By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist
It is undoubtedly the crowning jewel of American musical theatre. It became a benchmark role for music theatre performers. It was music theatre’s answer to King Lear, which captured the emotions dictating human existence. Gypsy is a tour de force from the first downbeat to the final curtain call as the proceedings move at a breakneck pace punctuated with some of the most memorable show tunes.
Music Theatre Bristol (MTB) has not been shy when it comes to tackling musical theatre leviathans and Gypsy: A Musical Fable is no exception.
In the run up to the main event of their performance calendar, Epigram had the chance to catch up with the director Sam Sayan and the lead cast Abi Wander.
When we met at the Beckford Café on a cold afternoon in December, Sam Sayan and Abi Wander were in the middle of an intense rehearsal session in the Senate House building. Epigram managed to catch a fleeting glimpse where a dedicated cast and crew have already spent good number of hours perfecting every facet of the production.
My first question to the duo was a curt curveball: ‘In this day and age of Netflix and Spotify why should anyone care about musical theatre?’ To which Abi Wander provided a measured and composite answer where she elucidated that:
‘I know that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but for me as a music student I find it magical. When you sit down and listen to an album, they’re all different and that’s great but when you sit down for a musical it all weaves together beautifully. There are motifs and moments that keep coming back and draw the story. It shows how music could tell a story in a special way. Musical theatre can mirror so many things which we experience in a clever way much like Shakespeare. For example, in Gypsy there are moments you could laugh or cry or feel angry. The whole spectacle is moving and uplifting.’
This is not the first time Sam Sayan and Abi Wander join forces in a major production. The 48-hour production of Heathers last summer where Sayan directed the proceedings and had Wander in the lead role garnered critical acclaim including a five-star review.
Then we turned to their own musical journeys and shows which fired their imagination. For Sam Sayan it was Rocky Horror Picture Show which they saw as a 10-year-old in costume! It seared on to them and made an inerasable imprint.
When I asked Sayan what was special about the show, they commented that:
‘I’m gay and a person of colour. This is a show where I saw queerness and people of colour were represented in such a positive way. It was such a pivotal moment in my head that completely resonated with me. I saw a representation of myself and thought ‘Wow! I enjoyed that!’.
The ember of passion grew into a bright flame over the years for Sayan.
Abi Wander’s natural flair for singing was spotted at the age of 7 years old by her deputy headmistress who was a retired opera singer before turned to teaching. She received singing lessons and joined a myriad of choir groups including a semi-professional vocal ensemble. She also joined various drama groups during her school days in London where she honed her stage craft.
When I asked about her first encounter with musical theatre, she said: ‘It’s probably going to be a boring answer. It was a performance of Wicked. I loved it so much and my love for the theatre grew from then on. Watching it for the first time I thought ‘this is what I really want to do’. She burst out laughing and added ‘my musical taste has developed a little since then’.
When I turned their attention to the casting, both said almost in unison that they were under no illusion that the production is not some watershed moment in representation or diversity. What matters according to them is at least attempting to cast actors based on their artistic merit irrespective of colour, sexuality or gender, bypassing the identity features of a character. Wander, who is proud of her Jewish heritage added that:
‘we operate in a student sphere and if we can’t at least try to achieve it in a space like ours, how could you expect the industry to be more inclusive and diverse?’
Sam Sayan, who is an accomplished musical theatre performer in their own right, starred in the National Youth Music Theatre production of Ragtime where they portrayed Tateh, a Jewish immigrant travelling to America for a new life with his young daughter. The role required both empathy and finesse which Sayan had in spades. As an actor, Sayan is fully aware of the intricacies and complexities of the roles assigned to cast members, but they firmly believe in sharing their creative vision for the project with the cast and drilling it down to a tee in rehearsals.
Gypsy: A Musical Fable (1959) was considered by many as the most complete musical theatre expression in the history of Broadway, which featured the skills of two doyens in the industry: the composer Jule Styne and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The latter was on a crest of creative prowess where he became a household name for his infectiously catchy lyrics of West Side Story only two years prior to Gypsy.
When Sondheim was asked of the 'secret recipe' for his memorable lyrics in an episode of Desert Island Discs on the BBC, he broke down his ‘magic’ with a disarming candour and said he treated musical numbers as one-act plays infused with the corresponding mood and emotions.
Gypsy recounts the tale of Gypsy Rose Lee, unarguably the most popular burlesque and striptease artist in history, and her mother Rose. Rose is the pinnacle of all stage mothers and a character whose complexities and challenges have been explored by a long line of theatre luminaries, including Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Patty LuPone and Imelda Staunton. Abi Wander is relishing the challenge and determined put her own spin on this iconic character.
According to Sam Sayan, the set design for Gypsy is both detailed and extravagant, capturing the opulence of Post-Depression America which includes a fully equipped kitchen, a dressing table, a large neon sign, pyro, smoke and a rotating piece of set.
Sayan is quick to point out that it has been a huge collaborative effort with some other SU groups and individuals such as Walter Hall of the Bristol Operatic Society, David Simkins of the Bristol Symphonia, Sustainable Fashion Society, Marketing Society, DramSoc and the Pole and Aerial Society. The latter has been advising the cast with the terminology and the artistic nuances surrounding burlesque.
As they were about to resume the rehearsals, I took my leave after being enthralled by an engrossing conversation on musical theatre and performing arts.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Music Theatre Bristol
Have you got your tickets for MTB's Gypsy: A Musical Fable?