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How do you take on Ethel Merman in Broadway's answer to King Lear?

Written by
Ben Neutze

In 1989, New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote, "Gypsy is nothing if not Broadway's own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear". It’s a comparison that’s stuck for the last few decades, and although it’s now become a bit of a cliché, it rings true. Just as in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, there’s a formidable parental character at the centre of Gypsy who carries the entire weight of the show on their shoulders and is slowly broken down by their ambition and less-than-stellar approach to parenting.

In Gypsy, it’s stage mother from hell “Mama" Rose Hovick whose daughters became burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee and actor June Havoc. The 1959 musical, penned by Arthur Laurents with a score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, is a fictionalised account of Mama Rose’s time on the road in the 1920s with daughters in tow, trying to make a career for them on the fast-shrinking vaudeville circuit.

It’s a role that’s been tackled by a rollcall of the most celebrated musical theatre actors of the last six decades: Ethel Merman, Bette Midler, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Imelda Staunton. Local stars to take on Rose include Toni Lamond, Judi Connelli and Caroline O’Connor.

Now it’s award-winning actor Blazey Best’s turn, who is returning to the Hayes Theatre after appearing in Australian musicals Miracle City and Only Heaven Knows. While those shows have each only been seen a handful of times, Gypsy is one of the most well-loved musicals ever written, and it has legions of fans with strict ideas about how the show should be done – including details down to how certain lines should be spoken and which optional high notes should be sung.

“People feel a sense of ownership over things they love,” Best says of Gypsy’s fandom. “When I was younger and went to the opera, people would often bring their own scores and read along. People sometimes do it with Shakespeare plays too, and you can be on stage and look down and see people reading. And that’s fine – if people really love it they can feel like they have a right to hear it done their way.”

Of course, the 110-seat Hayes Theatre is a long way from the 1,700-seat Broadway Theatre where Gypsy premiered. In many ways, this more intimate setting matches Best’s take on the character.

“I see her not as a diva, but as a scrapper; like a pub brawler and a fighter,” she says.

And committed Gypsy fans won’t necessarily hear the score how they expected: it’s been rearranged by musical director Joe Accaria to suit a six-piece band. But Rose’s two massive numbers – Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn – maintain all of their dramatic power. In each number, Rose reaches a tipping point and comes perilously close to the end of her tether.

“It’s like they were written specifically to try to ruin [the original Rose] Ethel Merman and break her down,” Best says. “It’s designed to kind of wreck you. I’m going to pay absolute respect to this lovely score, but you have to kind of give into it in a way. Maybe if you’re singing it well, you’re not singing it right. I don’t know.”

Blazey Best in 'Gypsy'
Photograph: Phil Erbacher

Rose is known for the monstrous ways she treats her children as she pushes them further and further in her desperate quest for fame. But Best says the key to playing a character with such questionable behaviour is to try to understand her motives without judging them.

“As you rehearse, other people in the room will put a negative spin on what she’s doing and in all seriousness I’ll go ‘no, no, it’s not like that at all’.

“It’s kind of like being an addict – wanting that fame and next bit of success, and needing it so badly that she’ll do anything and even destroy the people she loves.”

While she’s had to advocate for this one character throughout the rehearsal process for Gypsy, Best is about to take on a new theatrical role: director.

She’s making her directorial debut at the Old Fitz Theatre this August – where she once starred in an early Tim Minchin musical called This Blasted Earth – with Steve Rodgers’ new play, King of Pigs.

“I got an email from Steve asking me if I’d direct his play,” Best says. “I’d never directed before, so I felt a little bit sick and totally terrified and thought ‘well OK, I should do that.’”

While her focus is very much on Gypsy – running until the end of June – Best says her mind keeps returning to Rodgers’ play, which follows one woman in different relationships with four men. Each relationship has some kind of abusive element.

“I used to think it was about domestic violence, and the more I look at it and think about it, I actually think it’s about the corruption of our boys.”

Like many of Australia’s theatre directors, Best has learnt a lot from watching great directors working in rehearsal rooms. She says that she’s addicted to the craft and even when she’s not called for a particular rehearsal will just hang around to watch and learn.

“One of the things that I find so wonderful about my job is that I’m privileged to see some of the best theatre – better theatre than anyone else will ever see – because you see it in the rehearsal room when it’s just new; a new idea happens and it works, and the whole room lights up.”

Gypsy is at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 30.

Looking for more all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas? See our hit-list of the best musical theatre in Sydney.

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