Rose Louise Hovick was pretty much like any other girl with a hardcore stage mom.
Moma Rose set up Vaudeville appearances for Louise and her sister June, but when it came down to it, Louise wasn't really much of a dancer or singer. Then a strap slipped on an ill-fitting gown, and Gypsy Rose Lee emerged. Famous for her witty repartee and for the clothes that she didn't take off, Lee would elevate the striptease to what many would call an art form.
Gypsy was inspired by Lee's own memoirs, and first opened on Broadway in 1959. Before long, it was considered a cornerstone of American musical theater. To Scott RC Levy, FAC Theatre Company director of performing arts and producing artistic director, the play represents a departure from musical comedy into what he calls "honest drama" — that is, theater that happens to have great music.
"The story that takes place between the musical numbers in a play is called the book," explains Levy, and "Gypsy's book follows the story of Louise and her sister, June, but the main character is the overbearing mother, Rose." Her story, he says, is about a need to be recognized: "She is the King Lear of musical theater."
The play's themes center around the Vaudeville era, and each is explored somewhat separately — in "shows within shows," as Levy puts it. To help with the concept in their local production, the FAC crew has constructed a proscenium around the stage; limiting the viewable area, it makes the production feel more intimate and Vaudevillian. There are even placards to announce the acts, as in the old days.
"We've stayed true to the original," says Levy, who's directing the production, "except maybe in the case of the male characters. We made a decision to cast them in different roles for different scenes, and have them appear on stage together."
That may not seem like such a big deal, but, according to Levy, it's not normally done: The scenes are supposed to be separate, and in different locations. Having the same male actors allows the show to focus on the stories of Rose, Louise and June, and it may also speak to the monolithic nature of crowds where celebrity is concerned.
"But no matter how theatrical the production is, the music is iconic," says Levy. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, while Jule Styne wrote the music. The results: songs like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Let Me Entertain You," which are now musical standards. Even Gypsy's musical score is good, according to Levy. "The Overture — which is over five minutes long — is pure music," he says.
Gypsy's cast is multi-generational and made up of 22 actors, including five children. And Levy notes that since "the story is mostly about the early years, the Louise years," the Gypsy Rose Lee character appears only in the play's last 15 minutes, remaining perfectly decent.
Aforementioned male casting decision aside, Levy's clear that he's not trying to push limits here.
"Why? Why do that? It's a great show as it is," he says, citing Mainly on Directing, the work by Arthur Laurents (who authored the book for Gypsy) that discusses how Gypsy changed for him through the years.
"I've taken his book to heart. We've been thinking about what Laurents would want, and I think he'd want us to keep the integrity of the show intact."