Director Gary Griffin knows his Sondheim. And he's found his muse in Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Having presented two highly-praised and award-winning productions of the celebrated composer/lyricist's works in the past four years, including a haunting Follies and a spine-tingling Sunday in the Park with George (not to mention his multiple other Sondheim-related projects in CST's space, including an airy-yet-grounded A Little Night Music back in 2003), it's with high anticipation that we await two additional efforts: Gypsy, a landmark American musical in which a young Sondheim wrote the lyrics and helped shaped the show, and Road Show, Sondheim's latest work which premiered, though with a different title and structure, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre back in 2003.
Gypsy, which recently began preview performances and opens on Thursday, February 13, plays in CST's Courtyard Theater, and stars Canadian stage veteran Louise Pitre. I had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Pitre, who makes her CST debut with this major role, about the show and her thoughts on "Mama" Rose -- the uncompromising stage mother who's the driving force in this musical fable about burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. (Also: tune in next week when I'll be interviewing Michael Mahler, music director of CST's Road Show.)
I'm delighted to finally get a chance to see you perform in person -- I've been a long-distance fan for years. What do you think of Chicago and Chicago Shakespeare Theater?
I love Chicago! I was here with Mamma Mia! years ago and adored my time here. It is the most gorgeous, big city!! And Chicago Shakespeare Theater is one impressive place. It is truly special--there is nothing else like it.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that this is THE role for a musical theatre actress. What is your particular take on "Mama" Rose? She says in her climactic final number that she "was born too soon and started too late." How does that inform your interpretation? What other research have you done to inform your characterization?
I read Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir, American Rose. Gary Griffin has blown me away. I have never felt I owed so much of my performance to a director! Funny you should pick that line in particular because that is the line that simply chokes me up. That is the "nut" of it all right there...it is the reason for all she does. I hope that will be clear.
You've played some pretty emotionally intense (and iconic) musical theatre roles -- from Fantine to Edith Piaf. What have each of these roles taught you that you're applying here?
I have learned above all that I can trust my heart and my gut. Gary is always telling me to "trust it." The trick is to go deeply into the feeling without letting it get in the way...it's a fine balance. You can't sing when you're crying, I have to get it past that point--it takes a while to come to! That's what I've learned: be real without falling apart.
What do you find most challenging in playing this role? How do you maintain your stamina?
Well, the dialogue is actually the toughest part of this role. The singing is taxing, yes, but all the scene work is so intense and heightened! So far, I am managing from a stamina standpoint, but as we enter the tough stretch I will see exactly what it takes to do this role again and again full-out. It is a daunting thing. I have found that the most important thing is to sleep and eat well...and a lot!!
I also have to give credit to my husband Joe Matheson who is here with me for the whole run. He is shopping and cooking and driving me--basically taking care of everything--so that I can focus on this huge job. I would not be feeling as good as I am without him here with me.
For Gypsy fans, such as myself, what can we expect that will make this production unique?
A seamless and extremely private take on Gypsy. Gary's transitions from scene-to-scene ensure that the show never stops...it's magical. The thrust stage of CST's Courtyard Theater makes it more intimate. Nothing is presentational...it's all right there--in the room, in the dressing room.
I would also love to mention the live music performed onstage by a fourteen piece band--no synthesizers! Music Director Rick Fox has done new orchestrations of the score to replicate the orchestras and big band sound of the time. This is a thrilling piece of the production for me.
Back to that final number, "Rose's Turn." One ongoing debate amongst Gypsy fans is the intention of the line "Mama? Ma-ma-ma-mama?" Some feel she's calling out for her own mother who abandoned her (as we learn in the sparse kitchen scene prior to "Some People"), while some, including book writer Arthur Laurents, feel she's simply stunned by the moment at hand. What is your take?
That is the toughest single moment in the show for me. In my mind, the first "Mama, Mama's" is what you say--surprise at what she has just said. A sudden realization. The next "Mama.." is to me a cry to her own mother, now having realized that she must let go--much as she was let go by her own mother...
Did you have a stage mother? Who pushed you to do what you're doing now?
My mother was not a stage mom, not at all. She would say to me, "You were good in this show. I don't say that because I'm your mother--I would tell you if you weren't!" And she would have too. She is always said: "Be humble." That was and still is a great piece of advice. No one pushed me. I push myself hard enough all by myself (ha!).
Say Rose Hovick were alive today and you had a chance to share a Coke (and an eggroll) with her. What questions would you ask her?
Is there a man you wish was still here with you?
Do you ever sleep??????
Do you ever lose your voice?
Did you ever forgive your mother?
Do you regret stealing that gold plaque?
Would you push your daughters again if you could go back?
Louise Pitre as Mama Rose in CST's "Gypsy"
"Gypsy" plays through March 23 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. More info here >