The Mother Of All Stage Mothers
In 1957 a woman wrote a memoir biting the hand that fed her. She was Rose Louise Hovick, born in Seattle, and her thrice-married mother Rose changed Louise and her sister June’s birth certificates to avoid child labour laws before dragging them off around the country with an army of virtually kidnapped children to work the vaudeville circuit. But this was just as vaudeville was starting to die and the Great Depression hit America. Bookings were hard to find and the sisters, permanently pegged at age 10 although they were growing into young women, sang and danced in a terrible act that was old-fashioned even before they started.
Their mother was a force of nature, determined to get them to the big time. She put all her effort into promoting ‘Baby June’ and ignored Louise, whom she felt had no talent. Rose promised they would all settle down when June was famous, but the big time never beckoned. Rose lost her man, who finally gave up on her, and her daughter, when June, now 15, ran off with one of the male dancers. Left with Louise, they found themselves relegated to the dingy, regularly-raided burlesque houses, where Louise became a stripper.
But Louise became the greatest stripper of all time, and Gypsy Rose Lee was born. Her memoir formed the basis of a show written in 1959 by Jule Style and Stephen Sondheim. There’s a second memoir called ‘The February House’, about what happened when Gypsy Rose Lee shared a house with WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles (!)
Meanwhile the show ‘Gypsy’ became legendary. Written for foghorn-voiced Ethel Merman, it was filmed with Natalie Wood and the remarkable Rosalind Russell. It’s a great story, and many years later it was remade less successfully with Bette Midler, but along the way it lost a lot of its bite. After all, this was about a selfish, driven woman who lived out her own life through her children, destroying their chances of education and happiness, creating in the process a hardened stripping star, even though ‘Baby June’ went on to become June Havoc, the actress.
Without the darkness in the tale it’s just another showbiz disaster story, of course. I’d seen it in 1973 at the Piccadilly Theatre with Angela Lansbury and Zan Charisse, Cyd Charisse’s daughter. Now Imelda Stanton has done something quite astonishing, darkening the entire show without changing a word of the script, and in this new incarnation at the Savoy Theatre she reduces the audience to tears. The critics have already said this is the performance of a lifetime, but it’s also a cautionary fable about celebrity.
I’m not a fan of jazz-hand musicals – they need an edge or a really good story to get me interested, and here everything works together in perfection. Staunton takes a chance playing Rose as a cross between Mother Courage and a borderline psychotic, an Oedipal stage mother from hell, her hands clawing and shaking at her horrified children. She steals abandoned kids off the streets for her act, haunted by the memory of her own mother walking out, living in fear of not working. At the end, in the final number ‘Mama’s Turn’, she breaks down on stage in such a state of schizophrenic distress that you want to go and comfort her.
This wasn’t to be the only time Sondheim got involved with a show that ended in a nervous breakdown. In ‘Follies’, coincidentally being staged as a one-off in London with a raft of stars this month, the play closes with its failed hero suffering an uncomfortable onstage collapse. Sondheim has written about his own difficulties with his mother and you can see what attracted him to such dark material.
‘Gypsy’ is booking until July at the Savoy. Treat yourself to a pre-show cocktail at the Savoy Hotel; you might need it.