Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Curtain Comes Down on the Great American Musical

When Patti LuPone wasn't busy eviscerating the hoodlum taking her photograph (which may have actually been someone doing a piece on her), she was closing out her Broadway run as Rose in the latest incarnation of Gypsy.

The show, which closed Sunday after 27 previews and 332 performances, was the end of the road for an event which by all accounts should never have happened. Librettist Arthur Laurents was never to let Patti LuPone near any of his work in a major revival. Bernadette Peters scored a personal triumph (naysayers be damned, she was nothing short of fantastic) as Rose in a 2003 revival that closed after 13 months and a financial loss. I recall just prior to that production posting its closing notice the people on the webboards speaking of the impossibility of Patti LuPone replacing Bernadette.

Five years ago, that was wishful thinking. We would never see her star in a revival. Then in 2006, Ravinia announced Lonny Price would direct Patti (an annual staple at the Chicago festival herself) "in the role she was born to play." People (not me, that was the summer of the 'hard times') flew out to see the icon in one of the most iconic of musical theatre roles. And that was that. Given the financial risk of mounting a commercial revival, especially since it was only a few years since the recent Broadway mounting, it was highly unlikely that we would see the show in NY. Then the City Center came along. A three week run, with Arthur and Patti making nice after years of feuding, played a summer run at the City Center. Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti joined the cast, now under the direction of Laurents. Nancy Opel, Marilyn Caskey and Alison Fraser would take on the choice extended cameo as the trio of strippers in the second act. The show opened to positive reviews, some hesistancy on the part of the NY Times which didn't stop the show from becoming one of the must-see events of 2007. And that was that. Rumors swirled of a Broadway transfer, but it was once again dismissed. "Too soon." "They'd be crazy." Et, al.

March 27, 2008. The St. James Theatre. There is a red carpet. The crowd is electric. Stars are out, including another legendary Tony-winning Rose, Miss Angela Lansbury. Patti LuPone opens to unanimous raves (which included Benjamin Brantley of the NY Times eating his words, and his "hat"). The show is a critical success on the strength of its acting. I was there. The critics were not wrong.

June 15, 2008. The Tony Awards. Laura Benanti wins. Boyd Gaines wins. The first actress and actor to ever win the Tony award for playing the roles of Gypsy and Herbie. Then Best Actress in a Musical: Patti LuPone. "Shut up, it's been twenty-nine years!" I was not there, but in Sarah's living room where we as an enclave cheered like lunatics and even took pictures of the the paused TV screen.

June 17, 2008. "Sing out, Louise!" The entire audience at the St. James Theatre stands in an ovation for the freshly won Tony. Still riveting. Winners all regardless of whether or not they possessed a statuette.

January 11, 2009. Curtain down. The revival closes. This is where my latest odyssey into the city begins. Originally, we were anticipating the March 1 close, marking the end of LuPone's one year contract. However, given the nature of the economy, the producers decided to pull the plug two months early. So then it came down to who wanted to go and when. So many of the bloggerati were making one final pilgrimage to the St. James Theatre to see this legendary performance. There were all my friends going to the second to last performance on Saturday evening; so it was decided that it was perfect timing for yet another blogger's brunch, this time at Thalias on 50th and 8th. Roxie and I, as well as Kari, were going to the final matinee, but we had our first-hand witnesses Steve, Doug, Sarah, Chelsea and Leah to tell us all about the Penultimate Patti incident, which goes down into theatrical lore as the night LuPone had enough. For those who aren't aware, a photographer out in the orchestra was given a tongue-lashing he or she will never forget by Ms LuPone. She continued after the perpetrator had been removed much to the unending delight of the crowd (akin to that bizarre fear-driven euphoria that comes after traumas like narrowly escaping death, or in this case being taken by the human boa constrictor that is Patti LuPone at her most terrifying).

It must be said, I always have a good time whenever this group gets together. The talk is always good, we have many fun items to share with one another and the rapport is always spot-on. The moon's full, the gin's in the bathtub and... wait, that's Mame. From theatre to decapitated chickens on the highway, we run the gamut from class to crass and are damned proud of it! After an aperitif at the Marriot, it was showtime. We were going out separate ways - none of the Penultimate Patti crew was having an encore that afternoon, so we headed to the St. James for the fun to start. Here is a run-down of the highlights from the afternoon's events:

- A closing night crowd has a palpable energy that is hard to top. Fans are back in droves and you can practically see it.
- Mo Rocca and Arthur Laurents are in the house. Thus endeth the celebrity sightings.
- There's the house announcement. He has to wait because the audience is screaming too loudly. Heh, the actors can see you taking photographs. Talk about a colossal understatement.
- The overture. Always a good time, every time. The audience can barely contain itself. It feels like we are at a rather raucous wedding. We are all in our pews sitting politely waiting for the entrance of the bride, occasionally glancing over our shoulders to get a look at her.
- We rise on the bride's entrance.
- Patti LuPone freezes holding Louise's chin, as I've seen her do before. She briefly acknowledges the applause in order to continue with the show.
- Lengthy applause on the entrances of Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti.
- The show carries on. There is intense audience reaction. If Laurents' hadn't put in so many blackouts on musical buttons, we'd be standing a lot more.
- There has been talk of the three leads fooling around and adding shtick to their performances. Contrary to this, we find the performance considerably tight. They are very organic in their acting; the chemistry is unbeatable.
- Benanti still wows. Her performance is the one for the ages. There will be other turns as Rose by many actresses, but it is unlikely I shall ever see a Louise this spectacular in my lifetime. The glamorous Benanti effectively inhabits the awkward adolescence of Louise, rounding the character in remarkable ways. She bursts into tears after delivering a final, affecting "Little Lamb." (Unlike everyone else in Christendom, I have always liked the song. *shrugs*).
- Lenora Nemetz gets a hand on her entrance as Miss Cratchitt. Hilarity ensues.
- Leigh Ann Larkin is a bit too broad as Dainty June, which makes the "WHY NOT, DAINTY JUNE?!" gentleman even broader. His line gets applause today. (*shrugs*)
- Lenora gets applause on her little exit dance as she's chased off during "Broadway, Broadway"
- We might as well add Tony Yazbeck's Tulsa to the list of superlative performances. He brings great honesty and heart to his brief scene leading into "All I Need is the Girl." He also understands that the song is there as a showcase for him, but knows its dramatic function to let the audience know that Louise wants to be the Girl. Stunning in every way. Yazbeck, after Gypsy and On the Town at Encores! is poised for musical theatre stardom.
- The train depot. The most intense scene in act one. Brilliantly executed as always, we head to the doom that is "Everything's Coming Up Roses." One of the best act one finales in existence.
- Two ladies to our right are seeing this musical for the first time ever. The mother knows it from catching the Rosalind Russell movie (anyone? you know the one where Louise runs off with Yonkers instead of Tulsa, innocuously ruining Louise's dramatic arc at that moment). They are stunned by intermission. I tell them "You ain't seen nothin' yet."
- We're back in the theatre, they're back on the stage. Patti gets emotional during "Together Wherever We Go." Then she accidentally tosses her pan off into the wings, which brings about smiles and laughs all around, onstage and off. The pan is kicked back out for her to collect. The tempo is brisk. Three Tony winners are off and running with the charming trio, arguably the highpoint of the character's relationships all evening. The number stops the show cold.
- There's that ominous burlesque vamp from the overture. We are at 'the Bottom" aka Wichita's World-Famous Burlesque. Applause on Marilyn Caskey's entrance as Electra. A second hand for Nemetz's appearance as Mazeppa; and of course for Alison Fraser's Tessie Tura.
- Benanti is a thrill to watch as the most human Louise this side of 8th Avenue. Moments to love, her reaction to Rose's latest "I had a dream last night." So many subtle moments to be cherished in her nuanced portrayal.
- "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Arthur Laurents said it best when he told Sam Mendes that Saddam Hussein and his two sons could get a hand with it. He was not wrong. Show once again stopped.
- The first dressing room scene. This is where it starts to end in tears. Those who applauded the marriage proposal in the scene before sparked incredulity from us. Really, people? Most of you know where this is heading... and it's not pleasant.
- It's not pleasant. Mother sells out daughter for stardom. Cue Herbie's ulcer. Cue audience's contempt.
- Dynamite devastation from Gaines on standing up to Rose. His exit line prompts applause.
- "Momma, I'm pretty... I'm a pretty girl, momma!" Damn right, you are! One of the most beautiful moments in all musical theatre, leading directly into...
- "The Strip." If there's any real argument for why this production should have been taped, it was for Benanti's transformation from Louise Hovick to Gypsy Rose Lee over the course of the number. Mixing nerves, anxiety and disgust, she socks out "Let Me Entertain You." She realizes for the first time that she is center stage, and she has an audience in the palm of her hand. Watching the confidence grow in each segment till she is a bonafide superstar for Minsky is riveting.
- Laura Benanti stops the show dead with the line "Where were you last night...?" You can all figure out why...
- The second dressing room sequence. The tension is high, the mounting conflict between mother and daughter coming to head with this superbly crafted fight. The animosity is seething from both ends. A monologue of defiance that trumps all. "I am Gypsy Rose Lee." Interesting acting moment: the maid re enters to tell Gypsy that her publicist is there and Benanti yells the line at her. When the maid has closed the door, there was a moment where Benanti brought back Louise as she looks at the door, amidst her tears and quiet mouths to her now-absent maid "I'm sorry..." That's an actress.
- The moment the crowd has been waiting for. "I thought you did it for me, Mama." Cue breakdown. The crowd is hushed. With expected tension we wait for it. And it comes...
- "Here she is boys. Here she is world." Patti LuPone takes it someplace in the recesses of Rose's mind I've never seen before. She whispers those lines, striking fear into the audience's mind. She proceeds with an earth-shattering Turn. She clearly and frightfully throws off Rose's smock revealing the tattered edges of what once was her character's sanity. That last for me is the war cry of one who has reached the end of her rope.
- A Routledge of five minutes ensues. The crowd is on its, feet and is beyond ecstatic. LuPone continues to bow in her swirling vortex of doom. A single rose is tossed onto the stage. As the ovation starts to die down, audience members start shouting "We love you Patti" to the stage. LuPone smiles and tries to bring them back in. However, upon hearing someone shout "Patti for President," she gives that boa constrictor look to let us know she's about to lose it. Thankfully the last scene is allowed to continue. In the moment just prior to her breakdown, she picks up one of the roses, kisses it and puts it back down before the scene continues.
- The show ends. The crowd is on fire. Full house on its feet. Bows. Tears. Patti LuPone takes her solo bow. In what feels like a return to the old school, the first row is tossing countless roses onstage. while she bows. For the company bow, Patti LuPone personally hands out a rose to every single actor she can. In spite of her legendary divatude onstage, she is still a member of an ensemble - a respect you can see in the way she interacts with every single person onstage. When the cast turns upstage to the orchestra, they begin to throw the flowers at them. The conductor poses with a rose between his teeth.
- Patti brings out Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim for a bow. Roxie has a near-stroke when she realizes she's in the same space as SJS for the first time ever. Patti makes a brief curtain speech aknowledging Jule Styne and Jerome Robbins. Tears, hugs, the usual are shared. Patti shows genuine affection for every single person in the cast, particularly among the child actors.
- The ladies to our right are smiling broadly. The mother is vocally grateful about the opportunity to have seen the show. The daughter is quietly wiping away a few years. Perfection.
- Gypsy is over.

Afterwards, Roxie and I headed to Angus for our post-show dinner and obligatory drink. We were seated immediately, and as Rose standby Linda Balgord sweeps past us into the upper level it dawns on us that the cast is coming here for their post-show festivities. We have order our food, we discuss 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as more and more cast members file into the restaurant. After getting over initial fears that we were in Deadwood, Roxie warms to the surroundings and begins announcing everyone as they enter. Much to our surprise, Marilyn Caskey sits at a table adjacent to us. Fortunately we are in Angus, so not much is said when I get up in the course of our 1600 conversation singing "Rehearse!" to illustrate a point.

We introduced ourselves to Ms. Caskey before leaving, just to let her know how much we enjoyed her performance as Electra. She is not only talented, but quite lovely. I brought up the long-forgotten, one performance wonder The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall in which she had a major role. She said I was the first person to ever ask her about it and she was so pleased to chat about her experiences. She talked with great affection for the show, which is about a British boarding school headmistress slowly driven to insanity by the antics of her students. The musical opened and closed at my beloved Mark Hellinger in 1979, starring Celeste Holm (who judging by the cast album - yes, there is one - shows that she is miscast). Three years prior, Caskey performed in the piece, written by Clark Gesner in a California production that starred Jill Tanner, who brought the British sensibility required for the part (the part calls for a Patricia Routledge type). Ms. Caskey, and you wouldn't know this from Gypsy, is a lyric coloratura who has essayed the roles of Cunegonde in Candide and Carlotta in the Broadway and Toronto companies of The Phantom of the Opera, with plenty of voice and class to spare. One of the real highlights of this entire evening was having the chance to spend a few moments with this lovely and warm character actress. I hope to seeing her onstage again very soon.

The day was long, eventful and highly memorable. It mirrored the first time I saw Gypsy on Broadway, which was the closing performance of the Bernadette Peters revival in 2004. It was a bit surreal to have done two closings of the same show in less than five years. The audiences react with the same ferocity at the book scenes, the songs and the overall ambience that comes with this classic musical. My only hope for the next revival, which we can pretty much guess will be longer than five years away, is that it restores the complete libretto, still my only official gripe with this most recent incarnation. It's always an event when the Great American Musical comes to town.

Other than that, it's time to move on and look forward to the new musicals and revivals (and plays!) of this season. And I say it here: one of the non-profits should stage a revival of The Rose Tattoo for Ms. LuPone.


Esther said...

Wow Kevin, I got chills reading that! And I definitely agree with you on Laura Benanti's performance. I'm so glad I was able to see it twice, at Encores and in the spring on Broadway. It was simply amazing. Her transformation was breathtaking.

Roxie said...

It's two days later and I still feel the need for a drink or two...is that weird?

Roxie said...

And, P.S., your post about Sunday is so well done. Mine is merely babble! 10 points!

Tad said...

Wonderful, wonderful piece. I felt as if I were in Manhattan again, instead of the Left Coast.

But I am confused about "Penultimate Patti", both her incident, and crew.

Regarding the crew on Sunday, does this mean that your group was the next-to-last to leave for the St. James?

And regarding the incident, why is this next-to-last? Is it the penultimate anecdote in a list of Ms. LuPone's diva outbursts? And would this list be sequenced by time, or level of drama?

If this was the penultimate, then what would be the ultimate Patti incident?

SarahB said...

Uncle Lindsay, this is a masterpiece.