Gypsy is, by universal consent, the great American musical. A solid but not sensational hit in its day (it was shut out of the 1959-60 Tony Awards), the show's reputation has grown with each passing year. This is partly because of Arthur Laurents' brilliantly constructed book, about a mother who pushes her daughters away even as she drives them to stardom, and the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score, a classic collection of show tunes that culminates in the stunning mad scene, “Rose's Turn.” It's also because of the irresistible lure of the lead character, Rose, the mother of all stage mothers. Conceived for Ethel Merman (who had a late-career triumph with it), Rose has been richly reinterpreted by a gallery of ladies, including Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly onstage and Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler on film. As a result, Rose has become a kind of Hamlet of musical theatre roles — any leading actress of a certain stature is going to have to attempt it.
Set against a backdrop of American vaudeville and burlesque, spanning the 1920s and 30s, Gypsy is based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The story focuses, however, on Lee's mother, Rose. Teeming with anger and ambition, Rose is determined to make her daughter June a star. She begs, borrows, and steals an act, “Baby June and Her Newsboys,” which, unbelievably, achieves some success. But times change, and children grow up; the act fails, the chorus boys depart, and June runs away. Thwarted but unstoppable, Rose launches another daughter, Louise, in a rehash of June's old act. But vaudeville is dead, so Rose desperately pushes Louise into burlesque. Louise becomes a star but the price is high: Rose is left without a family, a lover, or a dream to sustain her.
The current Broadway revival is the conception of British director Sam Mendes, with sets and costumes designed by the equally British Anthony Ward, lighting designed by the American duo of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound by the ubiquitous Acme Sound Partners. Perhaps it is the British sensibility that Mendes brings to the table that gives this version of Gypsy a different style, setting it apart from productions of the past.
“There is a different design vocabulary on each side of the pond,” Ward offers as explanation. “The visual expectation of the Broadway musical is a hedonistic, full-on affair. The London experience is a more hair-shirt, socially-connected story.” Ward designed the recent National Theatre production of Oklahoma! for Trevor Nunn. While the American musical vernacular was not totally foreign to him, the only stage version of Gypsy that Ward had ever seen was a provincial English production over 20 years ago.
Furthermore, Ward and his design collaborators were forced to work during a difficult month of New York previews as rumors spread that star Bernadette Peters was not up to playing Rose and as elements of the design evolved. The final production was acclaimed by the critics, however, and, it must be said, this is a Gypsy like no other — with Ward's skeletal set pieces placed on an empty stage, you are always aware of being in a theatre. His Edward Hopper-style drops remind you of the harsh realities of Depression life just outside the theatre. And his recreations of June and Louise's vaudeville acts pay tribute to the rose-tinted escapism of period entertainments.
Real Life vs. Theatre
In designing Gypsy, Ward did quite a bit of research into the theatrical period as well as into the real lives of the characters portrayed in the production. “I approached Gypsy the way I would approach any other show, except that we did loads of research in America,” notes Ward. “We were looking for exactly what the specifics of each scene would look like,” he says.
Ward notes that Mendes had some very specific ideas of his own for the design of the show. “He was very keen to have the book scenes be true to real life, while the vaudeville scenes simply burst with theatricality,” Ward says. This gives the show two distinct looks, although all of the scenes are set against the context of an empty theatre, emphasizing the parameters of the true life story of Baby June and Baby Louise, as their mother pushes them from city to city, from theatre to theatre, in search of stardom.
To design each of the different looks that weave the show together, Ward created two sets of storyboards. “I didn't do the storyboards in chronological order, but rather separated the real-life scenes from the theatre scenes. The real-life scenes, those that take place in seedy hotel rooms and plain kitchens, have a nicotine-stained, old-photo look to them,” he says. In contrast, the vaudeville scenes have brightly colored sets and costumes, including a dancing cow and a barnyard, and an illuminated Broadway backdrop for Rose's star turn at the end of the show.
“Sam and Anthony came up with the concept of setting all the scenes in an open theatre,” notes Nancy Thun, associate scenic designer, who facilitated the building of Ward's scenic designs in the US, serving as an immediate contact for the shop, Hudson Scenic, while Ward was in the UK concentrating on the costumes. Everything was then designed with the idea that the theatre would serve as a surround with various backdrops to help create the mood for certain scenes. One of these is a cityscape influenced by American painter Edward Hopper. “It is not a specific Hopper scene but a certain vista in a certain style,” Thun explains. Other drops are based on photographic references Ward found in his extensive research. The Broadway drop, for example, is a blow-up of a digital image of a street scene, with light boxes hung in front so the theatre marquees can light up during “Rose's Turn.”
In costuming Bernadette Peters as Rose, the decision was made to make her look like a real working mother, so Ward went for a simple look. “At first it was decided that all of her money went into the sets and costumes for the vaudeville shows and not into her own clothes or jewelry. Then we decided that might not be the correct solution, and her nine outfits had to be redesigned,” he explains. In the second go-round, Rose's dresses have a little more color and a little more detail to make her look less dowdy (after all, she has to be appealing to her beau).
“But just adding color was not the only answer,” adds Ward, who rearranged things as well, adding a flirty little hat to one outfit or some costume jewelry to another. Her dresses were made in crepe and chiffon at various New York City costume shops including Euro-Co and Tricorne, with other costumes made by Barbara Matera Ltd, Carelli Costumes, Werner Russold, and Eric Winterling. Millinery is by Rodney Gordon (who even made the dancing cow costume) and Linda Mackey, with shoes from JC Theatrical Footwear and T. O'Dey.
Christine Rowland served as UK associate costume designer, with Mitchell Bloom as US associate costume designer and Patrick Chevillot as assistant costume designer. On the scenic side, in addition to Thun, were Antje Ellerman and Zhanna Gurvich, assistant scenic designers.
To better understand the period, Ward also looked at photographs of the vaudeville acts performed by Baby June and Baby Louise (discovering that young Louise basically dressed as a girl, although in Gypsy she is always dressed as a little boy). “Costuming their acts was pretty straightforward,” says Ward, who followed the script as it called for little Dutch girls and boys, or a group of newsboys. “The newsboy costumes were taken from the actual photographs. I gave them a little more interest, but remained as authentic as possible.”
There is also a curly blonde wig as a reference to Shirley Temple, and a sparkly, beaded pink dress with a velvet cape and marabou feather trim for Baby June as she matures. “When you research the period, some of the clothes might look ugly to us now,” says Ward, who referred to the actual costumes but didn't recreate them faithfully.
The biggest transformation is Louise, who discovers that vaudeville has been replaced by strip shows, and she sheds her tomboy duds for gowns and gloves. She finds herself surrounded by real strippers with the unlikely names of Mazeppa, Tessie Tura, and Electra. “You know what the strippers are meant to be wearing,” says Ward, who gave Mazeppa a rather revealing gladiator costume, Tessie Tura becomes a faded ballet dancer doing what Ward refers to as “a demure strip version of Swan Lake,” and Electra in a costume inspired by a Coney Island Ferris Wheel.
“On the surface, Gypsy is not a big costume show,” says Ward, “but since the actors are moving all of the scenery, they need to be in keeping with each scene, so the costume list exploded. They wear a lot of period clothing that we could arrange on the spot.”
Ward enjoyed his first collaboration with Fisher and Eisenhauer. “I found them delightful,” he says. “We worked closely to make sure the colors onstage ping out and do not disappear.” This is important, especially in Ward's real-life kitchens and hotel rooms that might simply look drab or fade into the woodwork without the proper lighting. In the theatre scenes, the sets and costumes sparkle, reinforcing the idea that for Rose, June, and Louise, the theatre was indeed their real life.
When TV audio engineers want to recreate the sound of a live audience, they turn to the laugh track. When sound designer Tom Clark of Acme Sound Partners needed the sound of a live audience for the Broadway revival of Gypsy, he turned to his Connecticut neighbors. Part of the second act takes place backstage at a rundown Midwestern burlesque house; during these scenes, all the way upstage, various strippers, their backs to the house, perform to an imaginary group of burlesque revelers, who can be heard voicing either approval or disapproval for each act. That rowdy imaginary crowd is actually a real-life, only slightly less rowdy crowd of Connecticut residents that Clark brought together and recorded using Neumann U89 mics and a Yamaha Promix 01 mixer recorded to a SAW Pro32 backed up by a Sony DAT machine.
“We live in a community that maintains its own roads,” Clark explains, “and due to the heavy winter we experienced this year there were extra charges for snow removal. It occurred to me that I could get a bunch of my neighbors to come out and gather in the clubhouse for a recording session in exchange for nominal payment by the production to help defray the cost of the snow plow. So about 50 of us got together one night and did a 45-minute session that worked beautifully. We had already run this scene in technical rehearsals, and I had a very clear picture of what Sam was looking for. I was able to direct them rather quickly and get the right response. When you need a drunken, rowdy crowd, there's really no substitute for the real thing!”
Gypsy proved to be a relatively straightforward show for Acme Sound Partners (Clark, Mark Menard, and Nevin Steinberg): “We were presented with a dream cast, led by Bernadette, and possibly the best score and orchestrations ever written for a musical. Our chief concern was not to screw anything up!” The big challenge for the Acme team was balancing Gypsy's dynamic orchestrations with the acoustical personality of the two-balcony, 1,500-seat Shubert Theatre.
“It's a very tricky space, actually,” the designer explains. “The two-balcony design results in low underbalcony ceiling heights. At the mezzanine level, there are about four rows that are fully exposed to the room, and then another five or six under a severe overhang; the headroom is only about 6'7", which results in a compressed ‘letterbox’ view of the stage. This also means that you have a rather limited pathway through which to deliver sound. In some places it's hard to get people far enough away from loudspeakers to make the loudspeakers disappear.
“We worked very hard to insure that the pit would be as open as possible and that we could get the musicians as high up as was practical in the pit so they could deliver a good chunk of the energy to the room on their own,” Clark continues. “And the fact of the matter is that mezzanine and balcony levels have almost no band amplification at all; most of what you hear from the orchestra is direct out of the pit up into the upper reaches of the room.”
Acme opted for a center cluster of L'Acoustics dVDosc speakers with supplemental vocal system delivery to the balcony via three Meyer UPAs on the lighting truss and with Meyer MSL-2s on the proscenium. Another Acme favorite, d&b E3s, are used for underbalcony, front fill, under mezzanine, and in the box fill areas on the sides of the hall. Due to the lack of an ideal location for subwoofers inside the space, a total of six subwoofers (four Meyer USW-Ps and two Aurasound 1808-Es) were placed in the plenum underneath the auditorium seating. The show is run on a Cadac J-Type console, with a Midas Venice sub-mixer for the strings.
Gypsy is a big, old-fashioned American musical, boasting an orchestra of 24 (including a harp, a rarity among Broadway shows these days), miked with a combination of DPA, Sennheiser, Neumann, AKG, Accousound [ACCUSOUND?], and Shure microphones. The wireless vocal systems are comprised of DPA 4061 microphones and Sennheiser SK 5012 bodypacks and EM3532 receivers. “The DPAs sound fantastic and have a tendency to weather the environmental challenges such as perspiration, moisture, and stress, which means they don't have to be replaced as often,” says Clark. “And because of their very small size, the SK 5012s are a big hit with the performers as well as with the wardrobe and hair departments.” All the gear was supplied by Sound Associates; Paul DelCioppo handled production sound on Gypsy, Christopher Sloan serves as the production sound mixer, and Randy Morrison and Gary Simon handle the backstage wireless work.
Acme Sound Partners have a busy summer and fall ahead, providing the sound designs for Henry V in Central Park, and the Broadway productions of Avenue Q, The Boy from Oz starring Hugh Jackman, and Never Gonna Dance.
Light the Lights
Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer are certainly known for their ability to create grand theatrical effects, but both acknowledge that Gypsy required something else from them. Eisenhauer refers to “a particular subtlety of style. It's more subdued, more introspective — and a lot of that came from Sam.” Fisher adds, “We lit Gypsy like a play.”
With these ideas in mind, and Mendes' directive that the lighting had to appear totally in period, certain things were not allowed: There could be no obvious display of lighting equipment, nor could there be moving beams of light. In fact, Eisenhauer says, out of their discussions with Mendes, the following rule evolved: “There shall be no scene lit in such a way that, when the musical number happens, we go to a different place.” In other words, in this Gypsy, the scenes and songs are designed to be all of a piece. There were to be no transitions to signal the beginning of a number; the only time the lighting has a real show business look is when the characters are performing in “onstage” scenes.
That's not to say the designers don't get to create certain important contrasts. Just as Ward's production design emphasizes the difference between the dreary reality of Depression-era America and the cheery illusions of its vaudeville entertainments, so the book scenes achieve a certain coldness while the “onstage” scenes are lit in the pinks and blues of early Technicolor. This contrast is strong, striking, and highly noticeable: “There's no middle ground,” says Eisenhauer.
Of course, given Ward's scenic conception, with its empty theatre and starkly exposed set pieces, the designers' approach was clear. “Whenever you have a smaller space in a larger space, you have to carve it out,” says Eisenhauer. She adds, “Sam is predisposed to a definite, directional use of light and shadow. His first impulse is to show direction in light, to communicate emotion. Many directors want to fill the picture in, to make it easy on the eyes. He has a need to reveal the stage in a bolder, starker way.” In this way, the designers' work adds a shadowy quality that fills out the details of Ward's Edward Hopper-ish designs.
At the same time, says Eisenhauer, “The setting was closer to a film set, in terms of the detail that Sam wanted.” Thus, there could be no anachronistic display of the latest automated lighting products, or nakedly visible front-of-house positions. Therefore, says Fisher, “We have limited front-of-house booms — in fact, zero lights immediately in front of the proscenium.” Eisenhauer adds that a conventional use of exposed units “would have said ‘modern lighting.’”
In fact, Fisher notes, the majority of the production's rig is made up of moving lights. Nevertheless, what one sees onstage are lighting units that look as old as vaudeville itself. “We did a three-month scout,” for vintage units, says Eisenhauer, getting them from theatres in Harlem and on Staten Island. “We located antique units, then had them refurbished, and put in non-asbestos-covered wires, reflectors, clamps — whatever was needed.” Many of them are placed on a pipe that is visible throughout the show, as part of the overall design concept; the units work — that is, they have working bulbs in them — but they don't really contribute to the onstage lighting. They are, essentially, props, standing in for moving lights placed in higher positions where they can't be seen.
Onstage, at stage right and left are hung vertical arrangements of moving lights on visible booms but, again, they aren't really visible. Working with Nino Novellino and Brian Wolfe of Costume Armour, Fisher and Eisenhauer had made molded pieces, each of which resembles the downstage half of a vintage lighting unit. Behind this facade, however, is a Vari*Lite automated fixture. Fisher calls them “costumed” units, adding, “Vari-Lite had to work with us on this concept. The cover is attached to the moving lamp. Moving lights are not made to carry this kind of attachment. It was a really big project.” Overall, it's a sleight-of-hand lighting idea, rooted in the concept of misdirection, which must have appealed to Fisher, an accomplished amateur magician.
Throughout the show, the designers' work is painterly in its detail, subtly revealing actors and details of staging as necessary. Their lighting necessarily becomes more flamboyant later on, in the second-act montage sequence that depicts the rise of Louise's career as a stripper. It begins in the dumpy Texas burlesque joint where she makes her debut. Tammy Blanchard, the actress playing Louise, is standing with her back to the audience, facing a drop that represents the darkened auditorium. All you can see in the drop are a series of “stage lights,” two balcony rails and footlights, which are, in reality, “MR-16 units on a tiny pipe,” says Fisher. These units are gelled like stage lights would be. As Louise steps onstage, another set of MR-16s produces a blinding flash of white light; when the stage is visible again, Louise is now facing the audience, performing the number. It's a neat transition that also conveys Louise's terror of facing a hostile audience.
Then, as Louise's confidence grows and, becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, she develops the witty patter that defines her act, the lighting grows sleeker, more colorful, more glamorous, with three tiers of clear chaser bulbs, planted in the theatre's proscenium, adding to the visual excitement.
The real test of any production of Gypsy, however, is “Rose's Turn.” Gypsy, now a star, wants her mother out of her life. Rose, infuriated, stalks onto an empty stage and, pouring out her bitterness and rage, performs the showstopper that life has denied her. Mendes has staged it with Peters stalking up and down the stage like a caged animal, and the lighting designers' work here begins in laying out light paths for her. As the number builds, a series of AR-111 bulbs placed in the stage come on, making a kind of implied runway that provides a visual link to the stages where Louise performs her strip routine. Then, as the music climaxes, a backdrop is revealed, a nightmarish, forced-perspective street-scape on which has been placed dozens of neon signs featuring Rose's name. Here all stops are pulled out in a flamboyant display that, nevertheless, sticks to the aesthetic rules laid down by Mendes. The effect is also a true designers' collaboration; the drop was designed by Ward, with Fisher and Eisenhauer consulting on the lights.
The final scene, in which Rose and Louise achieve a kind of reconciliation, is back on the empty stage, and is lit, again, more like a play than a glitzy musical. In fact, the final moment of the show is achieved with a grace note of lighting. Rose and Louise leave for a party; at the last moment, Rose turns in the upstage doorway and looks back, her face a mask of regret. She is revealed by a slash of blue light that cuts across the back wall: The image of a lonely woman caught in a doorway by incidental lighting is again worthy of Hopper.
Other lighting personnel include assistant lighting designers Scott Davis and Thom Weaver, automated lighting programmer Laura Frank, and production electrician Jon Lawson, with master electrician Michael Pitzer and automated technician Mike Hyman. Lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase and Vari-Lite, Inc.
Of course, Fisher says, their less flamboyant approach here was no less demanding than any other design. “We were very fortunate to have time to embellish the nuances of the design.” Speaking of the no-visible-moving-light concept, Eisenhauer says, “We made a choice. It's a significant compromise — it pushes your positions higher, and further away. But he didn't want to see the lights.” Think of it a classic show, lit in classic fashion.