The librettist of GYPSY, Arthur Laurents, was – to say the least – a man of many opinions. Known around town for his skillfully acerbic tongue, Laurents himself directed two major revivals of GYPSY— first in 1974 starring Angela Lansbury, then in 1989 starring Tyne Daly (he’s on record saying that production was his favorite). So, in 2003 when yet another revival loomed on the horizon, Laurents decided it was finally someone else’s turn to steer the ship. Enter Sam Mendes, the upstart director du jour. He was untouchable after his bold and inventive staging of the Donmar Warehouse revival of Cabaret, which transferred to Studio 54 on Broadway and ran for 2,377 performances (plus 388 more if you want to add the 2015 revival of the revival…).
Well, as it so happens: if Mendes' talent was a candle, then Laurents' opinion was a squall. Any early enthusiasm Laurents showed for Mendes work was swept out to sea when he saw the production the director had delivered. “I wanted to see what 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.” During rehearsals and the show’s subsequent previews, Laurent’s scribbled so many notes for Mendes that an editor thought to publish them as a book. Laurents titled it “Mainly On Directing.”
In it he wrote: “No musical, no matter how good, can survive a misdirected, misconceived production, and this one was no exception. In Rose’s words: ‘You either got it or you ain’t.’ Unfortunately for Sam Mendes, his first directorial touch on GYPSY showed he didn’t got it. The overture worked its magic; the exhilarated audience was flying high; and then the curtain rose— on gloomy silence and the empty, cavernous stage of a dingy old theatre. Across the back wall, the designer added redundancy with one word in large, faded letters: SILENCE. A stooped, scraggy stagehand dragged himself with placards to be inserted in the downstage light boxes. Before he had trudged halfway there, the audience had been lost. It had come down from its high and was ready for The Iceman Cometh.”
Thankfully, the producers had one glistening jewel in their crown: leading lady, Bernadette Peters. Audiences were buying based on curiosity alone; every wag in the tri-state area wanted to bloviate about the mousy kewpie doll's take on the toughest broad in the American Musical Theatre canon — and on a stage as big as the Shubert, no less. Well, Ben Brantley, wrote her a love letter. “You can tear down the black crepe, boys. Take the hearse back to the garage, and start popping champagne corks. Momma's pulled it off, after all -- big time… Ms. Peters makes another visit to GYPSY essential.” That review gave the show a healthy life at the box office, despite its mixed-negative word of mouth.
Laurents, on the other hand, made claim in his book that Mendes had hung Bernadette Peters out to dry. “For a director born for musicals, ‘Rose’s Turn’ is New Years Eve in Times Square. Under [Mendes’] direction, ‘Rose’s Turn’ seemed to be ‘Bernadette Peters in Concert.’ Except for a rather dainty pass at a stripper’s walk, she scarcely moved at all. A number like ‘Rose’s Turn’ is so strongly written, and Bernadette Peters so strong a performer, that the audience applauded and cheered even though it wasn’t getting full value. Those who had seen the show before were well aware of this; those, like [Mendes], who had never seen the show weren’t aware of what they were missing.
As it so happens, another naysayer of this production was none other than Patti LuPone. After all, it was supposed to be hers… She has disclosed in interviews that Mendes first wined and dined her, which ultimately led to her being offered the role. It wasn’t until she’d read about Bernadette in the papers that she realized they’d pulled the rug out from under her. “I wrote [Mendes] back and said, ‘This isn’t a question of good or bad, it’s a question of right or wrong. Please reconsider.’ Never heard from him. And then they did that production. Fuck you. And I’ve never heard from him since.
Well, hindsight’s 20/20. Patti finally got a crack at the role in (yet another) revival just four years later. While Bernadette’s production ran longer than Patti’s, Patti’s won her a Tony for the role. So, here’s the final tally to date: of the five Rose’s on Broadway, only three were awarded the coveted Best Actress in a Musical statue-- Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Patti LuPone. Bernadette Peters went home empty-handed, but she was in good company. If you can believe it, Ethel Merman lost, too. And to Mary Martin in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, no less.