(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardina, 10/15.)
If proof were needed of the power of the traditional Broadway musical play, one need look no further than Gypsy (1959). Composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book-writer Arthur Laurents are partners in a coalition of equals that has one overriding aim: to tell the tragi-comic story of Momma Rose, who Sondheim called a “showbiz Oedipus”.
Momma Rose’s flaw is self-delusion: she believes she can turn a terrible family act into headliners on the vaudeville circuit of the 1920s and 30s and achieve a surrogate fame through her daughter, June. The ironic twist is that it is June’s sister, Louise, who gives Rose a vicarious glimpse of stardom, by becoming the celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
It’s a good story that views the iron mother with a persistent ambivalence, and Styne’s score and Sondheim’s lyrics preserve a perfect balance between passion and pastiche, self-revelatory solos blending with a glorious evocation of the tackiness of American vaudeville.