Streisand, Gypsy and Does This Need to Happen?
The word is out there that a Barbra Streisand film version of Gypsy is very close to getting the green light. It has been several years since this idea was first introduced to musical enthusiasts, and many have waited with bated breath to see if it will really happen. On again and off again, rinse and repeat, I think we have all resigned ourselves to believe that it MIGHT happen. How is that for definitive?
Gypsy is a musical that has received a lot of revivals. Perhaps too many. Then again, would we turn down the opportunity for the next great Hamlet or Hedda Gabler? No, Mama Rose has earned her place in the pantheon of great musical theatre roles and this is especially evidenced by the number of great musical theatre actresses who step up to play this role. Obviously there is a great deal made over the debate of who was our greatest Rose, and I have my personal opinions just like everyone else does on this topic. I do not think, however, that Rosalind Russell in the 1962 version would top anyone’s list. Better Midler in the 1993 made-for-television version fares a lot better, coming close to, but not-exactly nailing, the role. Stage productions abound, but there really isn’t a definitive Gypsy on film, so maybe we need this Streisand version.
Or do we?
Barbra Streisand has a unique, golden-toned voice handed to her by God himself and there is no denying that she would bring a great deal of star power to a film (not to mention a legion of fans to buy tickets). She has proven herself as an actress, having picked up an Oscar for her work in the film Funny Girl. She must also be very passionate about this project or she wouldn’t have so passionately and relentlessly fought these last few years to make it happen. But is this all enough? Can we envision Streisand playing a Mama Rose for the Big Screen?
There are two things Streisand does really well when she is acting. The first is to have the miraculous ability to create an almost uncomfortable fragility in all of the roles she plays. From Fanny Brice to The Prince of Tides, you always feel a deep well of sorrow is lying just under her fiery surface, rising up on occasion to wet her eyes with tears, and then settling back down into reserve. This might serve her Mama Rose well, as long as it is not overused. True, her Rose could use her tears and supposed weaknesses as manipulative techniques, but I don’t think this is the Rose we want to see. We tend to like our Roses a little on the bombastic side, pushy and brazen, with just a hint of regret. Fortunately, Streisand has a knack for playing things over the top, in your face and full of verve. My fear is that she can sometimes become strident when she is in this mode, delivering lines at a clip (or as throwaways) and lacking the nuance that she brings to the quieter moments of her work. Hopefully, if a Streisand film version of Gypsy happens, she will find a balance that can make the character work as a human being, a survivor, and a bulldozer.
So back to the initial question: Do we need a film version of Gypsy? In many ways I am reticent to endorse the idea, not because I think that Streisand cannot do it, but because I believe that there is something so inherently theatrical about Gypsy that I feel it plays more effectively onstage. There is something about the glowing footlights and the grittiness of the theatre that makes Gypsy come to life. Mama Rose feeds off the electricity of a highly-energized and deeply-invested audience. She rides on that and that connection is what makes the show work. I feel that Gypsy has always been as much about what the audiences and the synergy shared with the performers. To try to bottle that is impossible. Do I think a film version of Gypsy would be bad? Of course not (if it’s done right), but I don’t think we can expect the same things we feel in the theatre when we hear those opening trumpet notes of the overture, or the electric thrill incited by the rumbling that occurs beneath the “I Had a Dream” portion of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” A film will always keep us at an arm’s length where Gypsy is concerned. We will always be one step away from its theatrical greatness.
Does a film need to happen? Why shouldn’t it? Will it capture the greatness of Gypsy? That remains to be seen.