When Rachel Bertone directs and choreographs a musical, she sees it from every side – as a leader, as a performer, and also as a psychologically astute student of human relationships.
Boston’s most versatile young director is staging a revival of the classic American musical Gypsy, at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, opening September 6th.
Bertone took time from rehearsals to share with HuffPost the psychological underpinnings of her interpretation of the show.
Michael: How much fun is Gypsy?
Rachel: It’s the dream show to direct! I’ve always loved golden age musicals, and Gypsy is just the pinnacle of them all. Gypsy is arguably the greatest American musical of all time, with the greatest book, and the most complex characters in American musical theater history. Every word, every stage direction is so intentional. The book is so beautifully written and then you have the music, which just adds and furthers the story along. It’s one of those musicals where everything blends together so seamlessly when it’s done correctly. It’s a play that could almost direct itself. All the tools are given to you.
Michael: People compare Gypsy to King Lear. Is that correct?
Rachel: Gypsy is one of the few musicals that deeply explores the complexities of the fragile human psyche. It’s like King Lear, and that’s what is often actually said about it — a parent who is deluded and we follow their journey with their distorted view of the world. Also, to have a strong female character is pretty amazing. We get to dive deeply into her psyche and try to understand how flawed she is. We watch her, through the course of the show, become faced with the truth that she’s been avoiding.
Michael: Why does Gypsy work so well with contemporary audiences?
Rachel: The world is full of wounded souls. The theater has an obligation to help us see that in others and in ourselves. Gypsy does this beautifully in that area of dealing with our primary wounds, with parents and family and society and those expectations that are put on us. Anyone can relate to that — seeing these wounds and watching someone having a different expectation and trying to control our lives.
Michael: The people who created Gypsy were show business giants.
Rachel: With Gypsy, it’s so easy to fall into the music. Jule Styne’s music is so brilliant, and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics of course, is amazing. It was the perfect match — Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, and then Jerome Robbins who directed and choreographed it. They really understood this time period. Jule Styne’s music was really evocative and true to the time period and the styles.
Michael: Can you just do the songs and not really think about how they connect to the psyches of the characters?
Rachel: That’s the danger. It’s easy for directors and choreographers to fall into that fun song and dance time, and not remember how these songs are furthering the story. If Mama Was Married, for example, is not as playful as one thinks with these two girls. The sisters didn’t have a strong relationship growing up, and I see their really tragic relationships unfolding in the show. It’s a lot more than just song and dance, although, of course, I recognize, as a choreographer as well, that the movement and the songs have to further the storytelling.
Michael: Tell me about the main character, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Rachel: The beauty of theater is how it so powerfully reflects our humanity in all of its strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to hold that mirror up so that the audience might learn something about their own journey through life.
I think a lot of plays and musicals have that ability, but Gypsy just – bang — puts it in your face! Rose is a flawed character. We follow her and we have to root for Rose. With Rose, there’s an expectation going into Gypsy that you think like, “Oh, she’s just a steamroller,” or we think of Ethel Merman, just getting her way all the time. It’s so much more complicated than that. We root for Rose and understand where she’s coming from and what her dreams are.
Even though she’s doing seemingly unforgivable things, we understand where her wounds are from. It makes us root for her in a way we just hope that maybe she’ll make a different choice.. That’s the tragic aspect of the show. It’s left a little bit ambiguous at the end, but I do believe that there could be hope for the final relationship we see in the play.
Michael: Tell me more about the comparison between Mama Rose and Lear.
Rachel: If you know King Lear, it is exactly that same story of following a journey of a parent and his or her distorted view of the world and the co-dependent relationships that result. I did a lot of research on the subject and realized how much Rose creates these co-dependent relationships because she has a fear of abandonment. If she doesn’t have these people in her life, she believes she’s worthless. She’s going to do anything in her power to hold onto these people, but it is often in a very manipulative way, a way that is not healthy for her children, for her husband, and so on. We see the children either get out and figure out their own path.
It’s a pretty crazy similarity between those two characters, Lear and Gypsy. I think it shows the magnitude of the issues we’re dealing with, and that this isn’t a musical like any other. This is a masterpiece that Arthur Laurents and Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim created. I just feel so privileged to get to do it at Lyric.