Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Christmas Shtick

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Christmas Shtick

Article excerpt

Gypsy's long-gone stripper tree is fondly remembered

Gypsy Rose Lee has climbed the laddered stocking of the stripper world, tassel by tassel, and mounted a new summit in the field. The burlesque barker barks, "And now, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, in a special salute to Christmas ..." The curtain opens on a tableau a hung-over Ziegfeld might have dreamed up after an eggnog binge: the Gypsy stripper Christmas tree, 15 showgirls decked out in tinsel G-strings, faux burning-candle and bell hats, ornaments for boobs and a swag boa gracefully arcing from one crotch to the next, lush, hilarious - and unforgettable if you saw it. But you only saw it live if you saw the original 1959 production of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy featuring Ethel Merman. Fortunately a photographer with a Technicolor touch snapped it. (See The Gypsy Stripper Christmas Tree, inside front cover.)

Willa Kim, personal assistant to Gypsy's Tony-nominated costume designer Raoul Pène du Bois - and eventually a major designer in her own right, twice winning her own Tonys - recalls, "The tree was Jerry Robbins' idea, and he had to fight for it. Arthur Laurents did not want a Christmas number in the show. They had terrible conflicts on this and other things. But of course Robbins did end up getting that box around his name on the theatre poster." Book writer Laurents has cut the tree in all subsequent productions, several of which he has directed.

Marie Wallace, still vivacious and working 50 years later, remembers it vividly. "The Broadway minimum salary for chorus was $103.25 a week, but we got $125 - we all had agents. That was a big deal at the time, very prestigious. For that scene, I stood on a large horseshoe truck offstage. The big tree of strippers was revealed, and then I came scooting in on one side and someone else came out on the other. I held on for dear life. They told me to smile and look unconcerned, but with that huge bell on my head it was hard." Another showgirl from the original production, Barbara London, says, "I walked out to the middle, with the swags swaying from my front. When we exited, I turned around and 'Merry Christmas' was written across my backside, surrounded by holly leaves."

The tableau, designed by Jo Mielziner, was such a powerful image that it stood alone as the climax of the montage with no sung lyrics. It took the full 'Adam and Eve/Ecdysiast' sequence to replace it in subsequent productions. ("Three Wishes for Christmas," a song composed for the scene, was discarded before rehearsals began. A pastiche of a typical Ziegfeld anthem which would feel completely at home in Follies, it was virtually unknown until recorded as a bonus track for the just-released cast recording of the Arthur Laurents' revival of Gypsy. See a review of this recording on p. 46.) According to Faith Dane, who originated the role of Mazeppa, Ethel Merman would watch it from the wings most nights, a rare thing for a star to do. Wallace recalls, "They hired seven showgirls just for the tree. The only other place they used us was as extra bodies in the hotel scene with the animals. The other girls on the tree were the chorus - the Toreadorables, you know - and Faith. We sang as an angelic chorus as we came on. That's still in the score. Gypsy [Sandra Church] wasn't really in it. We did our thing, and she came back on with 'And if you're real good ... .' I didn't know whose idea it was. The way musicals were rehearsed then was they kept you separate: the dancers, the singers, the showgirls, you had separate calls. They didn't want us around when they rehearsed the singers and, of course, we were young. We didn't want to be sitting there listening to what would become the greatest musical in the history of the theatre. I wanted to get out, study Shakespeare and modeling, when they didn't need me at rehearsal."

London adds, "I asked if I could watch the musical rehearsals, and I just sat there quietly, but I made Ethel nervous. …

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