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When Warner Bros. released its lavish screen adaptation of the hit stage musical Gypsy in 1962, everything was coming up roses for all involved - unless, of course, you were Ethel Merman, who had starred in the play on Broadway. As had already happened several times in her career, she was once again passed over for a more bankable name.
Gypsy was based on the early career of Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous stripper in burlesque history. Lee had become a superstar of the '30s and '40s thanks to columnists like Walter Winchell, who raved about her wit and intellectual aspirations. She won approval from critics when she published a mystery novel, The G-String Murders (filmed as Lady of Burlesque, with Barbara Stanwyck, in 1943) and hobnobbed with literary greats like Carson McCullers and W.H. Auden. She even managed to bring stripping to Broadway, despite an edict by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banning burlesque in New York City. In 1957, Lee published her memoirs, a book focusing on her early years in vaudeville - she was on-stage from infancy - and Mama Rose, the stage mother who pushed her to the top.
Broadway producer David Merrick had optioned the stage rights to Gypsy after reading just one chapter, and turned to Jerome Robbins, who had just scored with West Side Story (1961), to direct, choreograph and supervise the adaptation. Betty Comden and Adolph Green signed to do the script, but couldn't figure out how to adapt Lee's memoir. So they went back to Hollywood, and Robbins brought in Arthur Laurents, who had written West Side Story. They had even more trouble finding a composer. Both Cole Porter and Irving Berlin turned them down, also stating they didn't think the book could be adapted. Then they turned to Stephen Sondheim, who had written the lyrics for West Side Story and was burning to write stage music as well. He gladly accepted, only to be vetoed by the star they'd signed to play Mama Rose, Ethel Merman. Merman insisted on a more experienced composer, suggesting Jule Styne, who had been her vocal coach during her early movie days in the '30s. By that point, Styne had a string of hit shows to his name, so Merrick and Robbins welcomed him to the project, with Sondheim providing lyrics. Although he resented the demotion, he had to be happy with the number of hit tunes that came out of the collaboration - "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Together, Wherever We Go" and "All I Need Is the Girl." The show was a big hit, running almost two years on Broadway, which made a film version almost inevitable.
A hit show with a juicy role for an older actress was not about to escape the notice of producer Frederick Brisson, who was married to Rosalind Russell. He had previously cast his wife in film versions of A Majority of One (1961), which Gertrude Berg had written and starred in on Broadway, and Five Finger Exercise (1962), which he had produced on Broadway with Jessica Tandy in the lead. To edge out the competition, he optioned the screen rights to Gypsy as well (though Russell would vehemently deny this in her memoirs), then passed them on to Warner Bros. with his wife as part of the package. Although Merman and her fans were devastated, most Hollywood insiders accepted the fact that Russell's name had more marquee power.
Though she had starred in the stage musical Wonderful Town ten years earlier, Russell's voice didn't have the power required for the score. After listening to her recording of the numbers, even Russell had to agree that she would need to be dubbed, though she would deny this, too, in her memoirs. Russell's voice was used only for the patter portions of the numbers. For the real singing, Broadway belter Lisa Kirk, who had starred in the original stage production of Kiss Me, Kate, modulated her voice to a near perfect match for Russell's.
Natalie Wood was the only choice to play Gypsy, though her slender figure wasn't quite suitable for the statuesque burlesque queen. And since her character's songs weren't as demanding, she got to do most of her own singing. Only the high notes were dubbed. As had happened with West Side Story the year before, Marni Nixon was used to match Wood's vocal quality.
During production, there was no match possible between Wood's and Russell's temperaments. The two simply didn't get along. Russell feared the younger actress, who had the advantage of a long-term contract at Warner Bros., would take the focus away from her, so she treated her with frosty condescension. Wood resented her behavior, hiding behind her growing entourage and demanding her dressing room be expanded to match the size of Russell's. Wood then stayed there whenever possible to avoid Russell and just to unnerve the older actress, arrived late on the set for every one of their scenes together.
The publicity campaign for Gypsy fulfilled the older actress' worst fears. It focused almost entirely on Wood, promoting her cleaned-up strip numbers with the slogan "The Girl Who Became the Greatest Show in Show Business." Russell, however, dominated the reviews, though most of them complained about her replacing Merman in the role of Rose. But she did triumph at the Golden Globes, winning a record-setting fifth award there. She was overlooked at Oscar® time, however, even though the film scored nominations for Harry Stradling's cinematography, Orry-Kelly's costumes and Frank Planer's musical adaptation. Though the film did well at the box office, it did not re-establish Russell as a top star. It would be three years before she would return to the screen, as the high-spirited mother superior in The Trouble With Angels (1966).
Producer/Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Leonard Spigelgass
Based on the Musical by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, Adapted from Gypsy, a Memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: John Beckman, Ralph S. Hurst
Music: Frank Perkins
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Rose), Natalie Wood (Louise aka Gypsy Rose Lee), Karl Malden (Herbie Sommers), Paul Wallace (Tulsa No. 2), Betty Bruce (Tessie Tura), Parley Baer (Mr. Kringelein), Suzanne Cupito (she later changed her name to Morgan Brittany) as "Baby" June, Ann Jillian ("Dainty" June), Faith Dane (Mazeppa), Harvey Korman (Phil), Jack Benny (Himself).
by Frank Miller