Viewers at home will get the thrilling opportunity to see Imelda Staunton put her unique stamp on one of the great roles in the American musical-theater canon when PBS broadcasts a live performance video capture from the recent London production of Gypsy on November 11.
Emmy Award–winning producer Ellen M. Krass caught the English dynamo’s performance in the Broadway classic at the Savoy Theatre in the West End early last year. Expertly directed by Jonathan Kent, the first London production of the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim musical in 40 years originated the previous fall at England’s Chichester Festival Theatre.
“Gypsy is one of the great musicals of all time,” notes Krass, adding that she had not only seen Ethel Merman create the monumental role of Mamma Rose in the legendary 1959 production, but also the great performances from the leading ladies in the revivals that followed: Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989), Bernadette Peters (2003), and most recently Patti LuPone (2008). Witnessing Staunton scale the heights of this Mt. Everest of musical-theater roles, Krass says she knew immediately what she wanted to do. “I took out my handy little BlackBerry at the time and emailed Stephen Sondheim, saying that I had seen the production and that I wanted to capture it. He emailed back and asked me to call his lawyer,” she reports. Having obtained Sondheim’s blessing, Krass proceeded to make deals with the BBC in England and PBS’s Great Performances in America, and the plans were under way to capture Staunton’s turn as the ultimate stage mother for posterity.
With a two-decade history of packaging and producing projects for film and television, Krass was also an early pioneer of live theatrical performance capture — a genre that is rapidly growing in popularity with theater lovers all over the world. For Gypsy, she tapped Lonny Price, the director of several of her previous productions, including the live capture of a concert presentation of Sweeney Todd (with Patti LuPone and George Hearn), the gala 80th birthday concert for Stephen Sondheim, and a star-studded concert version of Company. The latter two presentations, which featured the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, were also directed for the stage by Price, himself a former actor. “Lonny is a Broadway baby; his disposition is just great for this,” says Krass. “He is never stressed, never harried, and he is very appreciative to everybody. I am spoiled by him.”
“Gypsy is a piece that I have directed before and that I admire and revere; the material is like DNA to me,” says Price. But in this instance, his task was to ensure that his video capture honored Jonathan Kent’s stage production. “I watched a scratch tape of the show that they prepared for me — which is a very wide shot, the kind of thing you are used to seeing when you are at the back of the theatre. That way, I got to know the blocking of the show and where the actors were facing,” he explains. “I put that on my computer and watched it inch by inch so I could script the camera exactly where I could get the actors’ eyes and not the backs of their heads. The process is watching the stage production and trying to understand where the gold is. It is not necessarily on the person who is talking, but sometimes on the reaction. A perfect example in Gypsy is ‘All I Need Is the Girl.’ I am tightening in on Louise because her falling in love with Tulsa is what the scene is about.”
For the actual capture, Price had 12 cameras at his disposal and two performance nights. There was no opportunity to rehearse the actors with the cameras beforehand, but prior to the performance, Price says, he showed the actors where the cameras were going to be placed. “I didn’t want them to be surprised,” he explains. “For instance, we had what we call a ‘rail camera,’ which runs along on what would be the railing of the first row of the orchestra seats; it was on a track and it moves across the stage. I mean, that would be very distracting if they didn’t know about it.”
Beyond the awareness that the cameras were present, however, Price says his goal was to let the performance unfold as it would on any other night of the run. “You don’t want the performers to get into their heads about playing too big or too small because there is an audience out there and you want the feeling of that audience to juice the actors,” he continues. “They have been playing this for a year, and if they don’t get the same response from the audience, I think the rhythm is off. So what I told Imelda was, ‘Don’t change anything.’ The lighting does change a little bit for the video, but certainly the sound doesn’t. Everybody just does their show and we are a fly on the wall, trying to capture it for that moment. It’s a bit like an original cast album. You don’t ask the cast to be more intimate as they might be if they were doing a studio recording of a bunch of songs; they do the performance and that’s a capture too.”
“You won’t see any cameras flying around in the book scenes,” Price continues. “The only kind of ‘dance,’ as I call it, happens during the musical numbers.” Even in these kinetic moments, despite his camera script, Price says he couldn’t always predict the outcome — like the huge crane shot for the climax of “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” “The crane starts as close as you can get and it goes up to the heavens — it is thrilling. We could do it on just the one night because we couldn’t afford to have that camera there for the next,” he reports. “But the cameraman nailed it on that first shot. We got lucky.”
Theater purists will insist that watching a video or film capture is not the same as experiencing the live performance. It isn’t. But Price argues that it is equally valid. “One huge advantage is close-ups,” he explains. “If you are in a proscenium theatre and two people are talking, you will see their profiles. When someone does a capture, they will have a camera on the side or over the shoulder and you get a full expression.” He recalls his experiences when making the HBO movie version of Audra McDonald’s star turn as Billie Holliday. Though not quite a live capture made during the actual run of a production, it was similar in that McDonald was re-creating the same cabaret-style performance she gave on stage for the movie. “Much as I thought I knew everything that she was doing on stage, when I had the camera really close to her face, I was always delightfully surprised at how much richer and deeper the performance was. It was so deep on stage, but film allows you to get inside someone’s head in a very particular way.”
Where the director of the live capture comes into their own is, of course, in the editing room. Price describes his process: “It’s like a checkerboard — sort of like The Brady Bunch — with all the different camera feeds on as big a screen as I can find. And I watch moment by moment: What’s camera five doing? Oh, that’s interesting, he’s got her feet, wouldn’t that be interesting for this moment? I have 12 different angles of this experience and it’s very exciting to see those different aspects.”
“As a stage director, I can do as much as I can on stage, but people will look where they want to,” Price continues. “But in the [edited capture], unless you close your eyes, you are going to see what I want you to see. You can sometimes increase the excitement by the way you cut it musically. I consider it choreography for the camera,” he says. “And without distorting the original picture of what the production is, I think there can be a more intimate and more personal relationship with the material that is surprising.”
Ultimately, there is the deep satisfaction that one is making a lasting record of a great live performance. “Imelda Staunton is extraordinary,” says Price. “She is just ferocious. Her grit and her absolute determination, and her fire in this part, is what distinguishes her Rose. She is relentless and she is funny and she sings well. She’s just sensational in it. I get a little corny about this,” he continues, “but take all those names, like Ellen Terry and Katherine Cornell — they don’t mean very much to us because we have no experience of them. How do you, if you are not in New York or London, get to experience the finest performing artists in this form? How do students know where the bar is and what to emulate? I think it is very important that we capture these extraordinary theater performers for history.”