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Gypsy is one of the all-time greatest Broadway musicals - but also one of the most rarely seen of all in the UK. Though fellow historic shows from the 50s canon that include West End Story, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls and The Sound of Music come around with some regularity, Gypsy famously didn't reach the West End for the first (and still last) time until 1973, some 14 years after it originally premiered on Broadway.
Yet in the last 24 years it has had three separate Broadway revivals, with Tyne Daly (1991), Bernadette Peters (2003) and Patti LuPone (2008). Now, however, that West End wrong is being righted, with its first West End revival since 1973 transferring to the Savoy from last summer's Chichester season from March 28.
Not for nothing is the central role of Momma Rose sometimes characterised as the King Lear of female musical theatre parts. Arthur Laurents, who penned the show's book based on the real-life memories of Gypsy Rose Lee (and also wrote West Side Story before it), provides an utterly remorseless portrait of a tough nut of a monstrous stage mother who finally cracks as she realises how much damage she has caused. She steers her daughters through the vaudeville circuit in search of fame, but is deserted by the younger Baby June, and she succeeds only in taking the other on a depressing slide towards the arse-end of showbusiness (in every sense).
As Louise finds a kind of celebrity and fame there as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Madame Rose finally confronts the cost to herself. It has been worth the wait to see it done again here, since Chichester have fielded possibly the most extraordinary stage actress working in Britain today to play it: The Oscar nominated Imelda Staunton, who two years ago won an Olivier Award for another Chichester-originated performance as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd (opposite Michael Ball), owns the show and the stage with total commitment and a yearning, gnawing sense of pain.
The opportunity to play it came at Sondheim's personal invitation. As she recently told me in an interview for The Stage, after seeing her Mrs Lovett, "Sondheim said to me, 'You have to play Rose.' My response was, 'Do I?' It was a huge burden, yet also a fantastically challenging one and not that of course I'd be furious if someone else was doing."
She sought some advice from Patti LuPone, whom she'd seen play the role on Broadway: "She said, 'I hear you're going to play Rose. You'll sing the hell out of it - but the only thing you need is vitamins!' Bloody right! I know I have to sing really well for this. There are notes I have to hit ? There are big songs, as opposed to Sweeney where you can do sprechgesang and duck and weave a bit."
She's also surrounded by an amazing supporting cast that includes Lara Pulver as Louise and Gemma Sutton as June, both reprising their Chichester performances, and newly joined by Peter Davison as Herbie. I can't wait to see it again!
See Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre from 28 March 2015.