“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and “Let Me Entertain You” are but a few tunes to help make “Gypsy” one of the most successful musicals by America’s own Mozart, Stephen Sondheim. Based on the 1957 memoirs of real-life burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, by Arthur Laurents, the adaptation took to the stage in 1959. It was a project of producer David Merrick and actress Ethel Merman, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim himself. Yet “Gypsy” really tells the story of Mama Rose—the mother behind the curtain. Rose is driven by her own ambition and pushes both of her daughters toward stardom.
“I think we all have a little of that Mamma Bear in us when it comes to our children,” says Mike Thompson, who is directing Thalian Association’s “Gypsy” production, which opens this week. “We all want to see them succeed, we may not go to the level that [Mamma Rose] does but we all want them to be successful in life.”
With original, custom costumes by Jen Iapalucci and set by Terry Collins, Amanda Hunter will lead a full 12-piece orchestra, while choreographer Laura Brogden Primavera takes on the moves of the show. “This is mine, Amanda and Laura’s third show together as a creative team,” Thompson says. “The last being the Star News-nominated Best Musical ‘The Addams Family.’”
encore spoke with Thompson to learn more about what audiences will see in “Gypsy.”
encore (e): Many critics consider “Gypsy” the greatest musical in America. Where do you stand on the matter?
Mike Thompson (MT): I absolutely believe it’s the greatest musical in America. The overture alone is in the top five overtures in musical history. I think it tells a very relatable story for all of us, whether it’s from Mamma’s perspective or June’s or Louise’s. The songs are memorable and catchy, the characters are larger-than-life, and you just leave the theater feeling fully entertained.
e: What do you find most fascinating about our lead character, Rose, and her many complexities?
MT: I am fascinated by Rose, and how vulnerable she really was—how she turned that around and projected it into fierceness in life. She faced many issues and rejections in her life, but she refused to let it get in her way. She had a goal, and she was going to see it through, no matter what it took. No matter who it hurt.
e: How do you think modern-day audiences connect with her?
MT: I think everyone secretly wants that “Rose’s Turn” moment in life—for just once you let it all out—crazy and all. Just leave it right there on the stage and not care what anybody thinks for just that moment. It would be so therapeutic if we could all have one of those moments.
e: Why did you cast Kat Vernon in the role—what appealed to you most about her audition?
MT: I have always been a fan of Kat’s work in town; though, I have never had the opportunity to actually work with her on stage or from a directing standpoint. Her professionalism and reputation preceded her, and of course, was appealing from the beginning. But when she and Beth Swindell read for Mamma and Louise, they moved me to tears. I was literally shaking at the scene that I just watched unfold before me. (In a cold read!) I couldn’t go against that chemistry;l it’s a director’s dream.
e: Who else is filling out the cast?
MT: Beth Swindell is playing Louise. Logan Tart is June, and Troy Rudeseal is Herbie, I am ecstatic to see him back onstage and also get a chance to work with him—another local great that I haven’t had the opportunity to work with. The entire cast is truly a director’s dream. I haven’t seen the likes of a male ensemble this strong in a long time; our farm boys are going to kill it.
e: Are you taking outside-the-box creative liberties with the production?
MT: There are a few creative liberties we will be taking. It will be fresh and fun, but mostly you don’t fool around with a proven recipe for success. The show is so iconic I’m not sure there is much room for it anyway. People want to see “Gypsy” and that’s what we are going to give them, but with our force of talent in the cast.
e: Many hits came out of this show. What makes the music so popular in your opinion?
MT: It’s catchy. You leave the theater humming the tunes even if it’s the first time seeing the show.
e: How do you envision your sets to look? I imagine with vaudevillian inspiration, it will be quite fun. How will you craft this world to sweep up the audience?
MT: This is one of Terry Collins’ favorite shows, so I am very excited and trust him completely with the design. We have discussed the set in length—and, yes, there will be aspects of vaudeville all around. Also, the majority of the show takes place in various theaters around the country, and I’m really looking forward to showing the audience what backstage really looks like and what really goes on there. We are going to try to capture that as realistically as possible and transfer it to the stage.
e: Sondheim is the king of musicals; how does “Gypsy” stand above some of his other works in your opinion?
MT: I think it’s because there are true melodies with these songs, they have a consistent chorus and layout. The majority of his later work consists of plot-driven lyrics that are difficult to sing out of context of the show. These songs are very singable out of context.
Here is a bit of trivia for you: While Sondheim was originally supposed to compose the music and lyrics for the show, Ethel Merman was not comfortable with an unknown composer (at the time) doing the whole show. So they brought in Jule Styne to do the music, and Sondheim to write the lyrics. Little did she know, I guess. [laughs]