Over three years ago, just six days shy of my 26th birthday, Playbill.com announced that Patti LuPone would be starring in a weekend-long concert production of Gypsy, backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, concluding the Ravina Festival’s 2006 summer season.
This was mind-blowing news. LuPone was never supposed to play Rose. It wasn’t in her fate. It was always a big “what if?” for those who knew the legendary back-story – the riff with Gypsy librettist Arthur Laurents which impeded her chances of ever playing the role. For big-time LuPone fans, we always knew she had the ability, but not the opportunity.
Fortunately, Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman and Gypsy Director Lonny Price found a loophole. She could play the role in a concert setting for a limited run, and I vowed that I would see every performance. August 2006 couldn’t come fast enough.
But it did. And what a weekend it was.
Most memorably, the weekend, which The New York Times noted as “the theatrical event of the year,” brought many theatre fans from far and wide to the pastoral environs of Highland Park. I re-connected with old friends and made new ones, and even met several whom I’d only known through online theatrical communities. In retrospect, I enjoyed the pre-show gab and wine fest just as much as seeing the actual show.
We saw all three performances. The first performance will always stay in my mind. Until this time, we could only imagine what LuPone would bring to this classic role. What would her voice sound like singing that Sondheim/Jule Style score? Would she be a comedic, sexy or frightening Rose? Would I self-implode following the performance?
But when she came sashaying (yes, sashaying) down the aisle of Ravinia’s Pavillion and stepped onstage to instruct her daughters on the virtues of smiling and singing out, it all made sense. Though a notably understated performance that first night, we remained confident.
Then it happened: LuPone received a three minute long standing ovation following her first ever public performance of “Rose’s Turn.” The look in her eyes (and the smirk on her face) during this ovation stays with me. It was a defining moment.
Let’s also note that LuPone was concurrently starring as Mrs. Lovett in the revival/revisal of Sweeney Todd, using her vacation time to tackle Rose, which I think automatically propels her into diva superhero status.
I was also happy to see that Lonny Price had wisely managed to stage a full production, with wigs, costumes, lighting, choreography and minimal sets. I’m sure Price understood that if you’re going to shepherd LuPone in this iconic role, it better not be half-baked.
The next night we sat front row. She turned it up a few notches this time, perhaps due to the confidence of knowing she hadn’t failed the night before. I can only imagine the pressure on her to “bring it” after decades of growing expectations.
The third and final night, she brought it home. People were buzzing after the show. It was electrifying.
And that was it. We thought.
In March 2007, it was announced that City Center was staging Gypsy, starring LuPone, for an entire month of performances, under the direction of…Arthur Laurents! Seems LuPone and Laurents had mended fences and joined forces. We had all heard the rumors, but I was still amazed when I read the press release. So, we planned our trip to NYC.
Her performance was tighter, more confident. The staging was stronger. Her hair…was bizarre. (She was wigless, so her Rose in this production had a chic, suburban bob). But, of course, we all looked past that. NYC finally got to see her Rose. And, again, she got that standing ovation after “Rose’s Turn”.
The limited month-long run ended, and we thought THAT was it.
Six months later, it was announced that Patti’s Rose was coming to Broadway’s St. James Theater.
Critics bowed down to her (and ate their hats.) She won all the major awards. She got standing ovations. Long-time theatergoers vowed that her performance was among the best they’ve ever seen – if not THE best. Her performance on the 2008 Tony Awards is ranked up there with the best.
Today producers have announced the production is closing January 11 – seven weeks earlier than expected. Sadly, not even the combined force of LuPone and Gypsy can overcome this recession, it seems.
And while I’m disappointed I missed this production, my credit card is a little happier. LuPoneGypsy ain’t cheap.
But I’m mostly sad that an end to an era is over. This was an amazing production, directed by theatrical royalty, starring one of the last true Broadway stars. There aren’t any other female Broadway stars out there who can play this role (who already haven’t). In fact, I don’t know of any real female up-and-coming Broadway stars that could play this role in 10, 20 years. (Sutton Foster? Sure she’s cute, charming and talented, but not anywhere in the same league as Bernadette, Betty, Patti, Chita, Lansbury, etc.)
Let’s hope I’m wrong. And let’s also hope that some brilliant producer films this performance before it closes for future generations to see.
So, curtain up! Light the lights! Let’s cheer this production on for the next three weeks.