Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nobody's Coming Up Roses

I have to confess I'm disappointed that Arthur Laurents has pulled the plug on the new film version of Gypsy. It was to star Barbra Streisand, and everyone agreed what a great career book-end such a performance would make with Babs's splashy film debut in Funny Girl. Apparently Streisand was serious enough about the project to drop thoughts of directing the film herself, recognizing that playing the role of Mama Rose (at her age, which is a bit long in the tooth for the part) would require so much effort that directing the thing as well would be out of the question.

All that thinking is moot now, as the project has been sunk by Laurents, and torpedoed by Stephen Sondheim. More on that in a mo'.

Lots of people out there were pretty sure that Streisand would fail as Mama Rose. That's entirely possible, but why not give her the chance to try? According to Laurents, he pulled the plug because Sondheim asked him why he wanted another film version of Gypsy. (Who WOULDN'T want one? The original film was a dismal failure, an example of a Hollywood star messing up a Broadway masterpiece; if you don't believe me, go to this Dance Party from years ago.) Sondheim convinced Laurents that, if another film was produced, it would somehow "define" the piece, hampering future productions of the musical. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chicago had a well-respected, Oscar-winning film version, yet the stage show is about to become the longest running revival of anything in Broadway history.

I don't believe there will EVER be a definitive version of Gypsy, because it is a masterpiece. Follow my thinking here. There are no definitive versions of masterpieces of the theatre. If a play or musical is a true masterpiece, it can withstand new interpretations. That is why Olivier, Gielgud, Burton, Kline, Jacobi, and Branagh can all succeed as Hamlet. The play is a masterpiece, and can withstand, and even invite, new examinations.

The reverse proves my point. If a play or musical is not a masterpiece, and let's be honest, most are not, there CAN be a definitive version. There can be one single production (or film) which is the best the piece can be. Streisand's Funny Girl is an excellent example of this. There has been no successful, high-profile revival of that show since Babs won the Oscar for it over 40 years ago. This is because the piece itself is not a masterpiece, and the film version is the best the show can ever be. There are many other illustrations of my point; two Katherine Hepburn projects come to mind. Kate won the Oscar for both The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond, and I would submit that both performances were definitive. Neither of those texts is a masterpiece, so it was possible for Hepburn to create indelible performances in those pieces, performances which will never be equaled. (Neither will Henry Fonda's in On Golden Pond, come to think of it.) They are, in a word, definitive.

I believe Gypsy, as I said, is a real masterpiece, so there will never be a definitive performance. Just look at the roster of actresses who have had success playing the leading role; is there anyone more different than Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters? Or Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury? Or Bette Midler and Patti LuPone? Mama Rose is a masterpiece of theatrical writing, and as such, she is like Hamlet, Lear, Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and George and Martha. They are masterful creations, and can be re-interpreted, re-invented, re-examined, and re-illustrated in any number of ways.

I wish Streisand had played other musical roles in her career. For an actress remembered primarily as a musical star, her resume is pretty pitiful in that area. She has only two Broadway appearances to her credit, including her debut in the underrated I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and of course, the Fanny Brice bio which launched her into the stratosphere. As I said, she was definitive as the lead in Funny Girl; her Dolly Levi was universally trashed (I think she was better than the critics reported, the problem was the huge age difference between Babs and her costar Walter Matthau. And the fact that they hated each others' guts). Her performance as Daisy Gamble in the minor musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever will probably be entirely forgotten later this year, when the new, updated version of the show debuts in New York, in which her role has been altered to be played by a man. Her Yentl will always have its fans, as she was the single guiding force behind the project, but I never bought her masquerade as a boy. Her updated version of A Star is Born cannot hold a candle to the earlier Judy Garland film.
And that's the lot, the totality of Streisand's involvement in musicals of stage and screen.

There was talk many years ago of our Babs playing Mame for television (Cher was mentioned as her co-star! Mame is one of those well-regarded non-masterpieces whose definitive version was probably the original Broadway production starring Angela Lansbury, a performance which went unfilmed), and Evita was also discussed as a Streisand vehicle. Even while Glenn Close was barking her performance in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway and in L.A., there was talk that Streisand may play the musical Norma Desmond on film.

Nothing came of any of those possibilities, so I am one who is sorry that Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for Gypsy, has decided Barbra Streisand playing Mama Rose is a bad idea. He has allowed himself to be persuaded by that passive-aggressive headcase Stephen Sondheim. Steve, you'll recall, is the lyricist for Gypsy, so he could very easily have pulled the plug on the new film himself. But rather than being blamed for robbing Streisand of one final musical icon to play, it looks like he has manipulated the 90-something Laurents to yank the rights instead. It's too bad, as Streisand could have been successful in the role. But not definitive.

3/21/11 update: Broadway.com reports that the Streisand "Gypsy" may be on again, with contracts being prepped, and with Laurents and Sondheim having a "strong say" in the choices of director, choreographer, screenwriter, and the casting of Herbie and the title role. Stay tuned.