“You Gotta Get A Gimmick” (from “Gypsy”) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 8

Album Art

You Gotta Get A Gimmick

Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, & Julie Halston

Gypsy (2003 Broadway Revival Cast)

Genre: Soundtrack

It’s another damn Monday. Let’s do another show tune, eh?

I saw the 2003 revival of “Gypsy” during its surprisingly brief run on Broadway. Shocked, I was, that I could get tickets for a classic musical in a big-budget revival with a big-name director and a big-name star…

(Note: a star of musical theater, not someone who made it into the Top 6 in season four of “American Idol”)

…for half-price on the day of the performance.

Clearly, the environment that had allowed this show to close early is populated by idiots because it was fantastic. The staging was creative and engaging and the whole experience underscored why I love live theater, and how deeply I wish I could see more shows.

Here’s an example. “Gypsy” follows Gypsy Rose Lee’s path through show business, from her beginnings as a child vaudeville performer to mainstream stardom as a burlesque performer. The real star of the show is Mama Rose. Denied acknowledgement of her own talent and potential, she drags her two daughters into show business just to prove to the world how wrong everybody was to deny Mama her rightful place in the spotlight.

The conceit of the show’s design was that the physical sets got bigger as the show progressed. At the very end of the show, when Gypsy’s a huge star, she strips on a glitzy stage set that fills the whole dimensions of the Schubert Theater’s actual stage. But the first time we see her perform as a little girl alongside her sister, it’s on a fake theater stage about two thirds that size, with its own proscenium arch. The rest of the Schubert stage is bare, all the way to the back wall.

Early in the show, we get to see the little girls’ whole stage act from start to finish. Meanwhile, you can see Mama Rose in the wings, through ambient lighting. She has no lines and no “business.” In fact, it’s not even set up to look like the wings of a stage. She’s just sort of stranded out there in Twilight Zone space after she makes her exit. You’re sort of wondering why Bernadette Peters even has to bother standing there when she could be relaxing offstage for five minutes.

Ah: but in the middle of the girls’ performance, one of the two little girls has a costume change. The girl dances off of the fake stage into the wings, where Mama Rose helps her do a quick-change in time for her re-entrance after the other girl’s solo. Again, there’s no special lighting, dialogue, or business. The audience’s attention is clearly supposed to be on the solo performance taking place on the mini-stage.

You see what I’m getting at? The director had this great idea of having the fake theaters get larger as the show progresses. But at some point in the planning, everyone’s faced with the fact that this real girl needs to do a real costume change…only now, she really has nowhere to go to do it.

There’s only one way out of the problem. Bernadette Peters, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, who’s being paid a hell of a lot of money, has to act as this little girl’s dresser. Sure, that makes sense from a dramatic point of view. Mama Rose would be standing just offstage, and she would be helping her kids change. But I’m certain that in six to eight performances a week, during those thirty seconds, Peters wasn’t playing the role of Mama Rose. It was way, way more important that she be a damned good dresser and made sure that a fellow castmember was in full costume by her next cue.

The second act is full of big, showstopping numbers. This is one of them. At this point, Mama Rose’s tyrannical obsession with success has driven away one of her two daughters and the manager who was this close to becoming Mama’s husband and allowing Mama and Gypsy to finally have normal lives. Now it’s driven her to this: she’s pushed her youngest daughter into stripping in burlesque. A few established — I suppose the adjective “weatherbeaten” wouldn’t be a stretch — pros help the newly-christened Gypsy Rose get ready for her first strip.

I loved the song and the performance. But I also loved the backstage — sorry, the “real backstage,” not the “fake backstage” — stuff. I didn’t spot any of these three women in the first act. They were probably understudying other roles. With their minimal onstage involvement in the rest of the show, I think these three performers would have summarized the story of “Gypsy” thusly:

  • (blah, blah, blah)
  • In a powerful scene that acts as the obvious emotional and dramatic center of the show, three wise women teach the young Gypsy Rose Lee everything she needs to know about dancing…and, about life; Gypsy leaves their tutelage with all of the tools she needs to finally assert herself and rise above the minor supporting castmember who plays her insane and domineering mother.
  • (blah, blah, blah…curtain.)

The theater is a bit like baseball, or at least Al Capone’s description of it. Yes, you’re out there playing as a team, but for most of the players theres also an opportunity for individual accomplishment.

(And then you beat your rival to death with a bat.)

I do like the fact that for a full four minutes and fifty seconds, not including ovations, the entire show is about these three women. And boy, do they perform the song that way.

If you own a +10 Sword of Dispersement of Broadway Magic, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” still holds valuable lessons. It’s pretty much everything you need to know about successful Internet marketing. “A blog about serialized graphical storytelling” won’t get much traction. But if you tell me “I make fun of ‘Mary Worth’ and other comic strips several times a week” within a few days, I’ll be buying tee shirts from your online store.

Listen to “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

My own gimmick is to somehow bamboozle you into clicking an Amazon Associates link, so that I can get a small kickback from all of your Amazon purchases. Because paying to have my own personal and private bouncy-house in my office would just be silly.

(Yes, it’s office equipment. How stupid would I look if I had an important briefing and a Google project director walked in and saw me writing inside a sofa-cushion fort? Use your head!)

You’ve Got To Know These Things When You’re King

Wednesdays are, historically, not good days. Yes, it’s called “hump day” but in my case, the hump is actually the gestation sac of one of the creatures from “Gremlins.” It typically bursts out of its egg case in the corner of the ceiling at about 2 PM and leaps on my head, still trailing tendrils of amniotic fluid, and immediately commences to beating and scratching me until it gets bored and gives up…usually at around 5 AM the next morning.

Yesterday was a good’n, though. I filed a column that I was quite happy with and then I headed to downtown Boston for Spamalot Day.

Spamalot Day happens in Boston on every November 19, 2008. It marks the anniversary of the time that Chris Gurr emailed me to ask if I wanted house seats to see the show during the tour’s Boston run.

He plays Sir Bedevere/Concorde/Old Woman in the show and when he offered, I hesitated before replying. Should it be “Yes” or “Holy ****, yes”?

But ever the shrewd negotiator, I deftly concealed my intense desire to close this deal. I counteroffered with “house seats, and we get together for lunch before the show.” I really hated to screw him over like that, but business is business. I have a responsibility to my shareholders.

There was only one choice for the lunch venue: Zaftigs in Brookline, of which you’ve heard me speak so highly in past missives. It’s the default place to take folks who are new in town. The food there is so out-of-this-world that I want to eat there every day…but that’s both financially and medically-contraindicated, so I try to limit myself to just one visit per month.

Still, one must be hospitable, mustn’t one? So I steeled my courage and tucked into a combo plate of blintz, kugel, knish, and potato pancake, a cup of chili, and a turkey pot pie.

Chris ordered the chocolate brioche french toast. There are two big perks to taking people to this restaurant. The first one is: lunch at this restaurant. The second is getting to witness people’s reactions to the cuisine. The chef’s culinary aesthetic seems to be “But you’re so skinny! Let me fix you a plate…no, sit, sit!”

Chris’ reaction to his entree was immediate, reverent silence as his brain shut down all unnecessary functions and put his sensory processors into emergency hi-burst capture mode. Which is by no means atypical.

It was a fab afternoon. In fact, I knew that my parking meter was due to click out soon but I was enjoying the conversation. If I got ticketed…well, hell, I was getting more than $15 worth of entertainment there in the restaurant. It would work out OK.

We parted company after I spent another hour or so showing Chris the many delights of Coolidge Corner. It’s my favorite Boston neighborhood. It features Boston’s best bookstore and movie theater, and a small store so overstocked with piles and piles of merchandise of every possible description that I wonder if doctors don’t bring their patients there as some sort of test for epilepsy. There is such intense detail in such minute quanta in such a small area that any weak synapses will quickly give up and spasm trying to resolve the imagery.

The show was just flat-out wonderful.

“Spamalot” has been on my list since it opened a few years ago. But the way Broadway works these days, it almost lulls you into the same lack of a sense of urgency as you have regarding movies. Hits settle into multi-year runs with new casts, and touring companies are top-notch.

In fact, half-price tickets to the Broadway production were available during my last trip to New York but I opted for another show; “39 Steps” was a small, quirky comedy that probably wouldn’t be around the next time I was in town. “Spamalot,” like “Cats,” seemed to be now and forever.

(Uh, yeah…but a week or two later, they announced that “Spamalot” would be ending its Broadway run soon. And “Mamma Mia!” is now in the theater that “Cats” owned for more than a decade; many regard this as an improvement only to theater patrons with fur allergies.)

Regardless, I knew that I’d be seeing the show at some point in life. So in all these years, I’d never bought the cast album or read a synopsis, so that I could see the show “clean”…or as cleanly as you can see any show that’s based on one of your favorite movies.

I really, really wondered what the show would be like. “Spamalot” has to navigate a lot of problems that the authors of “No, No Nanette” never had to contend with:

  1. Python fans are going to expect to see their favorite bits.
  2. Non-fans are going to expect to understand what the hell is going on without checking Wikipedia every ninety seconds.
  3. At $80 for the good seats, even the fans aren’t going to be satisfied with just a replay of the bits they already know from the movie and the TV show.

That last thing was my biggest concern. I and My People worship at the Church of Python. Weve been attending services since we were little kids. We know when to stand, we know when to sit, we know when to kneel, and when the Minister (of Silly Walks) calls for Hymn 132, we immediately start singing “I’m A Lumberjack And I’m OK.” I went to see Eric Idle’s “Greedy Bastard” tour; most of the audience seemed to be just checking off the lines and the songs as they heard them.

(It’s sort of like going to a concert where the band plays lots of their hits. You don’t so much hear the band playing as much as you hear everyone else singing along.)

But “Spamalot” handles all of these problems beautifully. I couldn’t help but think about the “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” in which there’s a stage show of the events of the Baron’s life that draw from the threads of his adventures, but which isn’t an actual retelling per se.

It was tremendously good, silly fun that kept picking up steam as it went. As a Python fan, I liked seeing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” done live. As a theatergoer, I had that great experience of spending two or three hours in an entire other place, removed even from seat D-101 (fifth row, aisle, awesome) of the Colonial Theater in Boston, MA.

Annnnd as a big dumb heterosexual male, I enjoyed the fact that at times, there were enough pretty chorus girls in skimpy costumes on stage at once that I couldn’t decide which one to objectify.

I’m saying that you really ought to go see it. Here’s a link to the tour page. It’s in Boston just through the week. Last night, the house was muchly full but I reckon that if you want to find some seats together, you can manage it.

I’ve been asked if “Spamalot” is “family friendly.” That’s kind of a floppy term. I think if you’re okay with your kid seeing “Monty Python And The Holy Grail,” then “Spamalot” will present no additional problems. “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” does indeed include the line “Life’s a piece of s***, when you look at it.” And although the language in the French Taunters’ scene is clean, you might spot a gesture or two from the top of the castle walls. It’s your call but I’d have no problems taking a teenager with me.

(SO LONG AS HE OR SHE DOESN’T TEXT MESSAGE DURING THE SHOW.)

(THE CASTMEMBERS HAVE SWORDS. DO NOT RILE THEM.)

At this point in my narrative, I must reveal one spoiler for the show, so avert your eyes, o lord, if so inclined to enter the theater with a blank slate.

Just as in the movie, the location of the final resting place of The Most Holy Grail is can be found in the living rock of a cave protected by a killer rabbit. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch dispatches the threat and the answer is revealed in four enormous stone letters.

The knights speculate as to what the letters might mean. “Oi! Oi!” perhaps?

Ah! It isn’t a word at all, sire! It’s a seat number!

D101.

Those of you with excellent memories now realize that this information has a certain relevance to my tale.

“Uh-oh,” I thought.

And sure enough…the houselights were raised and a spotlight snapped on around my seat. Knights and peasants eagerly exited via a set of stairs at the foot of the stage, bounded in my direction…

..and then unexpectedly siezed a man on the other side of the aisle in Row C. The Grail was found underneath his seat and he was hustled onstage, where he received a proclamation of thanks and what appeared to be a rather nice gift pen.

As for me, I was siezed by a heady blend of relief and disappointment, in equal proportions.

The man was wearing an AIDS ribbon. As I enjoyed the presentation and the rest of the show, I imagined that he’d been quietly approached at his seat during the intermission. The ribbon, I supposed, signaled to the cast that THIS was the guy who said it was OK to drag him onstage.

See, I have a bit of a Situation brewing at home. My cellphone was off during the first act and I used the intermission to step outside and check for messages. It all became pretty clear to me later on; the D-101 prop always points to the house seats (likely to be used by someone that someone in the cast knows), they didn’t find me there during intermission, so they just went to Plan B.

So again: relief and disappointment. Relief, because at the moment I looked like I had dressed and groomed myself and left the house in a big hurry after having spent all night working on a column. Disappointment, because I imagined that the Colonial Theater looked really cool from the stage.

(Plus: crap, that looked like a really cool pen.)

I went backstage after the show. I bumped into King Arthur on my way through the stage door. He was fab; I’d love to see him playing the male lead in “Kiss Me, Kate.” He has a real Alfred Drake vibe about him, in voice and presence.

(I’m sure that you know that Alfred Drake originated the role of Fred Graham in “Kate.”)

Chris was, of course, equally fab in his multiple roles and as the Old Woman, he had a fabulous rack; theater tradition insisted that I compliment him on that immediately.

He was nice enough to show me around backstage. What a treat. The Colonial is one of the country’s most significant houses. It’s about a hundred years old and some of the most famous plays and musicals in history debuted here. In baseball, a promising left-hander must spend a season in Pawtucket before pitching at Fenway Park. In Broadway, there was a time when a new production was put on its feet in Boston before moving to Broadway with its final cast and rundown.

We joked about Seat D-101. It wouldn’t have been the first time that one of his guests had wound up onstage. Though he told me that there was nothing pre-arranged about it and that my spending intermission outside on my iPhone instead of inside at my seat had changed nothing. The audience member really is plucked out of his or seat cold.

Maybe I didn’t get the free pen but I did get that other thing I wanted: a view of the Colonial from center-stage:

Center-stage. Can this view ever get old?
Center-stage at the Colonial Theater. Can this view ever get old?

I left the theater with Chris and Sir Lancelot and the show’s wig supervisor and we walked to the T. The weather had dropped from Scenic New England Crisp all the way down to “Brass Monkeys, Beware.” We talked about nerdy stuff (theater and technology) all the way until our trains arrived.

I got home very late and very cold but also very happy.