Another opening, another show!

It’s been a year since I cleaned out my dressing room at the Sharon Playhouse while the crew in the theater above dismantled Ascot, Covent Garden and my precious study at 27A Wimpole St. They attacked with electric drills, saws, hammers — everything but a wrecking ball. By the time our fair ladies had washed the dirt or rouge off their faces and Pickering, Doolittle and I hung up our top hats and tails for good, it was practically all gone. Vanished. 

Well, from the comfort of Mayfair, I set out for the filthiest little hovel in all of Ireland. Last September, “The Quare Land” by John McManus was having its American premier at the Irish Repertory Theater in Manhattan and my job, in the role of Rob McNulty, was to buy a scrubby five-acre plot from a cantankerous old coot taking a bubble bath. I desperately needed that land, you see, for my golf course, but Peter Maloney, as the wily Hugh Pugh, wouldn’t sell. Not at any price! Now Maloney is a fine actor and a good man, but I was so frustrated by the end of that play that I dumped his turntable into the tub and electrocuted him. Dead! The audience was suitably shocked, but if there’s a self-respecting Irishman in this county who would have done different, I’ll buy him drink.

Then it was off to the 16th Century and “Othello, the Moor of Venice.” Everyone knows how that one ends: badly. We were in our nation’s capital at the Shakespeare Theater of DC. Interesting times down there. The monuments were buried in snow, at first, until the cherry trees bloomed. Too soon the delicate pink petals blew away along with that vaudevillian horde of White House hopefuls. All but two now ... on the national stage.

Now I’m back in Sharon and in rehearsal for “Gypsy.” I didn’t know much about the show, to be honest. I googled it. Strippers — good. Vaudeville in the ’20s and ’30s. And no less than Ben Brantley called it, “The greatest of all American musicals.” Frank Rich wrote, “ ‘Gypsy’ is nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to ‘King Lear.’” What? With lots of Shakespeare under my belt, that struck me as a bit rich, frankly.

But what did I know? Nothing. After two weeks of rehearsal I can tell you that “Gypsy” is a masterpiece. Loosely based on the memoirs of the striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee, the focus is on Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother, who will do anything to make her daughters into stars. Rose is a force of nature whose monstrous ambition trumps all, trampling everything in its path, even love. Yet unlike most self-aggrandizing narcissists vying for attention, Mama Rose is a magnificent and irrepressible spirit — an American original — willing to sacrifice all for her dream. We cheer for her (even if we wouldn’t vote for her) because she is true to herself no matter what. 

The iconic part has been interpreted by many leading actresses: Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, to name a few. We have our own star here at the Playhouse, Tony Award-winner Karen Ziemba, taking on Mama for the first time. It’s been thrilling to watch her piece it together, line by line, step by step, working collaboratively with a fine ensemble under the expert guidance of Richard Stafford, who directed “My Fair Lady” last summer. 

My role, Herbie, Rose’s agent and lover, dreams of marriage and family with Rose. I want us to leave “show business” because I know that vaudeville, once the heart of American entertainment, is on its deathbed. Hollywood is pushing us out. The ground under our feet is shifting in ways Rose doesn’t understand or won’t admit, but she battles on. Giving up is not an option.

When I asked Stafford, directing the show for the second time, what it means to him — what the story is about — he said, “It’s about American ambition and American dreams.” I understood him to mean that, unlike our ancestors in the Old World, we have invented America. We have imagined it into existence. Jule Styne, who composed the music, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the book and lyrics respectively, and Jerome Robbins, who choreographed the dances, dreamt America onto the stage. Whenever she hits bottom, Rose says, I had a dream — words that resonate through “Gypsy” as through our glorious and agonizing history. 

Some puffed-up Frenchman once said “the cinema is death at work.” It probably sounds better in French, but he got it exactly backwards. It is the theater that is death at work, monsieur, but it’s also LIFE at work — American life in the case of “Gypsy.” Where have we been? Where are we going? And what is it going to cost us to get there? Inventing and reinventing ourselves, for better and worse, is our birthright. America tumbles forward.

We open this Thursday, June 16, and run through Sunday, July 3. See you at the theater!

Rufus Collins lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.