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TERRY GROSS, host:

"Gypsy," the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical based on the autobiography of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and starring Ethel Merman as Lee's monster of a mother, opened on Broadway in 1959 and ran for 702 performances. Critic Walter Kerr famously called it "the best damn musical I've seen in years." On the 50th anniversary of "Gypsy," our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, still agrees with that assessment.

(Soundbite of song, "Some People")

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN (Actor): (Singing) Some people sit on their butts, got the dream, yeah, but not the guts. That's living for some people, for some humdrum people I suppose. Well, they can stay and rot, but not Rose!

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Although, "West Side Story" may be more directly related to Shakespeare, "Gypsy" might very well be at heart the most Shakespearean of all Broadway musicals. When I was in graduate school, some of my classmates concocted a musical version of "Hamlet," putting new lyrics to the songs from "Gypsy." Critic Frank Rich once said that "Gypsy" was the Broadway musical's answer to "King Lear." I think the two greatest stage performances I ever saw were the great Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield's King Lear, and Ethel Merman as Rose Hovick, the ruthlessly ambitioned mother of actress June Havoc and superstar stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

In the ferocity of her sense of betrayal by the daughter who achieves the success she wanted for herself, Merman rose to tragic heights. "Rose's Turn," her big final soliloquy, is the Broadway version of a real operatic mad scene. Good as Merman's successors may have been, none of them came anywhere near her in this number.

(Soundbite of song, "Rose's Turn")

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Why did I do it? What did it get me? Scrapbooks full of me in the background. Give 'em love and what does it get you? What does it get you? One quick look as each of 'em leaves you. All your life and what does it get you? Thanks a lot and out with the garbage. They take bows and you're battin' zero. I had a dream. I dreamed it for you, June. It wasn't for me, Herbie. And if it wasn't for me, then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee? Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn?

SCHWARTZ: "Gypsy's" magnificently brash, quintessentially American vulgarity makes it one of Broadway's greatest showbiz musicals. The music was composed by Broadway pro Jule Styne, whose best-known showstopper before "Gypsy" was probably "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." And his lyricist was a young Stephen Sondheim, fresh from writing the lyrics for "West Side Story." Though they never collaborated again, they were an ideal team. Styne's score was pure Broadway by way of vaudeville and burlesque -memorable yet unpretentious and never artsy.

Sondheim's lyrics are by far his earthiest and most colloquial. Yet they also have their own kind of Broadway wit and elegance, as in these intricate rhymes in "Together Wherever We Go."

(Soundbite of song, "Together Wherever We Go")

Ms. MERMAN: (As Rose) (Singing) Whatever the boat I row, you row.

Mr. JACK KLUGMAN (Actor): (As Herbie) (Singing) A duo.

Ms. MERMAN: (As Rose) (Singing) Whatever the row I hoe, you hoe.

Ms. SANDRA CHURCH (Actor): (As Louise) (Singing) A trio.

Ms. MERMAN: (As Rose) (Singing) And any I. O. U., I owe you-oh's?

Mr. KLUGMAN: (As Herbie) (Singing) Who, me-oh? No, you-oh.

Ms. CHURCH: (As Louise) (Singing) No, we-oh.

Ms. MERMAN: (As Rose) (Singing) Together! We all take the bow.

Ms. CHURCH: (As Louise) (Singing) Together! We all take the bow.

Mr. KLUGMAN: (As Herbie) (Singing) Together! We all take the bow.

SCHWARTZ: To celebrate "Gypsy's" 50th anniversary, Sony has reissued the original cast album with some additional material. One highlight is what seems to be a demo of Merman singing the poignant song that, in the show, the lonely young Gypsy sings to her toy animals on her birthday. Anyone who thinks Merman was only a belter needs to hear this recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Lamb")

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) Little cat, little cat, oh, why do you look so blue? Did somebody paint you like that, or is it your birthday too?

SCHWARTZ: New bonus tracks on the cast album include an interview with Jule Styne and a bizarre autobiographical number recorded by Gypsy Rose Lee herself shortly after "Gypsy" opened.

(Soundbite of bonus track from "Gypsy")

Ms. GYPSY ROSE LEE (Author, "Gypsy: A Memoir"): Hello.

(Soundbite of piano)

Ms. LEE: I've been in show business almost all my life. My fondest memories were of the years most of you remember as the Depression years. Mother and I were so poor, we didn't even know there was a Depression.

We went broke during the boom. All we knew was that vaudeville was dead.

How we missed the good old two-a-day. I mean two meals a day, not shows. That's why I started in burlesque. I don't know how I got the job.

I was only 15. Of course, I was big for my age. I wasn't exactly what you'd call a stripling of a girl. I was 38 when I was 13!

Mr. SCHWARTZ: With the great Merman, and the touching Jack Klugman as the man who loves her but can only take so much, "Gypsy" is one of the best original cast recordings ever made. More than most show albums, it lets us breathe the pungent atmosphere of the whole show, of Broadway itself.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the new 50th anniversary reissue of the original cast album of "Gypsy."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

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