Those of you have been holding your breath for the big splashy movie adaptation of Gypsy starring none other than Erasmus Hall’s own Barbra Streisand should maybe start to figure out how to let a little air in through the corner of your mouths the way Frank Sinatra used to be able to do. Why? Because the project was put officially into turnaround by Universal Studios this week, meaning that unless another studio gallantly throws its hat in the ring, this film will not happen. (Allegedly, the Gypsy film had the blessing of the late Arthur Laurents (he and Babs having somewhat mended fences over the years after their supposed falling out over a stage adaptation of The Way We Were—a sentence that gives me more pleasure to type in its very subject matter than anything else I will probably write this year). As a Gypsy superfan—not to mention my feelings about La Streisand, which are too complicated to describe here in full; suffice it to say, I have for years seriously considered writing and mounting a one-woman show about my relationship to Funny Girl—I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but maybe it’s for the best.
There’s several practical reasons that this particular Gypsy shouldn’t happen. Chief among them is the sheer plausibility of a 73-year-old woman, even one as immaculately refurbished as our Barbra, being the biological mother to a 9-year-old (or, let’s be honest, a 25-year-old; I don’t think they were doing a lot of IVF yet in Seattle in the 1920’s.) Then there’s the matter of the newly adapted screenplay. As soon as I heard it was being written by Downton Abbey creator and scribe Julian Fellowes, I had my doubts. It’s not that Lord Fellowes isn’t a perfectly lovely man—I certainly enjoyed quietly stalking him across the room at Emmy parties this year—but it’s one thing for a pugnacious Brooklyn Jew like Arthur Laurents to write about desperate show biz tenacity and the eternal hunger of marginalized people, and it’s another for those themes to be excavated by a man who has basically built his empire on lecturing the middle classes about how rich people eat soup.
But my main concern with a Gypsy film adaptation is that problem that has always dogged attempts to place this stagiest and most deeply psychological of musicals on screen. Gypsy, even more than other musicals set in the theater world, such as A Chorus Line or the aforementioned Funny Girl, depends tremendously on the electric presence of a live audience to give it its strange and terrible power. When Louise strips for the first time, or when June performs with her boy dancers in her various vaudeville recreations, or when Rose has her final, dizzying operatic breakdown in the bravura aria “Rose’s Turn,” the audience becomes a character in the show itself, an acting partner who reflects the characters’ own hopes, fears, discomforts, and most of all, desperate need for attention and applause. All live shows depend in some respect on the contract between performer and audience, but Gypsy goes further—that interaction is what the show is all about: once watch Gypsy without the electric tension of live performance in the air, you’re really only seeing half the show. And unlike stripping, musical theater is not vastly enhanced by leaving all the best stuff to the imagination.
It’s probably too late to see Barbra Streisand in the Broadway production of Gypsy she deserved —that, unfortunately, will be left to the realm of theatrical fantasy. But the best news to come out of all this is that Barbra Streisand is up to star in another major musical film adaptation! So dry your tears and start brainstorming, because if that happens, everything truly will be coming up roses.