I made my first trip to New York City when I was fifteen years old. The year was 1959 and the round trip bus fare from Philadelphia was eight dollars. You could buy an orchestra seat for a Broadway musical for about the same price. But for that kind of money and some “twofers“, you could see three shows in the last few rows upstairs.
That day, I went directly from the bus station in Manhattan to the Broadway Theater and asked for “one in the balcony, please.”
The ticket was to see Ethel Merman play Mama Rose in “Gypsy“. My first Broadway musical and, as it turned out, Ethel’s last original role. There will never be anyone or anything quite like her again. There were actually two shows being performed that night. “Gypsy”, the musical; and the Ethel Merman show.
While this fully realized backstage fable was unfolding on stage, whenever Miss Merman broke into song, she completely stepped out of the play, ignoring whatever action was taking place and any other actor on the stage, walked down to the footlights and sang directly to the audience. No one seemed to mind and every song brought down the house. When she finished, she stepped right back into the play and everyone went right along with her. She could make you believe anything. I was the last person to leave the theater.
Since that first “Gypsy”, I’ve seen so many productions, I’ve literally lost count. After the first Broadway production, I saw the first National Tour back in Philly in 1960 with Mary McCarty and a tiny fifteen-year-old Bernadette Peters. . . as I was to discover many years later. . . playing the Hawaiian girl, one of the Hollywood Blondes and understudying Baby June. . . and all the Broadway Roses.
Tyne Daly , who really couldn’t sing worth a damn, but no one cared because she tore your heart out acting the part. I wound up standing in back of the orchestra (the only ticket available) next to one of her oldest friends, the Irish actor Joseph Maher, having also flown in to catch her final show. I introduced myself, as I recognized him immediately. I had seen him several times on stage, most memorably playing Ed in “Entertaining Mister Sloan” at The Cherry Lane Theater in 1983, a performance that still stays with me. He was warm and as excited to be there as I was and it was a treat to watch the show standing next to someone who appreciated what was happening on the stage as much as I did and we wound up having a wonderful shared experience that spilled out into the lobby during intermission and after the show while he waited a bit to chat before going backstage to meet with Miss Daly.
Bernadette Peters , certainly the sexiest of the Broadway Roses, but somehow the least memorable of them all. . . she could never quite convince you she was the heartless Rose and was stuck in a production that looked small and lost on a Broadway stage.
In between came countless summer stock, dinner theater, community theater, high school, TV and film productions; and even played Herbie, Rose’s ill-fated intended, myself once, in a very crowded but soul-satisfying production on the tiny stage of the Wilton Playshop in Connecticut .
So here I am, over fifty years later and no-so-long returned from New York where I watched Patti LuPone give her final and eat everything but the props and therefore probably greatest performance as Mama Rose at the St. James Theatre. Certainly one of the most memorable nights in the theater I’ve ever had.
And now I feel as if my life has come full circle in a very important way. I was mesmerized by the power of the theater the first time and just about every time I saw this show and to have had the chance to see a world-class “Gypsy” one more time, made me feel just like that fifteen-year-old boy stepping off the Greyhound bus from Philadelphia for the first time. . . one more time. And really, what more could anyone ask, even if the ticket did cost more than fifty times as much.
“I wonder how old I am?” — Stephen Sondheim — Gypsy, 1959
“I wonder how old I am?” — Sal Bovoso — Yucca Valley, CA 2012