamâ€) are fun to hear again.
This â€œGypsyâ€ is artfully, almost intimately staged.