Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Let Me Entertain You

I went to the first preview of the latest Broadway production of Gypsy on Monday. I'd seen the movie (with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood), but never the show, nor had I seen Patti Lupone on a stage, and this is clearly the part she was born to play.

As you'd expect, the audience was filled with acolytes and theater queens (one account is here). And it had its share of real-life drama, when a ventilation plate fell from the ceiling and hit someone on the head just before Lupone's climactic, and searing, "Rose's Turn" number. I had no idea what happened at the time, except for loud noises and much sobbing, but there are more details here. The show, of course, did go on without a blip.

There were some stupendously clever production numbers and excellent performances, including Laura Benanti's in the title role. But it made me think about stage mothers, and performing.

There is a wonderful hand-tinted photo of my mom when she was eight years old, which would have been 1945. She's wearing a spangly outfit, many feather plumes and a slightly panicked expression. She used to sing and tap-dance on the radio (as I'm sure Baby June would have), pushed by her own mother, who ran away from home to become a showgirl. There is also a studio photo somewhere of my grandma from the '20s, clad in a highly structured swimsuit and a fierce smile.

Later in life, Grandma Lillian was orange-haired and scratchy-voiced, and I always thought she resembled Ethel Merman, for whom the role of Mama Rose was created. But I think the resemblance ran deeper - my mom was pushed to entertain, went to the High School of Performing Arts, and still harbors a performer's instinct.

Mom taught me to play piano at age three and started me on dance lessons at five. I played flute in the band and orchestra, and was in musicals in junior high and high school. Soon after that, I studied acting with Herbert Berghof and jazz dance with Luigi. In an attempt to perpetuate the spangles-and-feathers cycle, I even tried out to become a circus showgirl. I've been in many runway shows, played in bands and done a lot of TV. And someday I'll write more about my brief stint in Gypsy Rose Lee's profession.

Ultimately, though, it wasn't for me. I love being in front of an audience, but I never had the determination nor the killer instinct I needed to do whatever it took to succeed as a performer - and despite my occasional self-labeling as such, I'm not really much of a diva.

Maybe that's because I didn't have a stage mother. Maybe I created a false dichotomy between being appreciated for my brains and for my appearance that I'm finally trying to repair. Or maybe this - me as typist - is the part I was born to play.

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