I got to know the fabulous Tana Sibilio, June Havoc’s assistant of 38 years, during the course of researching the real Rose Hovick for my biography of her. Tana told me that June felt Bernadette Peters’ portrayal of her mother in the 2003 revival of Gypsy was the one closest in spirit to the real Rose. Bernadette Peters played the role using a softer manner than any of the other actresses had. The actuall Rose Hovick had not been brash or loud. She had been charming and knew how to be sweetly seductive. Bernadette went with that portrayal.
I got chills as I watched the “Newsboy Songsters” segment of this particular revival. In her vaudeville act, the young June – first billed as “Baby June” – had appeared with a chorus of little boys. I had seen a photograph of that act, taken approximately in 1922. The boys who came onstage during Baby June’s “Let Me Entertain You” number were dressed exactly as the boys in that old photograph. It was like watching the picture come to life.
Sam Mendes was the director of this incarnation of Gypsy, and while June Havoc had loved it overall, she took exception to one scene in which one of the actresses playing her lit up a cigarette and smoked on the stage. This horrified Miss Havoc, who had never smoked. Her sister Gypsy Rose Lee had and had died of lung cancer. She wrote a complaint letter to Sam Mendes about it, but it was never answered.
Unfortunately the way this show was written was for a steamroller of a character as could be played on the stage by a Broadway belter like Ethel Merman. It did not entirely mesh with the way Sam Mendes asked Miss Peters to portray Rose – true to the real woman though her performance may have been. I enjoyed watching this production, yet I could see that it didn’t fully work.
Arthur Laurents, who had written the book of the musical and also directed Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly in their revivals, which led to both of those actresses to win Tony Awards, also felt this production didn’t quite work. It was his displeasure over this revival that was to inspire him to direct yet another production of Gypsy in 2008.
However, if a whole new dramatization might someday be mounted about Rose Hovick’s life, and if it was started from scratch and remained true to the facts of Rose’s real story, having Bernadette Peters play her again would be perfect!