By Peter Filichia
Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headline! Historical news is being made! The original cast recording of Gypsy was among 25 recordings selected this year for the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Those who follow Broadway musicals aren’t surprised. After all, The National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 annually has the Librarian of Congress select 25 recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and at least 10 years old. Gypsy certainly qualifies.
For that matter, there can’t be many original cast albums on which you can hear a Tony® winner (Ethel “Call Me Madam” Merman), an Emmy winner (Jack “Oscar Madison” Klugman) and an Oscar winner (Stephen “Sooner or Later” Sondheim); the last-named artist (and the show’s lyricist) spoke one line, snarling “You ain’t gettin’ 88 cents from me, Rose.”
It’s often been said and written that Gypsy has the best overture of all Broadway musicals. It starts with a majestic fanfare that uses composer Jule Styne’s all-important “I Had a Dream” motif, but soon there’s a freewheeling whistle that reminds us that the world of burlesque will be a salient ingredient in the show. By the time the overture gets to “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” those in pursuit of happiness have already attained it. When “Small World” comes in, we’re taken back to a time when Broadway wasn’t ashamed to admit it liked easy listening ballads. How nice, too, that in the song’s B-section what seems like dozens of strings come in and dominate; yeah, 1959 was a time of full orchestras.
All this occurs before we get to the overture’s ace trump: Dick Perry – Broadway’s premier trumpet-player – blares out the licks that show us the uninhibited world of burlesque.
(By the way: Did you ever notice that all the songs featured in the overture are ones that Ethel Merman sings? It’s just another indication of why Gypsy really should have been called Rose.)
Has there ever been a more significant Broadway recording with a more modest opening number? One minute and seven seconds is all we get from Baby June and Baby Louise’s “May We Entertain You” – but we are already saying, “Yes, you may.” And that’s when Merman takes over, telling us about her “wunn-da-full” dream in “Some People,” and how she’d say goodbye to blueberry pie. Lyricist Sondheim could have had Rose cite strawberry, raspberry or nesselrode pie – but I’m betting he chose “blueberry” because it had that vowel that Merman loved to stress as “yew”: “Bl-yew-berry.”
Sondheim has also gone on record saying that Merman was “a trained dog” – meaning that her performance could become mechanical. Perhaps, but remember that this landmark recording took place only days after the show opened on May 21, 1959. If Merman were a trained dog, she certainly was a pit bull during this recording session, growling out her anger and frustration in her first and last songs. But she made room for some – yes! – charm in “Small World,” in which she playfully sang the phrase “from now on.” She had insouciance in the best sense of the word. And needless to say, Merman certainly sang “Everything’s Coming up Roses” better than Googie Gomez ever did.
Sondheim claims he gave birth to the now often-used expression “Everything’s coming up roses,” and to quote a lyric from a subsequent July Styne musical, “And who am I to disagree?” One thing’s for sure: Sondheim’s set of lyrics here ranks among Broadway’s best. There were those tricky rhymes that only contractions can give, such as “This bum’ll / Be Beau Brummel” in “All I Need Is the Girl.” But Sondheim also put a different spin on words, such as in “Some People” when he had Rose mention people who were “living life in a living room” – reminding us that not much living goes on in so-called “living” rooms. “I wonder how old I am” (from “Little Lamb”) showed Louise’s disorientation at the most basic level. But in “Rose’s Turn” – Merman’s apotheosis – he had Rose sing, “It wasn’t for me, Herbie” before adding, “and if it wasn’t for me, where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?” The first meant that her efforts weren’t for herself, while the second meant “I’m responsible for your success.” Nice wordplay there.
Similarly, Jule Styne’s five-decade Broadway career yielded many a success and hit song, but never was his work as stellar as it was in Gypsy. The tender “Small World,” the thrilling “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the fetching “Together Wherever We Go” and the saucy “Let Me Entertain You” all became standards. But even the decision to set June and Louise’s rant against their mother in “If Momma Was Married” in ¾ time was inspired; a lesser composer would have made it a full-frontal 4/4 attack, but these girls weren’t ready for that yet. So they gingerly expressed their frustrations in a waltz.
Let’s not forget the magnificent orchestrations that were mostly by Robert Ginzler, but got a strong assist from Sid Ramin. The orchestral innocence of “May We Entertain You” eventually gave way to the sultry “Let Me Entertain You.” The harp that introduced “Little Lamb” immediately changed the mood that had just been set by “Mr. Goldstone,” forcefully conducted by Milton Rosenstock. And to take a line from that song, everybody give a cheer to the Library of Congress for taking notice of the original cast album of Gypsy.
Peter Filichia also does a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia