A Rose By Any Other Name
Updated: Oct 3
What is talent, and where does it come from? In the rarest of occasions, it may be a special gift that is bestowed upon an individual by a higher power, lying dormant and waiting to be discovered at a destined moment in time. For some, talent may be a skill that's not freely given, though available to some extent, but intentionally honed through years of hard work, patience and dedication. In certain instances, a lack of natural or practiced talent matters little to those who simply find themselves in the right place, at the right time and under the right supervision. And in Gypsy, a story that considers several aspects of stardom and the price one must pay for it regardless of its source, Lady Luck steps aside to make room for another force of nature – an unstoppable stage parent who won't take 'no' for an answer.
Considered to be one of the best American musicals of the mid-twentieth century, and rightly so, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, based on an autobiography of real-life striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and her domineering showbusiness mother, Rose Hovick, took the theater stage by storm when it opened on Broadway in 1959. Seemingly destined for success from the get-go and forever setting a precedent for future musicals to follow in its footsteps, the original production gave theater royalty Ethel Merman a chance to shine as Rose in what could be considered the role of a lifetime. The baton has been passed ever since, making its rounds among noteworthy performers Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters as the play continued delighting audiences for decades to come. Several international productions have also made their debut in various parts of the world since the 1990s, introducing foreign audiences in countries like Argentina, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Brazil to Gypsy in all of its facets of showmanship and top-notch entertainment.
But while there was certainly an abundance of superb casting choices made for Rose's stage depiction, only one leading actress would bring the iconic character to life on the silver screen in 1962. Prominent Hollywood stars like Judy Holliday and Judy Garland, as well as Ethel Merman herself, were considered for the part; in the end, only one – the one – made the cut.
The consummate artistry and pure genius of Rosalind Russell can never be overstated, for there are few words in the English language that can begin to describe her level of brilliance as a performer. Striking and profound, the depth and conviction with which she embodies and breathes life into each and every one of her characters is remarkable and truly outstanding. Her talent, while falling undoubtedly into the first category I described earlier, becomes more seasoned as she matures and fine-tunes her craft over a course of several decades.
His Girl Friday, the first of Rosalind's films that I watched back in college, had made an impression on me as a communications student and aspiring copywriter. And though I wasn't as ardent of an admirer of classic films as I am today, I never forgot the wit, impeccable timing and comedic delivery with which she delivered the lines of newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson alongside Cary Grant's Walter Burns. The film was so fast-paced, exciting and unforgettable, in fact, that some of the best-known quotes in the cinematic world can be directly attributed to it.
Not long after I found a Criterion Collection release of the movie, reliving its antics and high jinks as an adult, I also stumbled across 1958's Auntie Mame, one of Rosalind Russell's most iconic appearances. Once again, I witnessed yet another portrayal of a larger-than-life character who, despite being a bit eccentric, was brimming with humanity, sensitivity and a zest for life. Swept away in a range of emotions as I watched the film and fell in love with the Mame persona, I came to the conclusion that Rosalind was the greatest among the great actresses of all time. Her four Academy Award® nominations and five Golden Globe® wins all speak for themselves, as does a dedicated star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; with numerous lifetime accolades marking her career, one can assume that Rosalind had no trouble rising to the challenge of tackling yet another complex personality when the offer to play Rose Hovick finally came her way.
Under the direction of Mervyn LeRoy and the inspiring vision of cinematographer Harry Stradling, 1962's Gypsy depicts the past in a way that feels more fictitious than historical, its whimsical sets and designs resembling a storybook rather than a movie set. The scenery is colorful and vibrant, the costumes are captivating, and the soundtrack continues to gain momentum long after the first note of the glorious Jule Style-penned overture is heard, transporting the audience to the bygone days of vaudeville when a group of young hopefuls takes the stage at Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Kapers.
At the heart of the story is Rose's daughter June (Morgan Brittany), a child prodigy who, despite being a natural and willing performer, is essentially swept away by the storm of her mother's life-long ambitions and desire for stardom. Rose's sights are set so high, that even an unexpected romance with booking agent Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden) can't get in the way of her never-ending search for fame. Three marriages in, Rose knows what she wants and what she refuses to give up. In "Some People," she makes it crystal clear that she will not settle for a mediocre life, and even though she doesn't mind joining forces with Herbie in some capacity, her dream lives outside the confines of a "Small World."
Assuming that modern audiences may not be familiar with the remaining cast members of the film adaptation – unless they are classic movie buffs, of course – it is impossible to miss the familiar face of Natalie Wood. Having starred as Maria in Robert Wise's West Side Story the previous year, Natalie once again tackles the musical genre as June's older sister, Louise, growing up on the screen while playing a reserved and awkward teenager and, eventually, finding her own voice as a popular adult entertainer. Selected to star alongside Rosalind Russell in a role for which Ann-Margret was also considered, Natalie takes over the portrayal of the older Louise, played at the beginning of the movie by actress Diane Pace, to mesmerize and enchant her way into her viewers' hearts; in doing so, she gives us an honest and captivating look into the troubled life of a young woman whose claim to fame may not have been all her own.
The perils of living in scarcity while making ends meet are not left up to one's imagination. Showcasing a dingy flat where rent is always past-due and a troupe of hungry adolescents eat leftover Chinese takeout, Gypsy spares no expense in depicting childhoods that are devoid of stability, sustenance and supervision. In one of the most tender scenes of the production, Louise celebrates her birthday in the company of a "Little Lamb" – a gift from her mother – uncertain and lost in a world where she does not yet belong. Just like June, now played by Ann Jillian, who is struggling to find an identity outside that of a stage performer, Louise has yet to find her way. With the sisters' struggle brought to the surface early on in the film, a fundamental question of whether Rose is truly acting in the best interests of her children or simply living vicariously through them in hopes of rekindling lost opportunities emerges as a central theme in the Gypsy story.
Even as Natalie Wood is given free reign to sing without dubbing support in the 1962 film, an improvement over West Side Story, Rosalind Russell's voice is not entirely her own. Despite her efforts to record Gypsy's songs during initial tryouts, Rosalind's vocals were blended with Lisa Kirk's for the actual film. But while Lisa's solo renditions were released as part of the official LP soundtrack, Rosalind's have also resurfaced in 2005. Now, thanks to the magic of YouTube, musical numbers that had made the studio cut with the polished Lisa-Rosalind mix have since been altered and reimagined in new and exciting ways. Third time's the charm, after all, and the triplet of vocal recordings certainly makes for fascinating discoveries and endless considerations of what-if scenarios.
In "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Rose makes a decision that impacts hers and Louise's lives. After June and her backup dancers abandon the troupe for good, Rose considers all of her options and thinks through her next steps without uttering a single word. Sitting on a bench, she is contemplative and slightly aloof; her expression is unreadable and equally as unsettling as she processes a range of emotions that are not revealed until she is ready to make her intentions known. Rose's decision and forthcoming enthusiasm are therefore all the more effective when accompanied by one of Gypsy's most renowned and beloved tunes. Given the history of the musical's soundtrack, the studio-approved blended recording used in the release of the movie (first video) can be viewed alongside an alternate version that has been created by viewers with Rosalind's resurfaced tryout recording (second video).
Despite the absence of June and the troupe during this transitionary period in the movie, there is a strong sense of camaraderie between the remaining trio; with Herbie by their side, they continue looking for a silver lining while building up an act that seems to be going nowhere. The setbacks they have thus experienced are temporarily forgotten, and the deleted "Together Wherever We Go" sequence, which had retained Rosalind's original, undubbed vocals (as did "You'll Never Get Away From Me," which was meant to appear much earlier in the film) due to the simple fact of being deleted from the final release, offers us a glimmer of hope.
While musicals like Singin' in the Rain take a more lighthearted approach to recalling the days when talking pictures forever changed the face (and sound) of entertainment, Gypsy hints at the more stark realities of showbusiness and the sometimes unfortunate consequences that ensue as a result. With the demand for stage performers constantly diminishing, it becomes harder for Rose to secure bookings for Louise. Unbeknownst to both of them, a burlesque joint with gimmicky striptease acts becomes the family's next meal ticket. It is then that Louise tries to make the best out of the situation by offering her services as a seamstress, an activity for which she seems to have a knack. Louise's efforts, though well-meaning, are soon overshadowed by her relentless stage mother as she grasps at straws to secure the spotlight for her daughter and oversteps her boundaries, forever changing the trajectory of her child's life and future career.
In "Let Me Entertain You," a climactic scene that also serves as a turning point in the story, Louise gains the confidence she's been lacking by facing her fears. With Rose watching in the wings, she moves forward and steps into a pair of high-heeled shoes that no longer feel foreign to her, and the crowd welcomes her with open arms. Louise's poignant situation transforms into a personal victory; thanks to Natalie Wood's subtle, stunning and sophisticated performance, Louise remains a first-class act through and through.
One of the most important aspects of any literary work – be it a book, a film or a play – is character development. Spiritual growth, a change of heart or an emotional upheaval can all serve a purpose in allowing the audience to connect with someone on a personal level. More importantly, identifying with a protagonist who may be going through a similar situation as you allows for the establishment of a rapport that ultimately leads to attachment, support and a certain level of commitment. While its ability to entertain and delight audiences with music, dance and comedy is without question, Gypsy's regard for all of the points noted above is what makes it so effective as a storytelling vehicle.
Louise's decision to take control of her life and make the most out of unusual situation is highly admirable. As she begins believing in her abilities with each risqué performance, carrying herself in a way that doesn't require technical skill as much as it does the use of strategy, Louise becomes the person she's always wanted but never knew she could be. Money, success and recognition accompany her wherever she goes, the new and improved Gypsy Rose Lee, as she is now called, accepts it with enthusiasm. For once, the older daughter who's always lurked in the shadows and felt like she was never good enough doesn't allow for any sort of interference, not even where her meddling mother is concerned. Thanks to the appearance and technical support of the real-life heroine on the set, Natalie Wood makes her on-screen portrayal all the more authentic and convincing.
With a pipe dream now her only saving grace, Rose has no choice but to confront her demons. Left to her own devices and without familial love or support, she is, in a way, exposed and all alone on an empty stage, allowing the glare of the spotlights to illuminate her life, with all of its motivations and manipulations, once and for all. Though nowhere near the high vocal standard exhibited by Ethel Merman, the visual presentation of the 1962 scene, coupled with the energy of the electrifying Rosalind Russell, who bears her soul to the world for the last time, is a moment that belongs entirely to her.
With distinct cinematography, a superb leading cast and a soundtrack that has secured a place in the musical repertoire, it is of little surprise that 1962's Gypsy was a box office smash upon its release. The praise that seemed to follow the film was only the beginning, however, as future generations of artists had yet to come out from the woodwork and make their intentions to play the part, so to speak, widely known. Bette Midler was the first to tackle the project in 1993, starring in a made-for-television remake that received recognition on its own merits. Songbird Barbra Streisand's plans to direct, produce and star in Gypsy with other well-known celebrities as early as 2011 did not come to fruition due to a series of unfortunate events; the honor of reviving the story for the next generation fell upon London's Savoy Theatre and its leading actress, Imelda Staunton, in 2015.
To this day, a Gypsy remake is still a possibility, and talks of bringing the Broadway musical back to the big screen have been reported since 2019. But although it's great to imagine
a new set of actors giving the story all they've got, there is still a sense of nostalgia that is evoked when one experiences the 1962 version apart from all the others and allows the fact that the leading stars who made the film their own are no longer with us to give it more significance. For talent, as it turns out, is not given freely to all but granted only to a select few. These days, the Rosalind Russells and the Natalie Woods of the world are far and few between; replacing them isn't so much an option as it is a privilege, and it is one that must be earned, nurtured and protected with the drive and ambition that are equal to none other than Mama Rose herself.