The orchestra plays as the lights slowly rise. The music is military, heavy with marching drums. Two figures are in a bed making love; they are nude. The music builds to a crescendo matching the lovemaking. The couple is attractive, as are their voices—his baritone to her soprano. Thus starts the musical Passion. The two linger before donning their clothing, which will not be fully evident until the following scene. Once clothed they are suddenly of a specific time and place, mid–nineteenth century Europe, he a uniformed officer and she a stylish mother and wife—of another. The clothing solves riddles, providing at least superficial explanations beyond their bodies, however beautiful.
Note that while Passion opens with lovemaking, the act is well along its way. It is only the culmination of the act that the audience witnesses, the final moments leading to climax. We see nothing of what came before: the first encounter, the flirtation, the rising passions, the initial physical contact. We neither see them strip nor tease, experience none of their suspense or surprise, only their shared orgasmic peak.
While we are denied a view of Giorgio and Clara’s foreplay, a kind of foreplay will form the rest of the story, again leading up to Giorgio’s lovemaking, but this time with a different woman and with haunting results. I argue that this foreplay, a developing dance between Giorgio and Fosca, is itself a form of striptease, a curiously mirroring bookend to Gypsy in Sondheim’s musical oeuvre.
The Sondheim Stamp
It is difficult to define a Sondheim musical as being solely his; Sondheim has always been a collaborator. He has acknowledged that his work is built upon the characters and situations created by his respective librettists. Still, Sondheim’s presence is more than his words and music; it is evident in the issues and ideas, nuances of thought and emotions that propel the characters in his shows. So even as he has worked with different writers throughout his career, the Sondheim stamp is always evident and profound.
Much like his teacher and mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim’s work has never been limited to romance, let alone sex. His Company is about loneliness in the face of marital dysfunction; his Sweeney Todd about avenging a love lost; and Follies? Though former chorus girls are displayed, their decayed beauty is designed to evoke nostalgia and loss, rather than sexual desire. May/December attractions align with sexual frustration, but only to ridicule human absurdity in his A Little Night Music.
So, to associate Sondheim with striptease will take on additional dimensions beyond the burlesque routine itself. Viewed in this light, we find variations on “stripping” prevalent in several of his key works. For our purposes we will look primarily at Gypsy (1959, book by Arthur Laurents) and Passion (1994, book by James Lapine).
Not a Burlesque! Getting to the Bottom of Things
Striptease developed as part of American burlesque, having its heyday during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and enjoying some revival in recent years. Long regarded as the lowest rung of vaudeville, strippers worked alongside baggy-pants comics for predominantly male, working class audiences. Burlesque performances appealed more to physicality than wit, to the vulgar rather than the subtle. That is not to say that some were not brilliant practitioners, only that the form itself favored bodily experience.
As the term suggests, the “striptease” centered upon titillation. A standard striptease introduced a fully clothed woman who systematically removed one article of clothing at a time in order to tantalize or arouse. The goal was often to remove as much clothing as the censors would allow, the revealing of as much flesh as possible. Often the removal of each item foreshadowed the revealing of all, hence the fascination with the deliberately slow removal of a single glove.
Ironically, after a proportionately long wait as she disrobes, the eventual nude moment was often brief at best, only a flash, before stepping behind a nearby curtain, or dissolving entirely into the dark. So, the nudity, while considered the objective “prize” for the watcher, was itself just a tease.
Yet, paradoxically, the promise of nudity was itself a gimmick to hold the audience attention, to keep our eyes riveted on her. In a sense, the stripper’s eventual nudity upstages her. It was the artistry of manipulation that made for burlesque queens; anyone could appear nude, but few knew how to direct audience gaze. This manipulation asserted female power, the ability to cover and uncover, to use glimpses of sex to control and dominate. She decided what you were allowed to look at, how so, when and for just so long—and no more than that. If the audience is the lion, then she is the tamer, entertaining by demonstrating her masterful control of the beast.
Gypsy was Stephen Sondheim’s second Broadway show. Gypsy is based upon famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography, and while Arthur Laurents wrote the book, both director Jerome Robbins and lyricist Sondheim contributed greatly to the musical’s storyline.
The real Gypsy Rose Lee was 48 when the musical about her—and her mother’s—life opened on Broadway. Lee had been a star since age 20, appearing nightly at New York’s famed Minsky’s Burlesque, and was still a celebrity when the musical Gypsy opened almost thirty years later. In fact, she remained a popular television regular until her untimely death from lung cancer at 59.
Early publicity photos of Lee show her naked midriff with her hands provocatively covering bare breasts. Yet film footage of Lee’s act reveals surprisingly little skin: she enters buttoned up from hat to toe, and by strip’s end she remained almost as covered up as when she began. Lee used her strong, modulated voice to control the tone and pace, describing herself, using humor and puns mixed with high culture, giving an understated wink as she provocatively removed each glove, then garter, then stockings, then petticoat. Rodgers and Hart accurately spoofed her blend of sex and intellectualism in their Pal Joey number “Zip”; in the video I saw Lee performed without any bump or grind. In sum, Gypsy Rose Lee flashed her intelligence as much as her bare body.
Taking Turns… or Turn Taking
The recurring number in Gypsy is “Let Me Entertain You.” It is sung throughout the show, initially as the theme song for Mama Rose’s children’s vaudeville troupe. It is a juvenile number,
designed to ingratiate, an appeal for extra end-of-routine applause. Thus, the song’s promise of having “a real good time” means just that—kid-like fun. By the end of Gypsy, the song is repeated, but now as the signature number sung by the now adult Louise as she performs a striptease for the predominantly male audience. The tempo slows to match her strides, and the shift in context alarmingly shifts the song’s formerly innocent meaning: the promise that “we’ll have a real good time”—it now is decidedly X-rated, for adults only. This circumstantial switch embodies key dynamics of the musical: a self-serving, overly-ambitious mother uses her daughters rather than loves them, leading one to flee and resulting in the eventual—and perhaps inevitable—remaining innocent’s loss of innocence.
Ironically, Louise’s striptease is actually a cover-up. Throughout Gypsy the audience has grown familiar with this sensitive, thoughtful, retiring young woman, ever loving and forgiving. It is this quiet butterfly who, through stripping, is transformed into a gypsy moth. As Louise continues to strip, she is denied to us; never again do we see her inner sweetness. She shows skin but no longer any vulnerability; her act “promises” sex but not love. Her soft skin has become a tough hide beneath which she guardedly hides.
Mama’s Turned Away
Though primarily written by Arthur Laurents, Gypsy’s quintessential moment was contrived by Robbins and Sondheim. Recognizing the show needed a rousing 11 o’clock showstopper for star Ethel Merman, the two men worked all night at the theatre devising a retrospective musical soliloquy for Mama Rose, the domineering mother Gypsy finally escapes. It was a study in frustration, self-pity and rage aptly titled, “Rose’s Turn.” Losing her authority and grip, through this number Rose performs her own striptease, matching Gypsy bump for bump, straining to outstrip her stripper daughter in an effort to reassert her own vanishing power.
But though she shimmies and shakes, “Rose’s Turn” is more emotional strip than it is physical. Rose belts out her truths: her rage, her ambition, her resentments, her pain and frustrations, not only at being dumped (first by June, then by Herbie and finally Louise), but at having to live her dreams through her children—who lacked her ability and who ultimately disappointed her. It is shocking, distasteful, sloppy and vulgar. Daughter Louise has become a star—and Mama Rose hates her for it. All Rose’s pent-up ugliness is laid bare.
A G-String Mystery
Structurally, Gypsy revels in slowly revealing the unknown. In 1959, the year of its debut, the real Gypsy Rose Lee was still very much alive and famous. No doubt the show was titled Gypsy to capitalize on her celebrity, along with the tacit promise of the audience experiencing some reenactment of her burlesque performances. At the very least audiences perhaps wondered how exactly Gypsy Rose Lee came to be.
At the musical’s start, audiences might wonder which of the women will become Gypsy? Like an expert stripper, the Laurents/Robbins/Sondheim team masked her identity for as long as possible. Who will it be? The only one named “Rose” through the bulk of the play is the stage mother; but that Rose is clearly too old to be Gypsy. As for the two daughters, one is named “June” and the other “Louise.” So, no “Rose” appears present, though the act’s star, Baby June, seems the likeliest choice. For those audience members wise to the fact that “Baby June” grew up to be film star June Havoc, the cat was out of the bag, I suppose. But most probably did not know that. Therefore, when Baby June flees the family vaudeville act—escaping her domineering mother in order to elope—one of our suspects is eliminated. June’s exit is a key dramatic moment and functions akin to the loss of one of a stripper’s gloves: with her removed from the scene, part of this hidden mystery is tantalizingly revealed. That now leaves—maybe—Louise as Gypsy, as it certainly couldn’t be Mama Rose! With June out of the picture, the story’s (and audience’s) focus shifts: how could it be that the shy, sensitive, practical Louise could ever end up becoming the extrovert sex symbol Gypsy Rose? It seems implausible.
The rest of the play is thus dedicated to the step-by-step removal of the family’s respectability, much like removing the next glove, then stockings, then garter. Respectable vaudeville is dying and we witness the increasingly degrading progression of the act’s bookings, until they hit rock bottom. It is only out of desperation that Louise becomes Gypsy. Her transformation represents a complete inversion: retiring and talentless non-performer Louise becomes the star, the sexless becomes the sex symbol, the vulnerable becomes hardened. Long ignored and taken for granted, Louise as Gypsy unexpectedly becomes the center of attention.
In addition to shedding her clothing, the now independent Gypsy also sheds her mother. Louise was always the responsible one, more than either her mother or sister. But once “Gypsy” and a star, Louise can run her own life and escape the trap of maternal entanglement; she becomes the adult Gypsy, a woman suddenly freed of obligation.
Mama Rose made both daughters her breadwinners but remained in charge; now Gypsy is entirely in charge. Rose could be the object of audience sympathy if not for the fact that it was she who was responsible for the damage. The ultimate irony of this show called “Gypsy” is that it does not center on the title character at all. Much as Laurents/Robbins/Sondheim shaped the show as a striptease who-done-it, they also used old-fashioned salesman trickery in an elaborate bait-and-switch. Gypsy’s real focus is Mama Rose. This was a tough secret to keep from audiences when you have Ethel Merman seemingly relegated to a secondary part! The title suggests focus on a famous star, not on her unknown mother. In truth, it takes an actress the magnitude of a Merman—or a Daly, or Peters, or LuPone—to counterbalance the audience’s focus on the increasingly sympathetic title character. Hence the double plot.
Late in the second act the authors keep the salacious promise to their audience: we see a young and beautiful Gypsy Rose Lee at last perform a striptease. It is all it is cracked up to be: evocative, clever, sexy, performed to a terrific burlesque musical beat. Normally this would be the end of a standard musical’s evening. But Mama Rose is standing in the wings. It is now her turn to go on, even if she is lost in her head, only performing for her fantasy self, even if we the audience surreptitiously peek. Rose’s number tops Gypsy’s; Rose again successfully upstages her now famous daughter. She has dominated Louise’s life, just as she has dominated the musical. “Gypsy”? It should have been titled, “Mama Rose”! Daughter Gypsy supposedly holds all the cards and yet it is Mama Rose’s stage turn—her bitter diatribe, her over-the-top sexualized unveiling of a life of rage—that audiences will have burnt into their memories, not Gypsy’s prettier flash. Queen Lear trumps Cordelia.
With his 1994 show, Passion, Stephen Sondheim delved deeply beyond the skin into the realm of senseless emotion, reflecting changes in his own personal life. Passion was also the last successful Broadway musical created by Sondheim. Sondheim’s involvement at the ground floor of shaping a successful Broadway musical really began with Gypsy. So that is why I view Gypsy and Passion as his bookend shows, unintentionally mirroring one another and hence fit to consider in light of each other. How interesting that both center on issues of manipulation, seduction and desire, and especially flesh—hidden and seen—in relation to love.
It is also striking how Gypsy ends in two striptease numbers (Louise’s “Let Me Entertain You” and Mama Rose’s “Rose’s Turn”), whereas Passion begins with Giorgio and Clara already in naked embrace, soon to cover themselves up. In other words, all of Gypsy leads up to those competing stripteases, where the featured women finally bare themselves, whereas Passion opens with naked sex. So, in terms of removal of clothing, Gypsy is structured according to suspense whereas Passion is built upon surprise: lights up and BOOM—two naked people making love. Yet in fact, while Passion begins with surprise, following that initial consummation, it’s entirely built as a prolonged, suspense-filled striptease. It BEGINS with revealing skin and then proceeds to explore the implications of how passion exists beneath and beyond the skin.
The Passion Play
In bed, Giorgio informs Clara he has orders to leave Milan to be garrisoned in a small town. The lovers swear fidelity and promise to write. The sensitive Giorgio arrives to a backwater where bored soldiers speak of horses and whores, and where the commanding Colonel’s perpetually ill cousin Fosca keeps out of sight, present only through occasional screams which the soldiers ignore, but which cause Giorgio to jump.
Learning that Fosca loves to read, Giorgio kindly lends the Colonel several books to share with her. Fosca emerges to return the books—and declares her infatuation with Giorgio, whom she has seen from her window. Fosca’s appearance repulses him, as does her unwanted obsession with him. But he pities her convulsive collapses.
Fosca harasses Giorgio, chasing as he retreats, imposing herself between him and the absent Clara. The Doctor appeals to Giorgio’s soldierly duty, asking him to feign love when it appears that Fosca is dying, which backfires, encouraging Fosca (who recovers) and disarming Giorgio further.
Fosca states she would happily die for him. Giorgio is moved. The Doctor sees how Fosca has infected Giorgio’s mental and physical health, and so arranges for Giorgio to go on extended leave. Back in Milan Giorgio confronts Clara, demanding she abandon her marriage and son immediately. She will not. Clara thus loses Giorgio to Fosca’s utter devotion.
The Colonel accuses Giorgio of having taken advantage of Fosca. He demands a duel. Giorgio goes to Fosca’s sick room and, even though both know she is too frail, they make love as the lights drop. At the duel Giorgio wounds the Colonel then lets out a scream identical to those of Fosca’s. Months pass. Giorgio is recovering from a nervous breakdown. The Doctor tells him that the Colonel has slowly recovered and that Fosca died only a few days after making love to Giorgio.
Where in Gypsy stripping leads to Louise’s freedom, in Passion the stripping of Giorgio corresponds to his being ensnared by Fosca. His chivalry makes him susceptible to her apparent frailty. Giorgio is systematically stripped of control over his life, as Fosca—first passively, then aggressively—rips away each of his defenses, step by step, leaving him by the end exposed and helpless before her. This stripping away forms the plot pattern of Passion.
Heard, but Not Seen
Fosca is ugly and ill. At first she is kept covered up, hidden from view. That she has an inner beauty and strength invisible to most is made apparent in the casting of Donna Murphy in the 1994
original production, whose exquisite speaking voice is made prominent by a body microphone. Her outer self may repel, but her voice is striking and inviting, even powerful.
The “stripping” in the show is performed by Fosca and is as deliberate as Gypsy’s. We are told that she has watched Giorgio from a window, but he has not yet seen her. At dinner her place is set amongst the officers, but she does not appear; much like Tartuffe, we only hear about her from them. The audience—and Giorgio—first experience her through sound: her initial scream. It establishes her hidden-away presence, while also establishing the primacy of her voice and its unexpected power.
We do not glimpse Fosca until halfway through scene two, when she enters to return Giorgio’s books to him. Much like a blend of Gypsy and Follies, Fosca slowly descends a darkened staircase, her figure seen, her rich voice heard, but her features denied us. Then, over the course of the ensuing scene, she gradually reveals her face. Given the beauty of her speaking and singing voice, perhaps we expect a face and figure to match; if so, we are disappointed. As the stage directions state:
“(stage directions): …As she turns from the shadows, revealing herself, we discover that she is an ugly, sickly woman; incredibly thin and sallow, her face all bones and nose, her hair pulled tightly back. Music holds.”
Giorgio responds to her at first out of pity. He appreciates her literary interests but is put off when she explains her interest is only superficial and escapist. She tells the story of her failed marriage, where a scoundrel wed her only to strip her and her parents of their resources. Yet the cad also warns that, despite her victimhood, Fosca is herself a predator.
Like Gypsy, in Passion the audience is caught between two competing women. In Passion, they compete for ownership of Georgio’s affection. In the play, Clara, with all her finery, gradually gives way to Fosca, with all her suffering. Giorgio’s relationship with Clara is born of convenience for both; his relationship with Fosca is militant, demanding total surrender of self. How could homely Fosca compete with lovely Clara? She uses pity. Fosca gains ground with each convulsion. Then Clara writes to Giorgio as if to compete with Fosca, asking if he will love her once her beauty has faded. It is just then that Fosca collapses in the rain, using an actual disability to trump Clara’s hypothetical one. It is a last desperate move when Clara doubles back to offer to leave her husband for Giorgio once her son is of age; she thus promises Giorgio her future to be shared with his. But Giorgio brings her Fosca’s competing offer of giving him everything and doing so now. When Clara hesitates, Fosca wins. Ironically, once Giorgio and Fosca consummate their love it will result in no real-life future together, as it leads almost immediately to Fosca’s death and—as seen by his duel scream followed by the play’s ending—Giorgio’s being taken over, dybbuk-like, by Fosca, living alone though trapped with her in his memory.
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Skin factors as well in Passion. Early in the play Giorgio asks the Doctor about Fosca’s screams and he replies:
“DOCTOR: Those are hysterical convulsions. One might say that her nerves are exposed, where ours are protected by a firm layer of skin… No, I’m afraid Signora Fosca’s physical state prevents her from being anyone’s lover.”
Fosca’s reactions all resonate beneath the skin, reach deeply to control the soul. In contrast, Giorgio and Clara are introduced clothing-less, caught up in passion: the two lovers are celebrating the pleasures of the flesh, physical sensations, the full display of two healthy and attractive animals. But it is that which exists beneath the skin’s surface to which Fosca speaks and to which Giorgio ultimately responds, then succumbs. Fosca may be sickly, her love a disease that brings Giorgio fever and madness, their lovemaking fatal, but she appeals to Giorgio’s self-absorption; he is flattered into love by her willingness to die for him. But her sacrifice is of a predatory nature as Fosca takes over Giorgio completely, finding immortality through haunting.
Appropriate to striptease, clothing plays a central role in Passion as well. Giorgio begins the play naked with Clara; she, like he, then dresses—she in a feminine nightgown, he in a military uniform. With each appearance through the first act, pretty songbird Clara wears one brightly colored gown after another. In contrast, her rival Fosca remains in the same dull clothes, all drab and constricting. After the opening, Giorgio wears the same officer’s uniform throughout, except for two cloaks, both of which are removed to protect Fosca: the first a regular soldier’s cloak, surrendered to protect her, gentlemanly, from the rain; the second an overly large tartan patterned cloak, so large as to make him appear smaller and frail himself. This too he surrenders to Fosca, seeing her shiver from the cold.
Thus, twice Giorgio strips himself to cover Fosca. In order to cover her he uncovers himself. Now exposed, Giorgio loses his protective layer, his outer “skin.” His first exposure results in his getting a fever; the second results in him abandoning the Doctor-ordered travel to Milan to recuperate. With this second decloaking, Giorgio is now effectively Fosca’s, as he accompanies her back to the garrison. In both cases, her shivers cause his illness, and as his health progressively fails, Giorgio is becoming one with her.
Note that each time Fosca gains Giorgio’s cloak it is at his expense. Each time Fosca becomes covered, Giorgio is exposed. This first happened when Giorgio was reading a letter from Clara where she admits her frailties; but Fosca’s collapse later in the scene upstages Clara’s distant admission. The second happened after Giorgio boards the train which will carry him to Clara; but Fosca’s chills again distract, leading Giorgio to abandon his trip to visit Clara, seeing after Fosca instead. This appears unintentional by Fosca but is actually aggressive. With each of Giorgio’s cloaks (his protective armor) she takes on his male, military persona: she gains empowerment as he becomes feminized. His exterior armor lost, Giorgio is left exposed and vulnerable.
Late in the musical Giorgio and Fosca finally make love. But we never see them in a state of undress: the curtains quickly close to block our view, a notable contrast to the play’s opening scene with naked Giorgio and Clara. Later still, in the final scene, Giorgio wears uniform trousers with hospital-gown top. The once formidable military man is now the patient; once empowered, he is now impotent. After all, his bullet failed to kill the Colonel, and his lovemaking with Fosca resulted in her death. The once proud rooster has been unmanned by a diseased hen.
Seduced and Abandoned
Hence Passion is the story of a seduction; it is also a study in passion as opposed to recreational sex. It echoes Gypsy in the same way that Mama Rose is ultimately discarded at the end, a victim of her own obsessive ambition. It is similar to Gypsy in its study of sex and love, of surface versus the unseen, and how, ultimately, unseen passions and frustrations and selfishness present themselves as inconvenient yet far more powerful truths that, in the end, overpower the superficial, “controllable” playing with sex, as seen with Gypsy’s stripteases and Giorgio and Clara’s opening embrace. And like Gypsy, Passion is a story of power reversals, as played out by Sondheim’s contributions in particular. With Gypsy we saw how Mama Rose lost power to daughter Gypsy. In Passion military drums accompany Giorgio with Clara—suggesting he is in charge—whereas Giorgio’s relationship with Fosca becomes increasingly melodic, like her voice, leaving the drums aside as she defeats him. Fosca also becomes increasingly physical, less passive as the story unfolds: though she herself is ugly, she tells Giorgio she finds him pretty. At dinner with the other officers, Fosca grabs Giorgio’s hand beneath the table and will not let go; later she places his hand on her breast, despite his protestations.
The Loneliest Number
Note also how Giorgio is stripped of others during the course of the play. When the play opens he is stationed in Milan. He is transferred along with his men—whom we never see but of whom he often speaks—to a small-town garrison, so his world is sharply reduced. Furthermore, the point is made that unlike the sophisticates of Milan, the people at this new post are provincial and ill bred. Georgio seems to spend his time with his men, or with fellow officers, or the better-read Colonel or Doctor, when not with Fosca. It is interesting that when he becomes ill and withdrawn, the Doctor prescribes leave back in Milan, among the cultured many. But over time he comes to prefer remaining near Fosca rather than travelling away, preferring the company of first the few and then seemingly only her. By story’s end, with Fosca dead and the Colonel a recovering foe, Giorgio is left isolated and alone. He exists in his own mind rather than enjoying the company of living others.
Passion is built as a striptease, but what is stripped? Like Gypsy, it is the women who conquer by play’s end, relying upon sexual manipulation. Louise strips and finds freedom; Mama Rose’s “Rose’s Turn” strip reveals disappointment and rage; the skin-less Fosca strips Giorgio to cover herself, leaving him a defenseless prisoner, as lost as she herself once was.
Stephen Sondheim worked on Passion some thirty years after writing Gypsy. In that time he moved from his late twenties to being in his early sixties. Along that path his shows occasionally explored characters’ inner lives; one could argue that both Follies and Merrily We Roll Along similarly stripped away external layers through the course of the action to reveal unexpected character revelations by the end. Yet Gypsy and Passion stand out because they both contrast the deliberate removal of clothing, the former ostensibly for sex, though actually for business, and the latter ostensibly for lust, though actually for self-destructive obsession. Perhaps the contrast in subject matter and treatment demonstrates Sondheim’s evolution as an artist and man; in many respects Gypsy points backward toward the musical’s vulgar variety show, populist roots, whereas Passion was an effort to push the musical forward still further, beyond his operetta-like Sweeney Todd, into the deeply emotive realm of grand opera, usually the bailiwick of high culture. The emotional stakes correspondingly deepened and darkened for the composer by the time of Passion. Ironically, though, given Gypsy’s great success and Passion’s more limited commercial appeal, it seems audiences have favored the more traditional musical approach of Gypsy rather than more excessively emotional demands of Passion. Perhaps audiences can only bear—or bare?—so much.