Let Gypsy Entertain You
BY Trudy Ring
December 19 2012 12:00 AM ET
It’s finally coming up Blu-ray for the 1962 film version of the classic musical Gypsy, which has just been released in that format, a development that will be swell and great for LGBT viewers.
Gypsy is a musical much loved by that audience, especially that not inconsiderable group of gay men who adore over-the-top divas, which it delivers in the form of Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother, pushing her daughters to the showbiz success that eluded her. Then there’s all the gay talent that went into its creation: scenarist Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins (for the original Broadway production), and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who collaborated with composer June Styne to write some of the most memorable songs in theater history, including “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn.”
One of the great backstage musicals, Gypsy is based loosely on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, but the focal character is really her ambitious and often frustrated single mother. Mama Rose drags her daughters, Louise and June, to any gig they can get, even as vaudeville is dying in the 1920s. June, first as Baby June and then the adolescent Dainty June, is the star attraction, but when she goes off on her own (she eventually became a noted actress under the name June Havoc), Rose puts Louise out front. As Gypsy Rose Lee, Louise goes on to hit the heights of fame, accompanying her sexy dances with unexpectedly intellectual patter. Rose is left to wonder, in words written by Sondheim, “When is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself?”
Under other circumstances Sondheim might have written the music for Gypsy as well, but when Ethel Merman was picked to create the role of Mama Rose in 1959 on Broadway, she didn’t trust an unknown composer to write her songs. Sondheim’s Broadway debut as both composer and lyricist would have to wait until A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, but there’s no denying the power of the tunes he produced with Styne. And Mama Rose became one of the roles most coveted by actresses with big voices and big personalities; subsequent Mama Roses have included Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, and Bernadette Peters onstage and Bette Midler on TV, while Barbra Streisand is waiting in the wings.
In the 1962 film, the role is played by Rosalind Russell, with Natalie Wood as Louise/Gypsy and Karl Malden as Rose’s sometime love interest, Herbie. One of the few surviving performers from the movie is Ann Jillian, who played Dainty June and spoke with The Advocate about the experience of making the film.
“I started it on my 12th birthday,” recalls Jillian, who went on to transition from child star to successful adult actress, appearing in the 1980s TV sitcom It’s a Living and many other television shows, movies, and stage productions. The pressure was big for a 12-year-old, she notes, but the desire to do the job was bigger. Russell, Wood, and Malden were major stars, and she respected them without being intimidated by their fame. “I looked at it as we’re all going in to do a job,” she says.
She remembers Russell as “professional and regal,” Wood as “fragile, beautiful, talented, and very warm,” and Malden as “very warm” as well. “They were all very lovely people, and I was very lucky at my age to be working with them,” Jillian says. “I learned an awful lot from them, and it was such a valuable school for me to be in.”
Some critics were upset that Merman was not cast as Mama Rose in the film, and Jillian had seen Merman play the role onstage, but she thinks Russell gave an equally fine performance, with some nuances more suited to film’s intimacy than to the stage. “Even then, I appreciated the difference,” she says. “Both were equally as valid, and Rosalind Russell did a beautiful job.”