“Gypsy: A Musical Fable” is coming to Yale. The story follows the relationships between the ultimate stage mother, Rose, and her daughters as she attempts to catapult them to stardom at the rise of burlesque. While the show is traditionally performed as an over-the-top spectacle, Yale’s take will portray an intimate family drama through a psychological approach: exploring how Rose lives vicariously through her children and ultimately hurts them. The show, the senior project in American Studies of director Ethan Karetsky ’14, will run April 3-5. Karetsky and his stars Chandler Rosenthal ’14, who plays Rose, and Lucie Ledbetter ’15, who plays Louise, talked with WEEKEND about their unique concept and making a classic accessible to our community.
Q: Taking such a well-known classic and bringing it to a college campus is a daunting task. How did you decide to put on “Gypsy”?
EK: I spent a good part of my junior year deciding what show I was going to do as a part of my senior project. There were a lot of musicals I played around with. I spent a lot of time listening to recordings; there were a lot of scripts I liked. At first, “Gypsy” wasn’t on that list because I thought it was too big to do at Yale. I thought it was a show that you couldn’t really do with college students. Then I revisited it because I liked the score and script so much and wanted to see if it could make it work. Once I opened my mind outside the confines of the Broadway production I had seen in 2009, I felt that it was a show we could do. So then I approached Chandler because I thought it was a show that really needed a partnership with Rose. Chandler and I talked about my concept for the show. We sang some songs together and started talking about the show in February of last year. We agreed we would do this together last spring. It has been a year now of casting other talented folks, including Lucie, and now there are 55 of us collaborating on this show, which is crazy.
Q: You talked about how Rose is important in the show. Why was casting Rose the first step in your process?
EK: This is a show in which a lot of the momentum comes from Rose. She is onstage for so much of the show, and it’s such a unique role that I wasn’t confident just picking a show and going through the casting process 10 months later and hoping a Rose would show up. I generally avoid precasting as much as possible. I have never done it at Yale, and I don’t like it as a concept. But for certain roles and moments it can be really important. I wanted to make sure that I found someone that I liked as a person and had a good working relationship with but also someone who could carry that role. It’s not something every undergraduate with the vocal range could do. It’s a unique role.
Q: Chandler, I’d love to hear from you about your concept of Rose and how it maybe differs from traditional portrayals of the iconic role.
CR: Funnily enough, I played this role in ninth grade so I’m reprising it seven years later. I already went through one whole process with that character, but I was 14, so that changes things. It’s been really helpful because from the get go, I felt like I had some insight left over from walking in her shoes so long ago. This has made the character a little less daunting because I already understood her in some ways. Ethan and I have been talking about the timeline of her life. Ethan’s concept takes place over 50 years, but traditionally, there’s a 10-year jump in time. The Rose part is traditionally played older. She usually starts out the play in her 40s and ends in her 50s. As Ethan and I decided to talk about her insecurities and the ways in which she feels trapped as a mother, we realized it aligns much more when you see her as a young mother, rather than as a middle-aged mother. That has been very interesting to play around with.
Q: Could you talk about how you came up with the vision of changing the lifespan of Rose?
EK: The thing we’ve come back to more and more in rehearsal is being trapped in motherhood. Mama Rose has become taken on in musical theater history … this obsession and cultish nature over Rose and her songs — it’s a favorite musical of a lot of people in musical theater history. It’s a role that has taken on mythic proportions , so what I think is so great about casting Rose in this very natural, young mother way is that we are stripping all of this away. We’re making her more accessible to Yale but also more logical with the script. For her to be a 25-year-old mom with these little kids makes so much sense: She feels trapped by her life and her motherhood because she had kids too soon, and she’s trapped in this life, and she can’t achieve the stardom she wanted to achieve for herself, so now she’s pushing her little kids into achieving it. In this version, she’s just too old. By the end of the script she’s 35. It’s not like she’s not an old hag who couldn’t be a star; she’s just barely too old to start now.
CR: It’s because of the circumstances of her life and less because of her actual age.
EK: That makes the play more tragic and more interesting. It’s a lot more about how she is dealing with what’s going on in each circumstance and relationship and how she builds and tears apart these relationships.
Q: To clarify, you did not rewrite any dialogue to make this age change?
EK: No, we did not. Factually, you aren’t allowed to rewrite any of the script. That’s what’s so amazing about this play. In many ways, you can treat this play like Shakespeare. We think of Shakespeare as this thing that is so easy to manipulate — that you can put any interpretation on it and come up with any concept in a different production, and people tend to not treat musicals as flexibly. We think that if you respect the text and keep returning to the text for any choice and justifications, there is a lot you can do with a show. They don’t have to be untouchable. There is no reason it has to be the same as the Broadway production.
Q: Can you address your concept more generally?
EK: We knew that at Yale we could not have a show with a million set changes and a cast of 60, so we had to strip it down. I immediately thought of Rose as the best way to do this. She is looking at her life and the story. I wanted to see what it would be like to take her out of the story. This led to me starting the play with her in a nursing home. She is in her 70s and 80s. She is watching TV in the overture, and as the overture captures the music of all of the play, Rose is watching her entire life on TV. We watch Rose relive and think through her memories. Traditionally the first few moments of the show have the audience watching her kids onstage when she marches in and takes the stage, she normally gets thunderous applause — here comes Mama Rose. What we’re doing instead is having Rose watch the performance on TV, the audience watch her watch it. Then, she walks off her stage and onto the mainstage for the interruption, entering her memories. From then on, we are living in Rose’s world from 25 to 35. But it is in a stripped-down world. A lot of the set is projected. Furniture is repurposed from scene to scene. The costume world, though, is quite rich. Rose is someone who cares so much about appearances. Only at the end do you come back to the nursing home and allow her to have a final moment in the final scene in her. The final scene of the play is that in which mother and daughter confront the demons in their relationship. It’s so smartly written because the lines are so open. I’ve seen it performed with the exact same lines and then they hug and leave together or where they leave in separate ways. It’s been an argument or reconciliation or something in between. We’re playing it in a unique way in taking her outside of the stories.
Q: How do you tackle the makeup and costuming of Rose, who walks from her 70s to her 20s and back again while on stage?
C: There isn’t going to be that much of a costume change, it’s going to be based on physicality.
EK: It’s really lighting and Chandler’s body that will tell that story. She won’t have age makeup that she has to wipe off.
Q: I’d love to hear more about the character of Louise. How do you, Lucie, conceptualize your character?
LL: What’s actually really fun and crazy about the show is that Louise starts at seven in the first scene. Obviously, it’s a little bit of a stretch to make me play a seven-year-old. So we have two kids who play Louise and her baby sister June. Ten-year old Rosa is playing baby Louise for the first 10 minutes. They have a musical number and at the end of their scene, Sarah Chapin ’17, who is playing June, and I walk in and take their place. At that point, I’m 15. At the end of the show, I’m 21. You see Louise mature and gain confidence, slowly. She lives in the shadow of her younger sister for most of the play. It isn’t until the end of the play that Louise becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the stripper. There’s a seven minute chunk of the show where you see a large passage of time in which Louise matures rapidly from her younger, more shy self to a persona she creates.
Q: How do you approach that rapid shift?
LL: For Louise, her little sister has always been in the spotlight. Louise doesn’t consider herself extremely talented. When she does come to this transformation, it’s more of an alter ego she takes on and sees it as not herself performing, but somebody else.
Q: How are you making “Gypsy” relevant to Yale?
CR: The age change certainly helps. It allows us to feel more connected to the characters that are closer to our age, and I’m sure it is more accessible for the audience as well. The show is about the drive for success and stardom. These words and ideas are definitely talked about a lot on campus, especially in terms of what to do after graduation. This play doesn’t answer questions, but it expresses a lot of these themes Yalies have anxiety about now.
LL: The story of a girl who is trying to fit in my different roles and separate their ambitions from their parents’ relates to my life in particular. Everyone at Yale is trying to figure out where they want to go and whom they want to be.
EK: the only thing I would add is the modernity of our design aesthetic. The film and projections we are using are cutting edge at Yale, which is exciting for a younger audience. We didn’t just dust off a 1959 musical. We have an aesthetic that will grab people and underlying themes — success, what and who drives you to success, and parent-child relationships — that are as relevant as ever.