Walking Among My Yesterdays: ‘Gypsy’ (2004)

When I was a senior in high school, we had a new principal who used to sign off from her daily morning address with a clinical admonition of “The choices you make today, shape your world tomorrow.” Given that she was new and ingratiating (imagine a cross between Hillary Clinton and Miss America), we were reluctant to take anything she said seriously. However, I sit here this evening and I realize just how right she was.

You see, it was five years ago today that the revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters closed on Broadway, and to this date that sole theatre experience has had a greater impact on my life than any other.

When it was announced for the second time that Gypsy would definitely close at the end of May, I decided it was time for me to get my rear in gear and see the show. I had never seen Gypsy, one of the best shows ever written, live. While browsing online at Telecharge, I noticed that tickets were available for the very last performance and I decided I would jump at the opportunity. I had never attended a closing before. On a whim I bought two tickets.

Then came the problem: no one wanted to go with me. “Some people can’t even give it away” rang true as I counted down to the big event. The day of the show I managed to get in contact with a friend from high school, who dropped everything and rushed to meet me at the train station. Sam is a writer and was just beginning studying to be a playwright at SUNY Purchase, so she was interested to look at it from that perspective, since she had only heard selections of the score and was almost wholly unfamiliar with the work.

That day, Bernadette and co. blew the roof off of the Shubert Theatre. The announcement of Marvin Laird as the musical conductor brought cheers from many regulars. That overture. That titanic overture brought the crowd to a standing ovation (something I’ve never seen before or since). In a few short minutes, the words “Sing out, Louise” rang out and the audience once again flew out of their seats to cheer Bernadette as she made her way from the back of the house to the stage. In spite of any critical misgivings certain people (Riedel) might have had, Ms. Peters delivered nothing short of a powerhouse performance as Madame Rose, with absolutely no vocal trouble and passionately intense acting. The energy was palpable, the book was ripe and Bernadette’s Rose finagled, seduced, charmed and ultimately horrified when she brought the house down on itself with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

At intermission, Sam and I became engrossed in conversation with the woman to our left, who was there with her young son, who couldn’t have been more than seven, looking dapper in his suit. Turning to each other, we discussed the show from a written perspective. Sam had never heard “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in its context before, so she floored at the underlying subtext. A younger gentleman making his way back to his seat in our aisle passed by as I was discussing the definitive nature of Ethel Merman with the role of Rose. Sam alerted me that someone behind me was disagreeing with me. I turned and had a congenial debate with the young, passionate theatregoer, who admired the theatre and in particular this production. We discussed all the actresses who have inhabited the part of Rose, having as big a conversation in about 6 or 7 minutes than many people have in an hour.

Then came the second act. Every song brought great applause; half the house even stood for the three strippers. Tammy Blanchard had to work hard on “The Strip,” though she didn’t quite pull off the transition from Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee. Then came that moment to end all moments. A dead, palpable silence filled the theatre as an embittered Rose emerged from the dressing room where she had just thrown down with her daughter. Rejected, vilified, humiliated yet defiant, she once again stood her ground by defiantly shouting to the empty stage that she could have been better than everyone else. This embittered cloud exploded into the storm that is the eleven o’clock number to end all eleven o’clock numbers: “Rose’s Turn.”

Bernadette Peter’s Turn was as devastating and cathartic as you could imagine; an emotional breakdown as you watched her seams come apart. On the final “For me!” The audience stood and cheered and cheered and then cheered some more. Bernadette bowed. And bowed. And bowed. Then she froze in character to wait for the applause to end, only to continue bowing as Tammy Blanchard entered clapping. This Gypsy still played to the more positive (and superior) ending, with both leaving arm in arm, the audience emotionally drained yet exhilarated.

I had hoped to say goodbye to the young man, but missed him as we exited the theatre. Someone else from my high school happened to be there and had grabbed my attention and focus. Such is the case with so many of the theatregoing acquaintances you meet, or as I like to call them: show friends. You share two to three hours with one another; if you’re lucky they are vibrant and intelligent conversationalists. But for the most part you never see them again.

The day also marked the first time I went backstage at the Shubert. Sam and I have a mutual friend from high school whose father was subbing in the pit that final week, and he arranged for us to get a brief impromptu tour of the wings and backstage area. We got to venture down into the pit and look up at the Shubert from the most unusual vantage point, the three tiers towering above us. It was a surreal and wonderful experience, especially as we emerged from the stage door and the crowd, expecting the stage stars, exhaled dismissively.

The next day, I posted something incredibly specific about the production on All That Chat and lo and behold, my theatregoing friend and I reconnected. We took our conversation to instant messenger, and I made a fast friend named Noah Himmelstein, who shared an exuberant passion for theatre, and in particular, musical theatre. Unbeknowst to me, he also met someone at the performance who also loves the live theatre experience and is always in the endless pursuit of entertainment. I would meet Our Sarah only briefly a year later at the Theatre World Awards. Within the next two years we developed a sturdy friendship that involved theatrical excursions and outings. It was due mostly to Noah and Sarah’s encouragement that I started writing anonymously as the Theatre Aficionado at Large back in October ’07.

Life has a funny way of leading you into unexpected territory. Though I wrote some theatrical criticism in college, I never loved it. In fact I rather hate it. When forced to turn a critical eye to everything, there is the risk of missing out on enjoying the experience and being in the moment. It was due mostly to Noah and Sarah’s encouragement that I started writing anonymously as the Theatre Aficionado at Large back in October 2007. The very first thing I wrote was “I refuse to be a critic.” This blog is my compromise, and I still don’t consider myself critic. At first I didn’t take it seriously, only occasionally posting and not thinking I would stick to it and frankly not sure anyone was reading what I was writing. However, I kept at it. As a result, I’ve made some wonderful friends; people I would never have met otherwise. I look forward to seeing them on a daily basis via their websites and twitter feeds, and also on their woefully infrequent trips to the New York City, where we gather for food, drinks, endless banter and of course, theatre. Whenever any of us get together, it is unquestionably an epic win.

Five years removed, I look back nostalgically on the friendships I treasure and look excitedly toward the next five. So to celebrate this anniversary, I raise a toast to all those good and crazy people, my theatre friends. Thanks for the laughs, the memories and the good times. My world is a better place because you are all a part of it.

And here’s to Bernadette Peters, for starting it all.