Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gypsy: A Novel $4.60 Idea

Gypsy: A Novel $4.60 Idea

How is this for a coincidence?

About a month or so ago, I finished reading Gypsy - Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper -- the novel that launched what I personally believe to be the greatest musical of all time. I was about to post an item when, lo and behold, Chris Caggiano of Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals was reporting that he had just read the book. Great minds?

Well, I would be very interested in knowing just how far sales spike for this autobiography every time a new Broadway revival opens. Currently, Amazon ranks the book as its 183,511th best seller, although it is listed as 15th best selling memoir by a dancer.

No matter. After years and years of seeing production after production, some good, some bad, I decided it was finally time to get the "real" story on the world's most famous ecdysiast, even if it may be somewhat apocryphal. And what an entertaining story it is, replete with Mama Rose, June Havoc, Louise and cow ("moo-moo-moo-MOO") all hoofing it across the country, even if there was no one named Herbie every step of the way.

But what the musical only touches upon, the book delivers: a highly successful vaudeville act, forged by a scheming and entrepreneurial, if somewhat daft mother. Indeed, there was a whole lot happening on that Orpheum Circuit as they performed to cheering, adoring crowds alongside such notables as Fanny Brice. In fact, I was stunned by the level of success that the act actually enjoyed. In the "Musical Fable," their success is significantly muted, getting short shrift during the tuner's "Baby June and Her Newsboys" number that suddenly transforms the action from Baby June to Dainty June.

Gypsy Rose Lee certainly knows how to tell a great story, but one dramatic departure from the tuner is her expressed desire from an early age to be on the stage. That song "If Mama Was Married" may have been sung as a heartfelt plea for their mother to settle down, but neither June nor Louise would be caught desiring to be taken off the road or away from the stage.

And as for that dream of Mama Rose? Well, both Lee and Havoc went on to be exactly what their mother always dreamed they'd be: Broadway stars. The musical Gypsy ensures that future audiences will always know their names, even if they'll be forgiven for thinking that only Gypsy Rose Lee, who passed away in 1970, enjoyed all the fame.

You see, lest anyone forget, the star of June Havoc has also shined brightly on the Great White Way. Born as Ellen Evangeline Hovick, the actress enjoyed a Rialto career spanning 45 years, beginning with her role as Rozsa, of all names, in the 1936 production of Forbidden Melody. She was featured or starred in ten additional Main Stem productions as an actress, and she received a Tony nomination for the 1963-64 production of her self-penned Marathon '33, based on her own memoirs Early Havoc. The legendary Julie Harris was Tony-nominated for her portrayal of June in that production.

June Havoc last trod Broadway's boards back in 1982 as a replacement for Miss Hannigan in the original production of Annie -- the show that served as the springboard for my own great, unyielding love for the theatrical art form. But it was June Havoc herself who apparently served as the great springboard for Gypsy Rose Lee penning her memoirs in the first place. Lee described a meeting between the two as each was enjoying success, saying:
The waiter hovered over us, check in hand. I made a move for my purse and June stopped me. "I want to pay it," she said. "I want this to be my night, right down the line. I'll put it in my diary as the night I found a direction in life for my big, fat sister."

I scooped up what was left of the Lobster Cantonese and divided it into the two containers the waiter had brought us. June divided what was left of the roast pork and put that on top. "But if you don't write the story," she said, "you owe me four dollars and sixty cents."
So as June Havoc prepares to celebrate her 95th birthday on November 8, I'd like to salute this trouper of troupers and her $4.60 threat for inspiring what has ultimately become the greatest Broadway show of all time.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 25 September, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Great review! I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

It's always interesting to see how a story is changed for the stage or screen, especially when it involves a real person or incident. Funny how things are changed sometimes to make them more "dramatic, like with "If Mama Was Married."

And the same goes for a novel. Even though I didn't enjoy the book of "Wicked" as much as the musical, I'm glad I read it, just to see what Winnie Holzman was working with in her adaptation.

Also, I think it's very cool that you had a roundabout connection to June Havoc. I'm a bit disappointed, though that there wasn't a real Herbie!

At 25 September, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I didn't say that there wasn't a real Herbie....


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