Gypsy is an indulgent mess. The scenes are multiple and long, the characters are fickle and easily swayed by a song – and no decision is made without needing a musical number. The whole thing could be an hour shorter, almost every scene could be half the length, you could easily cut ten songs and the plot wouldn’t suffer. Gypsy is also a show about vaudeville and burlesque, so I suppose how else could you tell it. It’s a fucking Christmas musical innit.
The deeper I get into Gypsy, the more its messiness comes over as obsession. Rose is the mother of child performers June and Louise – they have a single act, which they re-dress a few times.They induct some auxiliary girls and newsboys into the routine and take it cross country to any theatre that’ll have them. It is corny, it’s scrappy, and the troupe are increasingly jaded. Rose pushes them, dictates the performances, and insists that for the purposes of the act none of them is to admit to being older than twelve.
Rose is a hoarder, thrifty; she see a blanket with a nice pattern and in the next scene her and her daughters all wear coats made from the material. When she sees something of worth she takes it and keeps it. When she needs a person, she convinces them to come with her. Former agent Herbie is barely onstage before Rose makes use of him. Herbie takes a five-minute song and he is along for the ride, enlisted immediately as agent for the girls and a lover for Rose.
Rose whips others into a fervour, makes a contagion of her obsession with stardom and show business. The effect this has on her youngest, June, is less to drive her away than to ignite a drive in her that her mother cannot satisfy. Rose needs to control the performers she has created and fostered – her fostering mutates into overbearing control. June is offered a place at acting school and Rose steals her away, but June escapes regardless, along with all the male members of their troupe. We never see June again.
Now in the second half of the show, all of Rose’s obsessive energy is concentrated on Louise. Too much time is spent talking about Louise’s lack of talent in the first two thirds of the show for her to not turn out to have talent in the end. Louise is already a subject of her mother. She’s lived with and worked for her all her life, she’s never been to school, she has no men to marry and escape with like her sister, there’s never any doubt she will continue to do as her mother dictates. At one point, Louise wonders how old she is. She has lived inside the mythic world of her mother’s troupe she has no connection to a material reality outside it. We never know if she finds out. We never know even how much time has passed. Louise’s whole self has been burnt out by the stars in her mother’s eyes.
Louise’s life to this point, and the life of the troupe, has been sustained by the trick, the lie, of youth and newness. Chief of these lies is the protracted engagement of Rose and Herbie. Rose exploits Herbie’s desire for a wife, a settled life, a traditional family unit. Rose herself has no respect for tradition or propriety beyond its usefulness in her pursuit of stardom. As long as Herbie believes they will marry someday he is happy to support Rose’s troupe financially and with his work as its agent. Rose has meanwhile nurtured in her daughter the purest ingénue. She is a clean hunk of clay. When they land in a burlesque house for a performance, it is only natural that Rose’s lust for power and Louise’s inability to do anything other than what she is told conspire to transform Louise into a strip tease performer.
Maybe the real talent Louise has is for ventriloquism. Finally, with an act, and a discovered talent, she lives the star-power her mother always attempted to imbue her with, which Rose always believed she had in herself. The illusion of youth curated by Rose is a perfect ingredient in the seedy world of the burlesque house and Louise rapidly becomes the highest billed stripper in the business. And now Louise’s performance, for the first time in her life, does not come from her mother. With agency over her stage act, the destructive power of stardom is unveiled. Louise does not need Rose.
Liberation, agency, can only come with destruction of Rose’s role as mother. Louise shuts her out. Her control is now misguided, her aesthetics inappropriate for the high fashion world Louise lives in, she must be hacked off.
The final turn in the plot, of course, come with a song. Rose affirms her tragic hero role by affirming it as a consequence of her childhood trauma, and a lifetime of being left by others. Louise sees in her mother the motivation for the years of overbearing commandeering of her life. By the end, Rose has succeeded in making her daughter enough like her that, though she no longer must do as she is told, she can only muster sympathy.
Successful parenting is maybe instilling in your children enough of your own neuroses that when they grow up they remain on your side. The success of Rose’s parenting is not merely the dumb work of passing on genes – that can be done by any absent, unnamed father. Rose has transferred her fever for stardom to her daughter. Like a virus, the business, its lust for stardom, is carried into the future.
Gypsy runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 1 February 2020. More info here.