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Barbra Streisand ‘Gypsy’ Fail: Arthur Laurents Says ‘No’

Rosalind Russell Gypsy
Gypsy 1962 with Rosalind Russell.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Barbra Streisand won’t be playing Mama Rose in a film version of the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents Broadway hit Gypsy, Laurents himself told The Hartford Courant. Gypsy was to have been Streisand’s first screen musical since Yentl in 1983.

Laurents, who wrote the book for the 1959 musical based on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography, is one of Gypsy‘s rights holders. He directed three Gypsy revivals on Broadway: with Angela Lansbury in 1974, Tyne Daly in 1989, and Patti Lupone in 2008. Additionally, Bernadette Peters starred for Sam Mendes in a 2003 revival.

Bette Midler recreated Mama Rose in a made-for-TV movie in 1993; Cynthia Gibb had the title role. On the big screen, Rosalind Russell played Mama Rose to Natalie Wood’s Gypsy in a 1962 adaptation directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Gypsy was a major box office hit, but the film’s critical reception wasn’t overwhelmingly positive.

Laurents, 93, now says Streisand won’t be following on the footsteps of Russell, Midler, et al. “for a really fascinating reason, much bigger than Gypsy.”

The “fascinating” reason came about after Gypsy lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who’ll turn 81 on March 22, asked Laurents why he would give Streisand the go-ahead.

“He said, ‘What is the point of it?’ And I said, ‘They have this terrible version with Rosalind Russell wearing those black and white shoes.’ And then Sondheim told me something that he got from the British – and it’s wonderful. He said, ‘You want a record because the theater is ephemeral. But that’s wrong. The theater’s greatest essence is that it is ephemeral. You don’t need a record. The fact that it’s ephemeral means you can have different productions, different Roses on into infinity.’

“So I don’t want it now. I don’t want a definitive record. I want it to stay alive.

“I think [Streisand] is disappointed. She wanted very much to do it. That would have been a good exit for her career. Tom Hopper [sic] wanted to direct it. I think he’s wonderful.”

Now, whether or not you think Barbra Streisand should play Mama Rose, or if you’ve never even heard of Laurents, Sondheim, Gypsy Rose Lee, and her stage Mama, Laurents and Sondheim’s reasoning is downright absurd. Movies get remade all the time; very few could be considered a “definitive record” of a particular novel or play – or comic strip, for that matter.

After all, how many times has Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice been transferred to the screen? How many adaptations of W. Somerset Maugham’s plays Rain and The Letter have we got? How many Batman and Superman film versions have we had? Streisand herself starred in what was the third (official) screen version of an original film story, A Star Is Born, back in 1976.

And finally, how many Broadway shows get recorded live, so television audiences outside the New York area can enjoy them? None of that precludes new ways of interpreting the work in question. In other words, Streisand as a movie version of Mama Rose wouldn’t prevent Broadway directors from recreating Gypsy onstage ten or twenty years from now.

Arthur Laurents, whose credits include the stage versions of Gypsy and West Side Story, and the screenplays for Rope, Anastasia, Bonjour Tristesse, The Way We Were, and The Turning Point, will be known from now on as the man who said No to Barbra Streisand – which is kinda like saying No to Oprah or, in the old days, to Hosni Mubarak.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether or not Streisand stars in Gypsy, whether as Mama Rose or in the title role or as agent Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden in the movie). Aside from the lack of logic behind Laurents’ decision, what I found most interesting about the whole story were the details Laurents chose to provide to The Hartford Courant.

“A few years ago, [Streisand] called me. It was a Sunday and I have an enormous breakfast on Sunday. I wait the whole week for that breakfast. She would call from time to time when she wanted advice. So she called to ask me if she should do the movie of Sunset Boulevard. I said, ‘Listen, Barbra, I’m having breakfast. Can I call you back?’ She said, ‘Do you have my number?’ I said, ‘I’ve always had your number.’"

“So I called her back and said, ‘Barbra, I’ve changed.’ And she said, ‘Since [Laurents’ lover] Tom died?’ I said, ‘Yes. I don’t have patience with people who don’t say what they mean. You didn’t call about Sunset Boulevard. She said, ‘No, I didn’t. I called about Gypsy. Do you think I can do it?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Too old?’ I said, ‘It has nothing to do with age. You play for sympathy.

“So we started a conversation and she started to talk about her mother. The conversation went on for three hours. At one point she said, ‘I have to pee. I’ll call you back.’ And she called me back and told me more about her mother – who was worse than Rose. I said, ‘If you can do that…’ That’s when I believed she could do it.”

Synopsis: Arthur Laurents not only went on to say No to Barbra Streisand, but he also made her wait for him to finish his breakfast several years ago. And then he told her not play games with him. And she told him she wanted to hit the bathroom. But wait, divas are above mere bodily functions, do they?

In his 2000 autobiography, Original Story By, a rambling mix of self-glorification and harsh accusations against Herbert Ross, Jerome Robbins, Farley Granger, and other (by then mostly dead) people, Laurents talks about Barbra Streisand, whose first Broadway appearance was a supporting role in the Laurents-directed 1962 musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale that earned her a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

Describing Streisand as “an acquired taste” and, later, severely criticizing her performance in The Way We Were (“grand accent and fingernails getting in the way”), Laurents says about Stephen Sondheim’s first impression of the then-unknown singer back in the early ’60s:

“When I dragged Steve Sondheim to hear her at a Greenwich Village cellar called the Bon Soir, he found her voice too pinched and nasal. When I asked her to record some of the songs he wrote for Anyone Can Whistle, he wasn’t Stephen Sondheim yet. By then she, however, was a Movie Star; she never even replied to my note. Years later, to his delight, she recorded several of his songs, including two from Whistle, one her new album. Even the great need validation before life is like life in the movies.”

Apparently, Streisand is the “great” who failed to get her need for validation fulfilled this time around. But at least Laurents did call her back.

So, how about Barbra Streisand as Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond?

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