The solidity and power of "Gypsy" are clear in the revival directed by Arthur Laurents, which, after a cross-country journey, has arrived at the St. James, where it will certainly make its home for a long time to come.
The story of Gypsy Rose Lee's youth was a logical vehicle for the original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, to pay affectionate tribute to vaudeville and burlesque. They were the antecedents of the more serious musical theater Robbins had helped to shape.
It was the last musical Robbins did before "Fiddler on the Roof." "Fiddler" was about the immigrants who were the parents of many of the people who created the Broadway musical theater and composed its audience.
So, in a way, is "Gypsy." Mama Rose, the indomitable promoter of her two children, is also a representative of that second generation who, with monomaniacal ambition and drive, paved the way for the third generation to live respectably (and come to loathe their forebears' pushiness and vulgarity).
If Robbins was the organizational, galvanizing force, he had a brilliant team working with him. Laurents' book is as impressive as it was 30 years ago, a model of economy and wit that takes what could be a collection of showbiz anecdotes and gives them dramatic tension.
Stephen Sondheim's lyrics may have become more complex and inventive over the years, but the pungency and sharpness here are already the marks of a master.
Jule Styne's score is one of the marvels of the Broadway theater. Unfailingly melodic, every phrase seems charged with drama. A song like "Everything's Coming Up Roses," now a standard, brings the first act curtain down with a surge of emotion quite rare nowadays. Even the simplest numbers have great musical and dramatic canniness.
"Gypsy" is a useful reminder of how sturdy good "book musicals" are. Few of the old musicals have books as tight as Laurents', but they all depended on character development. Often revivals have floundered not because the books were bad but because the actors weren't up do their demands. "Concept shows," which have been in fashion for some time and which are less compelling every season, are even harder to revive, because they hinge on abstractions.
"Gypsy" has been due for a revival for some time. Several years ago, I proposed to a producer that he mount a permanent production. He could start with Dorothy Loudon, than Bette, than Barbra. I would even put up with Liza while we waited for Bernadette to reach the right age.
I did not put Tyne Daly on the list, and, having seen her, I'm still not sure she belongs there. She has the energy; she has a resilient, though not very sizable voice, but she's not the Force of Nature you need for the monstrous, heroic Rose. Much of the time she seems more like a cheerleader for her daughters than their relentless promoter. She builds up steam at the end of each act when she finally lets her determination and anger show through. In several of her big numbers, she's been given a lot of hand movements, which distract from and diminish the power of the songs.
Still, fans who come to see her will have a much better introduction to theater than those who go to see Sting in his show. Her mild-mannered approach may make Rose palatable to a generation for whom the desperation of other, darker times is a mystery.
Jonathan Hadary makes the hapless Herbie wonderfully endearing. Crista Moore is an appealing Gypsy even though she does not make a convincing stripper. Christen Tassin is an adorable Baby June. I hope I live long enough to see her play Rose. Barbara Erwin, Jana Robbins and Anna McNeely have just enough excess flesh to make the old strippers believably hilarious. They also have the pizazz to make "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" the show-stopper it must be. Robert Lambert sails through "All I Need Now Is the Girl" beautifully. The show is well cast and, under Laurents' direction, its virtues come through splendidly.
Kenneth Foy has designed an evocative false proscenium and otherwise effective sets. Theoni Aldredge's costumes capture the frowziness and glitz of Mama Rose's world perfectly. Eric Stern's musical direction is solid. You come away from this revival with renewed admiration for the show itself, and that's as it should be.
There are some shows that literally seem to breathe Broadway - their music has that special belt and bounce, there is an authority in their entire manner. The Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical "Gypsy," is very definitely of that company.
It has the classic timelessness of a vintage Broadway musical. Yet everything isn't quite coming up roses with its current revival, which brought it back to Broadway at the St. James Theater last night.
Broadway musicals are far more tricky things to revive than plays or operas. The trouble is that people usually try to revive them far to slavishly - trying, at least to some degree, to recapture the spirit and often, more perilously, even the look and sound of the original.
Arthur Laurents, author of the original book, which was suggested by the memoirs of that stripper-extraordinaire, Gypsy Rose Lee, is the director of the present production, following in the lively footsteps of Jerome Robbins, who staged the original just about 30 years ago.
Laurents, of course, was also responsible for the musical's earlier successful Broadway revival in 1974, and he certainly knows his way around the show. For this production - new, if slightly dowdy - scenery has been ordered up from Kenneth Foy, and there are new costume designs by Theoni V. Aldredge.
Indeed, so far as the physical production goes, only the choreography by Robbins - here reproduced by the dance captain, Bonnie Walker - remains. Yet somehow the show looks second-hand and dry-cleaned - something the 1974 production did not.
And I suspect that the reason for this may lie in the awesome adequacy, but nothing much more awe-inspiring, of its new leading lady, Tyne Daly, making a gallant Broadway debut in the legendary role of Rose.
This is no ordinary part - it won a Tony nomination for its originator Ethel Merman, and, 15 years later, an actual Tony Award for her successor, Angela Lansbury.
It is not merely the leading role. Rose, the quintessential stage mother, is the motive force, the motor, the dynamo, the very engine of the entire show.
Styne's gorgeously brassy music and Sondheim's subtly joyous lyrics obviously play a massive part in the musical's success - it is one of those rare shows where you can listen to the cast album for hours. There is not really one clinker among the whole batch of musical numbers.
But Laurents' masterly book is equally important. It has a wonderful dramatic drive and development, helped by its background of the eroding world of American vaudeville during the '20s and '30s, and dominated by the grotesque figure of Rose, a frustrated woman determined to have a vicarious showbiz triumph through her daughters.
Merman was a monster - with a whim of iron and lungs of steel - while Lansbury, more human, more vulnerable, offered a Rose of the most surprising charm. Both were, in their way, monumental.
Daly goes through the motions with a trouper-like diligence, and loving histrionic care. She mugs to the audience a shade too much (a common fault in TV-conditioned performers) but sings most effectively - although like everything else, she is slightly over-amplified.
But she is not a drop-dead original. She is not a Rose. She is someone playing Rose - and interestingly the only time when she really comes into her own is right at the end, in that fantasy number "Rose's Turn," where Rose, finally, if ironically, defeated by her daughter's success, belts out her own show-business anthem.
With Merman and Lansbury this became so compelling that you wondered why on earth some talent scout hadn't discovered the woman and already featured her in her own show!
Daly is not that good - merely loud and strident and aggressive, and as an odd result this ineptitude gives the finale a poignancy it never had before, because you realize that she is not really that sensational. But the price for that poignancy is too much.
The company surrounding Daly seems to have been hand-picked to cause her as little competition as possible. They are not bad, merely very, very quiet.
As Louise (the ugly duckling who becomes the world's stripper), Crista Moore starts nondescript and remains nondescript. She has a nice moment or two when she is first discovering her sexual allure on the runway, but most of the time she wilts.
Jonathan Hadary as the henpecked agent Herby (a role played by the likes of Jack Klugman for Merman and, in London, Barrie Ingham) is meant to be harassed and ineffectual, but not this ineffectual, not virtually unnoticeable.
Robert Lambert does conventionally well as the juvenile, and Christen Tassin is humorously horrendous as Baby Jne. But the most striking performances - the only ones to give Daly a run for her stridency - come from the three hard-bitten, soft-centered strippers in the "Gotta Have a Gimmick" trio, Barbara Erwin, Jana Robbins and Anna McNeely.
So - this "Gypsy" is not bad. It might keep a few camp fires burning, but it is not as fantastic as it needed to be.
It is a show that called for rethinking rather than reviving. In another 30 years someone will come along who has never even seen "Gypsy" - or imagines it's a poor movie with Rosalind Russell. And he or she will start from scratch, and the finish will be fresh.
Unfortunately, fresh is what this "Gypsy" isn't.
If someone asked me to name the best Broadway musical, I'd gladly equivocate on any side of a debate embracing ''Guys and Dolls,'' ''My Fair Lady,'' ''Carousel,'' ''Porgy and Bess'' and - well, you know the rest. But I've always had only one choice in the category of favorite musical. It is ''Gypsy,'' and as I sat at its scorching new revival starring Tyne Daly, once again swept up in its goosebump-raising torrents of laughter and tears, I realized why, if anything, this 30-year-old show actually keeps improving with age.
''Gypsy'' may be the only great Broadway musical that follows its audience through life's rough familial passages. A wrenching fable about a tyrannical stage mother and the daughters she both champions and cripples - yet also a showcase for one classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim song and rousing Jerome Robbins vaudeville routine after another - ''Gypsy'' is nothing if not Broadway's own brassy, unlikely answer to ''King Lear.'' It speaks to you one way when you are a child, then chases after you to say something else when you've grown up.
Like ''Lear,'' it cannot be done without a powerhouse performance in its marathon parental role. Ms. Daly, a television actress who might seem inappropriate to the task, follows Angela Lansbury in proving that not even Ethel Merman can own a character forever. Ms. Daly is not Merman, and she is not Ms. Lansbury. Her vocal expressiveness and attack have their limits (most noticeably in ''Mr. Goldstone''), and warmth is pointedly not her forte. But this fiercely committed actress tears into - at times claws into - Mama Rose, that ''pioneer woman without a frontier,'' with a vengeance that exposes the darkness at the heart of ''Gypsy'' as it hasn't been since Merman.
''Why did I do it? What did it get me?'' Ms. Daly shouts as she accelerates into her final number, an aria of nervous breakdown titled ''Rose's Turn.'' Rose is standing on an empty stage, at last deserted by everyone: June, the prized daughter she tried and failed to make into a star; Louise, the unfavored daughter who became Gypsy Rose Lee, queen of burlesque, in spite of years of maternal neglect; Herbie, the gentle agent who wanted only to become Rose's fourth husband.
Why did Rose pursue her dream? Why did she push everyone so hard that she drove them all away? Ms. Daly doesn't soften the news that Rose did it for herself. ''Just wanted to be noticed,'' she says a little later. And as Ms. Daly stands there, crying her lungs out, demanding that a phantom audience give her a turn of her own in the spotlight -''Everything's coming up roses this time for me!'' - one is confronted by a plea for recognition and love so raw and naked that Rose becomes a child again herself, begging as Louise and June once had for ''Momma.''
Ms. Daly's impressive turn reflects a staging that, as directed by Arthur Laurents, the author of the musical's book, is intent on exposing the primal family drama that always resides just beneath the bygone vaudeville veneer. Not that Mr. Laurents stints on that colorful surface. With the assistance of Bonnie Walker, who reproduced Mr. Robbins's choreography, and the designers Kenneth Foy (scenery) and Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes), he turns the apt St. James Theater into a credible stop on the battered two-a-day road that reaches its dead end in burlesque during the era of talkies and the Depression. From the first rendition of ''Let Me Entertain You,'' led by Christen Tassin's truly hilarious young Baby June, to that recurrent number's last reprise, in which Crista Moore, as the adult Louise, strips her way to the top at Minsky's, Mr. Laurents is in complete command of his show's running parodistic commentary on a vanished pop-culture past.
The thrills really begin with the overture, which, as orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler, is an invitation to show-biz exhilaration second to none and is played accordingly by Eric Stern's roaring pit band. Mr. Laurents and the three actresses he cast as burned-out strippers (Barbara Erwin, Jana Robbins, Anna McNeely) also pull off the tougher job of making ''You Gotta Have a Gimmick'' funny and fresh all over again, despite its months of repetition in the neighboring ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway.'' But even in the glitzier numbers, Mr. Laurents burrows into the emotional undertow beneath the turn. When the delightful Robert Lambert - as a hayseed chorus boy with cocky dreams of glory - shows Louise his fantasy dance-team act, ''All I Need Is the Girl,'' it is heartbreaking to watch the forlorn Ms. Moore act out her own doomed romantic fantasy in the shadows of an alleyway stage door.
In the meatiest dramatic numbers, Mr. Laurents pays Mr. Styne and Mr. Sondheim the compliment of reminding an audience that songs long assimilated into Broadway lore have a depth of character extending far beyond their unforgettable melodies and effortless verbal wit. ''If Momma Was Married'' - a comic lament for the grown-up Louise and June (Tracy Venner) - is not only two children's wish for a father but also a pathetic revelation of the sole common bond the very different siblings have enjoyed in their fractured, isolated childhoods. More harrowing still is ''Everything's Coming Up Roses,'' the Act I railroad-platform finale in which Rose finally must switch her allegiance from the vanished June to the ugly-duckling Louise. As Ms. Daly approaches the lyric ''We can do it/ Momma is gonna see to it,'' she hugs the cowering daughter only to toss her instantly and violently aside.
Mr. Styne and Mr. Sondheim are both giants on their own, but in this onetime collaboration they brought out something in each other's talent that cannot quite be found in their extraordinary separate careers. If there's no song as angry as ''Some People'' in the rest of the Styne canon, neither is there one quite as fragile and vulnerable as ''Little Lamb'' in the rest of Mr. Sondheim's.
Mr. Laurents's book carries its own weight. In this production, one of the most moving moments occurs when Jonathan Hadary, giving the most abundantly shaded performance of his career as the warm but weak Herbie, finally summons up the guts to walk out on Rose. When Mr. Hadary leaves Ms. Daly behind in a shabby burlesque dressing room, he does so with the weariness of Willy Loman but with the serenity of a man who has finally found himself after a lifetime of searching.
Though much about this staging will be familiar to those who saw the 1974 Lansbury revival, also directed by Mr. Laurents, there is no question that the new Rose radically alters the tone of the result. In a way, it works for ''Gypsy'' that Ms. Daly is not a glamorous, sexy or sympathetic star - that she could not care less if anyone likes her or not. Rose is a monster, after all, and Ms. Daly is true to the fundamental statement of the piece, which is not a pleasant one.
It's the title character, not Rose, that ''Gypsy'' asks the audience to root for, and the lovely Ms. Moore, who steadily blossoms from a forgotten child to a self-possessed star, makes it easy to do so. By keeping both mother and daughter in tight and unsentimental focus, the entire production reveals why a musical that might seem so parochially about the small world of show business makes its red-hot connection with the real world beyond. There's never any doubt that the much-married Rose and her lonely, bruised children are driven to perform before an audience, to be gypsies, because that's their only hope of being noticed - of getting the love and acceptance they have been denied in life.
And might not the audience have its own deep needs in that respect? If ''Gypsy'' is the musical most beloved by theater fanatics, that may be because it forces those on both sides of the footlights to remember exactly why they turned to the theater as a home away from home.