I have this bad habit of buying theater books and then letting them pile up. I have a bookcase full of unread biographies of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim, as well as various surveys of the musical-theater landscape. There are certainly many books on my shelves that I have read, often as research for my course at Boston Conservatory. But, it's funny, ever since I started teaching at BoCo, reading about theater has taken on a somewhat obligatory feel, becoming more like homework than pleasure reading.
So, on my recent trip to New York, when I made my regular stop at the Drama Book Shop on 40th Street, I hesitated before buying Gypsy: A Memoir, the book upon which the Broadway musical Gypsy is based, lest I add yet another tome to my pile of shame. But, even before I had left the store, I found myself drawn into the book, and I wound up tearing through more than half of it on the bus ride home.
Not surprisingly, the book is considerably different from the musical. Of necessity, the events of the show are considerably compressed, but there are also substantive discrepancies between memoir and musical. For example, the Herbie character, so prominent in the show, appears to be a composite of a number of different men from the book, and disappears well before the pivotal confrontation scene between Rose and Herbie in the show. Likewise, the Tulsa character is an amalgam of several boys from the act.
I could go on, but suffice to say that librettist Arthur Laurents employed a generous dose of dramatic license in crafting the musical from the book's raw material. And, on the whole, he's improved it tremendously, providing focus to the drama, and creating a more compelling series of events. In a way, it reminds me of the play version of Auntie Mame. The original Patrick Dennis book is episodic at best, and lacks a coherent through line. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee did a bang-up job of making the story more cohesive and more humorous. (Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the screenplay for the 1958 movie version, didn't really change much of the play, although they did add some priceless one-liners.)
Every year, when my BoCo students write their papers on the most overrated musical, someone inevitably writes about how a particular show isn't "true to its source." I usually respond by writing on the student's paper, "Name one that is." Many of the best musicals of all time play fast and loose with their source material, including My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, and The King and I. All were vastly different from the works upon which they were based, some to the point of completely changing the ending, even the intent, of the original piece.
What's more, who's to say that Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs bear the stamp of truth to begin with? Author Steven Suskin, in his liner notes to the new Patti LuPone recording of Gypsy, intimates that Lee may have employed a bit of dramatic license herself. "Gypsy is a self-described 'musical fable'," Suskin writes, "in the sense that the musical...is just about as authentic, factually speaking, as Ms. Lee's fanciful memoirs..."
I'm not sure where Suskin himself is getting his facts (perhaps he did some actual [gasp] research), but aren't all memoirs to a certain extent fanciful? I mean, Lee wrote the book decades after the events she describes. Even if she kept a diary, there inevitably would have been some holes to fill in. Whenever I read a memoir, like an Augusten Burroughs book or Harpo Speaks (the single best autobiography I've ever read), I always wonder how people can recall actual dialog from years before. Apparently, Lee's sister, the Broadway actress June Havoc, had similar suspicions, and took great exception to how she was portrayed in Gypsy's book, eventually publishing a retaliatory memoir of her own, Early Havoc.
So, facts aside, both the musical and the book provide fascinating portraits of some really compelling characters. The book affords more insight into the Gypsy character, laying bare her frustration and the keen lack of respect she felt as a burlesque star who dreamed of going legit. The creators of the musical decided to focus on the mother, partly because of their star, Ethel Merman, but also because Mama Rose is simply a fascinating train-wreck of a human being.
The book also offers intriguing glimpses of some of the famous folk that Gypsy Rose Lee met along the way, including the wonderful Fanny Brice, whose life became the subject of the next musical that composer Jule Styne would work on after Gypsy. (i.e. Funny Girl) I just ordered a couple of books about Brice from Amazon, and am eagerly looking forward to reading them. Perhaps I've finally broken my pattern.