Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti on the real Gypsy

Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti and Patti LuPone of "Gypsy" perform during the 62nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, June 15, 2008 in New York City.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gypsy Rose Lee. CBS "Sunday Morning" producer Judith Hole sat down with actors Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti, the Tony Award-winning stars of the 2008 Broadway revival of the classic musical "Gypsy" (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents), to discuss the show and its real-life characters:

Q: It's the 100th birthday of Gypsy Rose Lee. But you can't talk about the real Gypsy Rose Lee without talking about the musical "Gypsy." What drew you, Patti, to Rose, Gypsy's mother?

PATTI LUPONE: Actually, nothing drew me to Rose. Just a lot of people told me that I should play Madam Rose. And I played Louise when I was about 15 years old in a production of "Gypsy." And that was really my experience with Gypsy. When I read the script, I understood why people thought I should play it. Because the way the play's written, it's a very energetic role. It requires a lot of physical energy.

And also when I read the role, I didn't see Rose Hovick [as she was] portrayed in the musical or even in the movie of the musical, which is a monstrous stage mother. I just saw a woman that wanted freedom at a time when women had no freedom. And found her way out of a marriage through her daughters, especially Baby June, who displayed talent. So, she took advantage of it, and took the girls out and entered the world of Vaudeville.

And she must have known something, because both women became stars, [and] I don't think you can force that on anybody. If they haven't got it, they haven't got it. And so, that was my experience with, you know, my introduction to Madam Rose and then my interpretation of Madam Rose.

Q: I counted up, I think, five revivals and the original, a film, and potentially another film. What makes the musical "Gypsy" so legendary?

LuPone: It's the classic American show business story. It's like the American dream in show business. Do you know what I mean? . . . It's a Greek tragedy. It's a Greek family tragedy. And it's glamorous. It's also in the gutter. And it's show business. What do you think?

LAURA BENANTI: Well, I mean, I also feel like you can relate to all of the characters in a way. Who hasn't felt the way Rose clearly feels, which is, you want to get out of a certain situation with what you have. And tragically at the end that, you know, that she's ignored. And who hasn't felt like little Louise, you know? Before she was "Gypsy." Where you just want to be acknowledged by the person that you love the most, who is your mother.

So, I feel like the struggle between mother and daughters, I find that fascinating. And I think at the root of it is love, though. It's a very strange kind of love. And I think that people are always drawn to that.

Q: And in both instances - Patti, I'll start with you - do you think the musical made Rose more sympathetic than we sort of know [of her]?

LuPone: But how do we know that Rose was not sympathetic except for what has been portrayed in the musical? I mean, did anybody really know who Rose Hovick was before they wrote a musical called "Gypsy"? I don't think so. Everybody knew who Gypsy Rose Lee was. She had her own television show. She was a famous stripper. She was the darling of the literary set in New York, at a particular time.

And there were rumors about Rose, [but] I don't think that anybody really knew who Rose Hovick was until the musical. And I think that gave her the reputation - or rather, that depicted her in a way - as a monster. Now, if you read Gypsy's book or we read June Hovick's two books or if you read "American Rose," they all depict her - well Gypsy Rose Lee is a little more gentle with her mother. However, she does say the same things that June says and that [Karen Abbott] that wrote in "American Rose," that she got what she wanted however she could. And there was brutality. She had a brutal side. So they all say.

Q: And what attracted you, Laura, to Gypsy? I mean, a lot of the play, the character is awkward, sort of untalented. Kind of a schlump.

Benanti: That's what attracted me to it. The idea of being able to have such -

LuPone: This beautiful woman! (LAUGH)

Benanti: But to have such a fantastic arc. You know, so often when you play an ingénue, you know, in whatever piece - theater, TV, film - it's kind of one-dimensional, and you're just wide-eyed and blinking at someone, and then someone saves you. And so, what I love about Gypsy is that she grew up an awkward tomboy, ignored - this is my perception of it, but, you know, ignored by her mother. You know, completely in the shadow of her tiny, adorable sister - and with the help of her mom morphed into this like vulpine creature, who is clearly so smart. Had no education. I was really drawn to being able to play a character who goes so far. Who has such a giant arc.

And who I always thought had so much heart and determination and drive and intelligence. To be able to captivate an entire room of not only men, but women, without ever really showing your body. I mean, I just think that she was a genius. So, to me, it was like a great challenge to play her. And, of course, to work with Patti is one of the other reasons why I wanted to do this.

Q: From what you know about Gypsy, the real person, how close do you think the character you played in the musical was to Gypsy Rose Lee?

Benanti: I don't know if many people know Louise, the real person. I think Erik Lee Preminger, her son, had the closest relationship to her, and got to see her as a mother, got to hear the stories of her growing up, and then, of course, got to see her getting Gypsy Rose Lee. I think certainly "Gypsy" is very favorable to its title character in that she's portrayed as a real innocent.

And then she's vindicated at the end. She's in a way our hero. And so, for me, I can't separate myself from that, because I identify so wholly and completely with her. I have so much love for her when I had to say goodbye to her, meaning when our show closed, I was devastated. I felt like I was saying goodbye to a best friend who I would never see again.

So, I don't think I can separate myself enough from her to be able to speak clearly about who she really was. I don't think anybody knows. But for me, she was a deeply sensitive and pathetic and fiercely intelligent, driven young woman, who wanted so desperately the love of her mother. And then when she couldn't get it, she accepted the love of everyone else instead. And it was never really enough. That's who she is for me.

Q: And, of course, the character of Gypsy and her mother in the musical is based on Gypsy's memory.

Benanti: Of course.

Q: And we're given to understand that Gypsy loved a good story and might embellish on the truth to make it better.

Benanti: Which she learned from her mother! (LAUGH)

Q: On the book side - not the Arthur Laurents, but the book, the literary side - Gypsy wrote a memoir. Her son wrote a memoir, "My G-String Mother." In 2009, there were two biographies. There's a biography in 2010, Karen Abbott's. There is yet again another biography of Gypsy Rose Lee coming out this spring. What is the enduring appeal of Gypsy Rose Lee?

Benanti: I think it's her fierce intelligence. I think particularly now in this pornographic age where, you know, Crest or deodorant is selling sex, she was able to entice an entire world, not just an entire nation, into wanting more from her - and then she didn't give it to them. So, I feel like particularly now in an age where, I don't know about you, but I constantly feel like, (MAKES NOISE) "no more." Just a barrage of sexuality coming at me. She was like this. In a world that's like this now. And I think that that is still so intriguing. I think probably even more intriguing today than it was then.

Q: What do you think, Patti?

LuPone: I agree with what Laura said. She was a dichotomy. She was illegal. And she was glamorous. And she was very low rent. I had an idealized vision of Gypsy Rose Lee. All my life, I knew who Gypsy Rose Lee was. She was there somehow. Either on Ed Sullivan or on a TV show or whatever. She was there.

But when you read, at least Karen Abbott's book - I've read her book and, of course, I read June's book - they were really from the lower classes. And she was a gangster's mom. And she accepted favors. She hung out with murderers. And so, I was kind of shocked by that. Because you see the Gypsy Rose Lee on her television show, under the chandelier and extremely elegant, you know? Having discussions with Ethel Merman and being very erudite. And you think, "This is the stripper? This is the woman who had gangsters as husbands and boyfriends and accepted gifts from them?"

Benanti: I love that about her.

LuPone: It's her, yes, really! (LAUGH) She's a fascinating character. I just find it amazing that in 2011, we don't have anybody like that now. We have nobody that could charm the literary set and the gangsters and bring them together under one roof. There is not a woman out there that is as sexually appealing as a Marilyn Monroe or a Gypsy Rose Lee. But Gypsy Rose Lee also had that intelligence. Her routine was standup.

Benanti: Absolutely.

LuPone: Really smart standup. And why did the writers want to hang out with her? They had a house in Brooklyn, where - I can't remember who the writers were right now. Ogden Nash? Carson McCullers, who was in love with her. It's like, why were they attracted to her? She was a very clever woman.

And there's nobody like that today. No feminine woman out there that is that alluring, that clever, that smart, that sexual. They're one or the other.

Benanti: I feel like she really refused to be compartmentalized. She created her own genre. And I feel like even more so today, I feel like people want you to be one thing or the other. It's the madonna/whore complex. And it's hard for people to imagine, especially a woman, as many things in one. I mean, it's too hard for them to wrap their brains around. But I think it's what makes her so intriguing. And I think you're right. I can't think of one person, other than Dita Von Teese, who is as appealing on so many levels as Gypsy.

LuPone: And Gypsy was also so smart. She was a book worm. Because she wasn't in the act. She wasn't good enough. So, she read books. She was self-educated. Self-taught. That's pretty impressive.

Benanti: Yes. That drive.

Q: Now, what about the world of burlesque?

LuPone: Don't we miss it! (LAUGH)

Q: Do we?

LuPone: I miss all the strip joints on 42nd Street! (LAUGH) What about them? I mean, the world of burlesque, the world of vaudeville, the world of burlesque.

Q: And also that she became a star in that world and then transformed herself again and became, you know, just a New York celebrity.

LuPone: I think they were cleverer producers. Cleverer entrepreneurs back then. You think about the Minsky, you think about how they brought people into the strip clubs. Or burlesque. I think they had a lot more ingenuity than our producers today. And I think that she was cleverer, they were cleverer.

And I mean, what about dance marathons, when you think about June? Where are the dance marathons? Where is the equivalent of the dance marathon today? Maybe there was more desire for a kind of entertainment. And maybe we're too much in computers and in front of, you know, HDTV screens, and isolated.

Benanti: Well, think about how, when you walk down the street, really count how many TV screens you see. I mean, on the subway platform, there's now a TV. I can't walk around outside without watching the television for five seconds? I mean, we're like a sound bite culture.

LuPone: Terrible.

Benanti: A 15-minutes-of-fame, reality-show culture.

LuPone: It's terrible.

Benanti: Where you're famous just because --

LuPone: You hit somebody.

Benanti: Yeah, 'cause you punch somebody in the face - or you got punched in the face. I mean, even though, you know, it's burlesque, those girls had talent. What they were doing was either bizarre or sexy or strange or funny or all of it.

LuPone: But very talented.

Benanti: Yes, but very talented. And people would leave their homes to go be in community and, you know, commune with others while watching entertainment. We don't have to do that now. We don't have to leave our homes. I could, right now, go get my phone from my purse and watch a movie. So, why am I gonna leave my house and take off my sweat clothes to go see something live? Which to me is really sad, because it's such an ancient art form. It's what we've been doing forever.

LuPone: Yeah. I think that Gypsy was able to utilize everything she had at her fingertips. Her knowledge. Her vocabulary. She knew she didn't have a good body. She became a stripper by accident. It's ingenuity again. She had to create something to stay on the stage, to make a living. And I think that's why the literary grabbed onto her, because it was an intelligent striptease.

Q: And, of course, she was doing - at least at the beginning, this in the Depression - she sort of had to be a stripper, because that's what was available to keep food on the table.

LuPone: Or a horse and a dance marathon. Like June was. They had a rough time. And they made it work.

Q: What do you - each of you - what do you think Gypsy Rose Lee's legacy is?

LuPone: She's an icon. She's an American show business icon, I would think. And I don't think that she's necessarily associated with stripping. She is a personality. And she is an elegant personality.

Q: Laura, you've played Gypsy. What do you think her legacy is?

Benanti: For me, she was like the last goddess. A woman so beautiful, so smart, so removed, so uninterested in actually having any sort of meaningful relationship with you, but will come so close, only to take it away. She's like a siren to me. And I'll always think of her as that.

Q: Could there ever be another Gypsy Rose Lee? Or has the time just -

LuPone: No, I think there could - well, are you talking about a stripper? Because we have them, only they're not as classy. And I say that, I mean, 'cause Gypsy Rose Lee created that class for herself. It isn't her upbringing. It isn't what she was born into. It isn't how she made her living - you know, die hard strippers. And she rose above it and became a star. We have those kinds of icons now, but I think nobody had to deal with as much as she did.

I think we've lost a lot of ingenuity in our society, in America. And nobody has that kind of pressure to succeed.

Benanti: I think there has to be a real paradigm shift in the people who would be watching. I feel like unfortunately as a society we've really started to accept the lowest common denominator. And she demanded excellence of her audience as she demanded of herself. You had to be smart enough to be there and to understand what she was doing, beyond the baseness of looking at a beautiful woman take off some of her clothes.

LuPone: She was smart, she was a comedian, and she was a stripper. I mean, jeez! She that's an amazing combination.

Benanti: I think there would be some, I'm sure there's many people out there who could be the next Gypsy Rose Lee. Who's gonna watch them? Is my bigger question.

Q: Would we be remembering Gypsy Rose Lee, the real Gypsy Rose Lee, if it were not for the fabulous musical, "Gypsy," do you think?

LuPone: No. I don't think so. I think the musical is so successful. And it's, you know, musicals are the American invention. And they glamorized her. And Rose. And June and Jocko. No, I don't think so.

Benanti: I don't think to the same extent. You know, I think that she built such an incredible life for herself. But certainly I think the younger generations know her solely because of the musical.

Q: Her son, Erik, said the same thing. He said we would not remember his mother if it weren't [for the musical].

LuPone: Listen, we don't remember an important figure that died two days ago!

For more info:

•  "Gypsy" by Gypsy Rose Lee (North Atlantic)
•  "My G-String Mother: At Home and Backstage With Gypsy Rose Lee" by Erik Preminger (North Atlantic)
•  "American Rose" by Karen Abbott (Random House)
•  "Stripping Gypsy" by Noralee Frankel (Oxford University Press)
•  "Gypsy: The Art of the Tease" by Rachel Shteir (Yale University Press)