Monday, May 9, 2011

Richard Israel on Directing a Stripped Down Version of GYPSY

While Broadway has had several notable productions of the musical Gypsy, with star turns by Ethel Merman, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone, I was surprised to find that Los Angeles has not seen a major production of it since the original national tour in 1961. At the time, Merman recreated her performance for the tour which played the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera (now run by Broadway/L.A. at The Pantages).

I later learned, however, that in 1974 Angela Lansbury and company played the now defunct Shubert Theatre for ten weeks in the pre-Broadway tryout of Gypsy (thanks to Richard Sabellico who was a member of that cast!)  

Written by three of musical theatre’s most beloved artists, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, whom we recently lost at age 93, it is the rags to riches story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous stripper in Burlesque history, and her singularly driven stage mother, Rose.

On May 13th, West Coast Ensemble and director Richard Israel will open a much-anticipated intimate staging of Gypsy that will run through July 3rd at the Theatre of Arts Arena Stage in Hollywood. Before he disappeared into tech rehearsals we sat down and talked about the production.

What made you decide to do a big musical like Gypsy but in an intimate setting?

We did a production of Three Tall Women as our last show in 2009 and Jan Sheldrick was really remarkable in it. I was watching her work and I had the thought, she could do Gypsy. We actually have a Mama Rose. Now cut to 2011. We were looking at doing our next musical and that was the first one that bubbled up. Nobody’s ever done it small that I know of. Nobody does it big because it’s too expensive to do big. Nobody does it.

And this isn’t going to be a big lavish version with all the glitz and tits.

No, well, there are going to be tits. (He laughs) It’s tits but no glitz, and I feel like that’s right for the show because even though it’s a big classic show biz musical, the only time it goes to a place of glitz and glamour is at the very end when Gypsy is stripping at Minsky’s. Everything up until then is pretty tragic.

Is that why you’re billing the show as “Gypsy…stripped?”

When I initially conceived the show I wanted a ghost light and a brick wall and a curtain, and that is predominantly what we are using, however, we are costuming the cast for real because I don’t want it to look like a workshop. It is set in the early 1920s and ‘30s and I wanted everyone to look like their clothes are too small for them and worn at the elbows and probably just need to be thrown away.

I spoke to Rick Starr, our local expert on all things musical theatre, and he was excited about your concept because that’s the way they did the run thrus in 1959 with Ethel Merman – brick wall, ghost light, no costumes, but a few props. The set was still being built. His dad was in the orchestra and he used to say that Ethel would have her dinner break with the musicians between the matinee and evening performances because she couldn’t stand the actors. Instead she would come down and curse with the musicians!

That sounds about right.

This is the first time you’re producing a show in this theatre. How is it working in a new space?

It’s remarkable. When I was shopping around for a theatre I looked at the Arena and it’s like it was built for this show. It’s this gorgeous space that was built as an adjunct to the Egyptian Theatre. It was originally a 150 seat movie theatre that they eventually took down to 99 seats, and it’s got a big, big stage – as big as the Colony.

Who is designing your set?

It’s the usual suspects for us. Stephen Gifford is doing the set. Lisa Katz is doing lights. Rebecca Kessin is doing sound and Zale Morris is doing costumes…and they’re all great.

And your choreographer?

John Todd. He did Merrily We Roll Along with me and I love working with him. When you look at him you just feel better about the world, and it’s not that he’s just easy to work with, because that doesn’t do him justice.

You’ve also worked with Johanna Kent, your musical director, on many, many shows.

Johanna is the best musical director with actors that I’ve ever encountered in my life. She speaks actor and she’s very, very exacting about what she wants the music to be but she doesn’t make actors feel like six year olds. And she gets the storytelling.

That’s important because this story is really about making something out of nothing at a time when people literally had nothing.

To my eye it’s The Grapes of Wrath. These are people who are doing what they can to survive cause times is hard. Every day is a struggle. Mama has made a choice on behalf of the family…we’re going to be in show business and we’re going to be in a form of show business that is on its way out. Now, she didn’t know it was a dying form of show business when she chose it. She says, “I was born too early and started too late,” and it’s true. The problem is she latched onto vaudeville just as talkies came in. The musical starts in the early twenties, when vaudeville was still a very vibrant form of entertainment but it didn’t take long for it to get supplanted by film. Forms of entertainment can very, very quickly become marginalized. It’s a little bit like the record industry, as we know it today, will not be with us in ten years.

That’s an interesting observation. Vaudeville was really unique at the time, wasn’t it?

It was basically a catchall. It would be a dog act and a juggling act and somebody singing, maybe a hoofer. It was really just a bill of these very disparate acts. The problem was once film came in it was tough to get people to spend four bucks for vaudeville when they could spend a quarter for a short. And in vaudeville you never knew what you were getting. Some acts were great and some were awful. It’s a really fine line. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and one man’s entertainment is another man’s filth. It was the advent of film and vaudeville was beginning to descend into burlesque, and what had been a very, very firm line became very nebulous.

Isn’t it interesting how it became an ‘accidental success’ for the other daughter. It’s funny how many times in entertainment that actually does happen.

Absolutely. It was completely accidental and also not an accident at all. Louise happened to be at the right place at the right time. She built a better mousetrap.

Kind of like reality TV.

A little. No pun intended; she was the survivor of burlesque in that she found a new way of doing it. She never fully stripped. She never showed her boobs. That was amazing for burlesque.

And then there is Rose. Every belter on the planet wants to sing her songs yet people sometimes only think of Gypsy as a star vehicle.

The show has become so tied to the personality of who is playing Mama Rose and it is one million times more than that. I don’t think people automatically think of nuance when they think of Gypsy, and when they see this production I think they will see that this actually is a show of great nuance. Arthur Laurents has written the single most genius book of a musical ever. Doing it the way that we’re doing it, in an intimate setting where everything is small, allows us to discover all those wonderful moments.

It sounds like a Gypsy nobody knows.

I hope so. And the thing is we’re not setting out to do a Gypsy nobody knows. We’re setting out to interpret the script and not rely on Mama Rose to come in and knock it out of the park. It’s usually built around the star marching out there in her sensible shoes and barking out a song, and yes, we are going to deliver on that. But I feel like there are peaks and valleys leading up to that, and there’s an honesty to the story that I don’t know that I’ve always seen.

What do you think would have happened if Mama had lived at a different time in history?

That’s a great question and there are a couple of what ifs that go along with that. If she would have been what she could have been, she would have been the star. She would have made the choices for herself instead of living them through her daughters. People like her, if they stay out of their way, are unstoppable.

Do you think she was ever afraid?

I think in the 3AM of her soul she had tons of fears but when she did what she was doing, she was intrepid. She did not understand the meaning of the word ‘no’ and that’s not just a catch phrase. It didn’t register with her. It was about the single minded pursuit of a dream and for her to have accomplished what she did was pretty amazing.

Who will be playing the daughters?

Stephanie Wall is playing older Louise and she is phenomenal. I feel like this is one of those situations where people are going to say, oh my god, who is she? Older June is Kailey Swanson, who will end up doing a very long run of Legally Blonde at some point. She’s that girl, and a really good actress. And then the babies are Caitlin Williams as young Louise, who is utterly heartbreaking, and Kaleigh Ryan as Baby June, who came in and had the routine down at the audition. She came in with her batons, sang “Let Me Entertain You,” twirled the batons, did the split and we said, “Okay, that’s our Baby June.”

What do you hope to accomplish with this production of Gypsy?

I feel like our job as theatre people is to somehow make you different on some level when you walk out than when you walked in. I really feel like this is a show where that’s going to happen, and I think that typically you don’t think of Gypsy as a show that’s going to change you.

And after this, what other shows are on your wish list to direct?

I’m doing Falsettos in the fall and I’m super excited about that. It’s for a new 99-seat theatre called the 3rd Street Theatre and it’s a gorgeous space. Lani Shipman started the theatre and this is their inaugural production. Other shows I’d like to do…The second that they release Grey Gardens for small theatre I need to get my hands on it. I love that show. Violet is also on my list. I directed a reading of it for Musical Theatre Guild and that was one of those shows where I said, my life is different now. I’d also love to do My Favorite Year. It’s another great show that nobody ever does and it's also huge, but it would be great to do it here in L.A.

West Coast Ensemble’s production of Gypsy will run May 13 – July 3, 2011 at the Theatre of Arts Arena Stage in Hollywood, 1625 N. Las Palmas Avenue, Hollywood, CA 90028. For tickets and more information go to

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