December 10, 1993
Irving Berlin and Cole Porter both turned it down. But Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim didn’t, and so one of the classic musical comedies was bom in 1959: “Gypsy,” 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.
“God will protect us,” Madame Rose used to say. “But to be sure, carry a heavy club.” 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 “Gypsy” (CBS, Sunday, 7 p.m.), and it’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 won’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 (“For the Boys,” “Hocus Pocus”), so it’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. “Some people can be content, playing bingo and paying rent,” she sings – not her.
Hauling her troupe across America, she meets a warmhearted former agent, Herbie (the always appealing Peter Riegert). He flirts with her: “You look like a pioneer woman without a frontier.” She flirts back: “After three husbands, it takes a lot of butter to get you back in the frying pan.” And soon they’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 –- for everyone except Rose. And even after a transfusion of dancing cows and “Toreadorables,” it’s obvious that the troupe, and the family, is destined to split up. There’s plenty of heartache ahead for Madame Rose, but there’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 “major musical dramatic event,” 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 (“Dirty Dancing,” “Sister Act”).
As a holiday special, “Gypsy” is well-positioned, a megaproduction stacked up against all those animated Rudolph specials. It’s good old fashioned family entertainment, a trifle somber perhaps, but in the end everything comes up roses. And the enduring songs (“Wherever You Go,” “I Had a Dream”) are fun to hear again.
This “Gypsy” is artfully, almost intimately staged.