C​arolyn Quinn, Author

MAMA ROSE'S TURN book excerpt:

From CHAPTER ONE: The All-American Original

The creative team that had assembled, along with the opening night audience, at New York City’s Broadway Theater on the pleasant spring evening of May 21, 1959, had every reason to be nervous wrecks. They were about to make theatrical history, but they certainly didn’t know it yet, and where Broadway shows are concerned, nothing was ever certain anyway. All the creative team knew at the moment was that this show, Gypsy, so loosely based on the memoirs of performer Gypsy Rose Lee that it had to be billed as “Gypsy, A Musical Fable,” had been nothing short of beleaguered with difficulties during its creation, rehearsals, and out-of-town run in Philadelphia.

Gypsy Rose Lee, born Rose Louise Hovick and initially called “Louise,” had written a book that was the charming, and sometimes uproarious, story of her childhood spent in the background of a Jazz Age traveling vaudeville act starring her adorable and talented little sister, child star “Baby June.” The act was managed by the girls’ enchanting yet slightly less-than-moral rogue of a mother, Rose Thompson Hovick. When June reaches her teens, she outgrows her babyish act, realizes that vaudeville, as a form of entertainment, is dying out, and elopes with one of the backup dancers. Mother Rose creates a new act around Louise, which is no easy feat: by her own admission, Louise has no talent whatsoever. The duo prevails. Burlesque is the only form of Vaudeville still thriving by then. It’s considered, in the late 1920’s, to be about the lowest entertainment genre of them all. Louise enters it out of financial necessity - and becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, comic Burlesque star extraordinaire. June, on her own, eventually becomes the respected actress June Havoc. The book ends as Gypsy Rose Lee temporarily leaves the stage, which has been the only permanent “home” she’s ever known, to appear in movies in Hollywood.

Readers were delighted with the story, and the book landed on The New York Times Bestseller List. Arthur Laurents, a gifted playwright and author of previous theatrical hits Home of the Brave, The Time of the Cuckoo, and most recently the book of the musical West Side Story,was hired by producer David Merrick to write the script. Laurents initially was not intrigued by Lee’s story on any level…until he spoke with an acquaintance at a party.

The woman, dark-haired, funny Selma Lynch, had known the real Rose. She described her as charming and charismatic but a ball-buster.

Laurents, suddenly, had found a basis for the main character. It would not be Gypsy Rose Lee, but her mother, Rose. He left out most of the real Rose’s delicate charm and created, instead, the more dramatic character of an issue-laden human steamroller.

Tough Broadway belter Ethel Merman was signed to play the role of Rose. Once Laurents knew the identity of the actress for whom he was writing the part, he wrote the character of his fictional Rose to match Merman’s boisterous personality. Laurents developed an absolutely brilliant script about a take-no-prisoners stage mother, taking off and soaring with it. The focus of Lee’s story was changed away from the two performing children and onto Rose, presenting her as their driven, fame-obsessed mother-from-Hell who wanted her children to become stars to fulfill her own exaggerated need for recognition. Laurents came up with script conflicts that added considerable spice to the storyline. In the show’s penultimate mea-culpa number, “Rose’s Turn,” the character of Rose breaks down and admits that she had chased after onstage fame for her children simply because she had always been starved for attention. Then she declares she’s going to henceforth start dreaming for herself, yelling, five times in a row with increasing volume, the phrase, “For me!” This ends with Rose letting out a long, frustrated, mad scream. The relatively relaxing read that Gypsy Rose Lee had put together was transformed into a riveting, but almost entirely fictionalized, script.

Jule Styne, who had composed the hit shows Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells are Ringing and High Button Shoes, was hired to write the music for Gypsy. A relatively new songwriter named Stephen Sondheim was brought on board to write the lyrics. He’d recently been the lyricist for another hit, West Side Story, and initially wanted to write both the music and lyrics for Gypsy, but both producer David Merrick and Ethel Merman wouldn’t allow it. Sondheim was too inexperienced to be trusted with both.

Styne had once played the piano in a burlesque orchestra so he knew exactly how to capture the percussive flavor of the joyfully brash burlesque music and incorporate it into his score. Styne was a compulsive gambler. He owed so much money to his bookies that at one point Arthur Laurents was shocked to see enforcers chasing Styne down the street, threatening to break his legs.

Styne outran them. His place in the show’s collaboration was off to a flying start – literally.

Sondheim was disappointed over having to work with a collaborator again yet he genially went along with the plan. Styne and Sondheim worked well together, coming up with so many song numbers that the show was too long.

Director/Choreographer Jerome Robbins, on the other hand, did not work well with anybody. He was considered infamous among the New York theatrical community. In one almost incredible incident, Jule Styne got fed up with Robbins when he blamed him for not authorizing the building of a platform he’d requested to raise the height of the orchestra members; the pit in the theater was so low that his music could not be heard properly. Jule Styne asked for this platform many times, but it wasn’t forthcoming.

Styne was not exactly a bastion of restraint. He threatened to pick Robbins up and throw him into the orchestra pit, from whence no one would hear either Robbins’ screams or Styne’s music. It’s almost a wonder the volatile Robbins survived directing Gypsy without getting himself murdered.

Then the real June, actress June Havoc, decided to create disruptions...