- Author: Arthur Laurents
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ALSO BY ARTHUR LAURENTS
Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood
To David Saint and
his George Street Playhouse
In the Bones
“THE SHOW DEPENDS ON YOU,” Scott Rudin said. “You have the musical in your bones; Sam doesn't. You have to put it there for him.”
The remark wasn't meant to be either flattering or challenging; it was simply Scott stating my task for his upcoming revival of Gypsy in 2003. With Bernadette Peters as a very different Rose, the production, though headed for New York, was to originate in London. Thus it had an English co-producer, Robert Fox, and an English director, very hot at that moment—Sam Mendes. What I didn't realize then was that the remark wasn't simply a Scott Rudinism; it was an acute perception of what could be an Achilles’ heel. By the time I did realize that, Scott was gone, the production had been shifted to originate in New York, and no one in charge really knew much about Broadway musicals, including the director to whom all bowed. No musical, no matter how good, can survive a misdirected, misconceived production, and this one was no exception.
There had been two major revivals of Gypsy in New York: one with Angela Lansbury in 1974, the other with Tyne Daly in 1989. Gypsy takes its tone and style from the actress playing Rose: Merman, a legend in the original, Angie and Tyne, each brilliant in her own way, in the two I had directed. I wanted someone else to direct this one because I wanted to see what that someone else would do; I hoped to be surprised. “Surprised” was not the word for my reaction to what Sam Mendes did. “Surprised” is a happy word.
He was Scott's suggestion, enthusiastically endorsed by his friend Robert Fox. Robert was as good-looking as his better-known actor brothers, James and Edward, but actors are seen more, so known more, than producers. He had taste, an executioner's tongue, a bucket of charm, and three ex-wives. He was not given to unconsidered enthusiasm or much ambition. Sam, who wasn't short on charm himself when necessary, had called me some years earlier about doing Gypsy at the Donmar Warehouse, the pocket-size theatre in London where he made his name. I thought the Donmar was too small. A year or so passed and Sam called again to offer a bigger venue: a West End legitimate theatre. Still too small for me. When London was dropped for the Bernadette Peters revival, one of the reasons given was Sam's feeling that the show was “a big Broadway musical.”
I was eager to do Gypsy in London because it hadn't been seen in the West End since 1973, when the Angela Lansbury production premiered. Very heady, the reception was, from the opening night to the end of Angie's run. I wanted to repeat that dreamlike triumph thirty years later with Bernadette; but London, alas, was finessed. The reason given was that it would be too expensive to bring the production to New York. That was also given as the reason for not taking the production to Washington before opening in New York. Money is well regarded as a believable reason for not doing anything, but I checked to find out how much had been lost taking Annie Get Your Gun with Bernadette to Washington before it opened in New York. It had made $750,000. Who didn't want to take Gypsy to Washington? Not Scott; he, too, had been finessed. Not by the Brits, though—by Stephen Sondheim, because of another musical.
Called Wise Guys, this one opened at the New York Theatre Workshop not too long before Gypsy was scheduled to go into production in London. Involved in both shows were the same three major names: Steve, Scott, and Sam. There was probably an omen in that all three names begin with S, but no one was into anything as realistic as omens. Wise Guys (later retitled Bounce and, more recently, Road Show) was written by Steve (with John Weidman), produced by Scott, and directed by Sam. Each of the Three S's must have been aware that the show wasn't ready for a public outing: its second act was unfinished and its director had come straight from editing his first film (American Beauty) without time to digest the material. Why they went ahead, then, is a mystery only to those who have never done a musical. The brightest, the most experienced, the most talented makers of musicals, particularly the most talented, also believe they can walk on water.
The show's failure produced more schadenfreude than any in years; the apportioning of blame afterwards was inevitable. There is a touch of irony in that it was Scott, he who had promoted Sam for Gypsy and opposed him for Wise Guys, who got the heave-ho. He and Steve had a feud which grew so fierce and public that Steve refused to have Scott on Gypsy. Steve was the best lyricist and collaborator I had ever worked with. That refusal was his prerogative. Steve also demanded that as his friend, I stop speaking to Scott. That was not his prerogative. I refused; he said he and I couldn't be friends; he stopped speaking to me—which was greeted in the theatre community with “Oh, not again.” But this is about Gypsy, not about Steve and me.
With London out and New York in, one would have thought Scott, an experienced New York producer, more essential than ever, and he was. With musicals, however, neither logic nor common sense prevails. By the time production was underway in New York, Robert Fox was odd man in. Noted for productions of classy plays in London (principally with Maggie Smith) and almost a neophyte when it came to musicals, Robert had replaced Scott with an American producer who was a neophyte: not only had he never produced a musical, he knew nothing about musicals. He was, however,