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‘GYPSY’ 20 Years Later: Celebrating Strong Women

Twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of directing the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents musical, GYPSY for Elgin Summer Theatre at Hemmens Auditorium in Elgin, Illinois. It was the combined effort of the City of Elgin, Independent Players and the Elgin Theatre Company (then, Elgin Community Theatre). It was a big, colorful spectacle that I’ll always hold close to my heart as one of my most important professional accomplishments that had a huge lasting impact on my personal life.

Peggy Pipilis as Mama Rose in the 1993 Elgin Summer Theatre production of Gypsy.

Peggy Pipilis as Mama Rose in the 1993 Elgin Summer Theatre production of Gypsy.

For those of you not that familiar with the show– it coined the phrase, “Sing out, Louise” and introduced the legendary “mother of all mothers” — the biggest stage mom of them all, Mama Rose. The character was originated by stage icon, Ethel Merman, in 1959 and later portrayed on film by Rosalind Russell. There have been many famous Mama Roses over the years including Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and most recently: the sensational Patti LuPone.

In the story, single mom Rose foregoes all hopes of a normal life for her two daughters, pushing them in the dying vaudeville circuit, only to have her eldest (her star) leave her. In one last-ditch effort, Rose forces her younger, less talented daughter Louise to become a stripper. That stripper became perhaps the most famous of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee. Rose was blinded by stardom. If not for her, then for her daughters, no matter what the cost.

I’ve had this blog post mulling around in my head for a couple months now. i just wasn’t completely sure how I wanted to approach it… until last night.

Last night, I was reunited with a very good friend I hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. When our friendship began all those years ago– I remember her being a strong, level-headed influence in my life. Of course we reminisced about the old days, last night but more importantly, we started to get caught up on our lives since. Tara is indeed, still the strong, intelligent woman I remembered (and missed) from so many years ago.

I’ve been blessed to know many strong women over the years– which brings me back to our production of Gypsy and start of probably the greatest friendship of my life.

Peggy and I met working on a previous show but didn’t connect on a personal level until production of Gypsy started. She was (and is) my Mama Rose. I was still living in Chicago at the time and Peggy offered to drive me to the train station after rehearsals each night, giving us extra time to talk about her role and quickly establishing a tight bond that went far beyond a typical actress-director relationship. We just clicked.

I can’t even begin to go in to all the adventures we’ve shared over the the years but her family is my extended family. I think I’ve probably shared as many, if not more holidays and special occasions with them than with my own immediate family.

Our friendship and the relationship with her family, to me, is an example of what life is all about.

Gypsy also brought at least four other strong women into my life that have made a lasting impact on me. Two are brilliant single moms that single handedly raised amazing children; one is the most positive cheerleader I’ve ever known; and a wonderful performer, now teacher, that I was fortunate enough to reconnect with recently and is doing incredible work training future young artists. All strong women… all with unique challenges and circumstances… all important role models in my life.

All of us take our connections and circumstances for granted at some point in our lives. We seldom know what relationships or events are going to have the biggest, lasting impact on us at that time. This is why it is so important to cherish the moments, the people and the opportunities while they are happening. I’ve been reminded time and time again over the past few weeks exactly how important those experiences are in making me who I am today.

What Is A Family?

Monday night we had dinner with Nicole’s family before they moved back to Texas. Over the course of conversation, Nicole gave me flack about slacking off, not blogging every day and asked why I hadn’t mentioned her in my blog.  So here it is Nicole… you’ve been blogged!

Wednesday morning we said our goodbyes. I played peekaboo with 2 year old Alana, one last time… wondering if she’d remember the next time I see her. (Her mom, Peggy, kept saying, “It’s only been an 18 month visit”.) They loaded in the car to head for the airport. As they pulled out the gate and I walked back around the corner of the house to go inside, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t suddenly get a little teary-eyed. A lot of years and milestones have bonded us all together.

Peggy's "Annual Surprise Face".

I met Peggy (Nicole’s Mom) back in 1992, working with Elgin Community Theatre. The following year, I directed her as Mama Rose in Gypsy and we we cemented a bond that eventually blossomed to include her family. I met Michael shortly thereafter and our family was born. It’s been an honor to share so many memories and experiences over the past nearly two decades. We’ve shared so many family experiences… I don’t know what else to call it. We’ve celebrated holidays, birthdays, gone on family vacations, cruises…I worked for Nicole in retail for a while… you name it. Among my favorite memories with Nicole was our legendary all-night potato salad creation on the eve of her wedding. (She later claimed to have improved our recipe but don’t believe it!)

Webster’s definition of  family includes: “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also : any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family <a single-parent family>”.

I say family, like love, defies definition.

Happy and sad… the good and the bad… your FAMILY are the people that stick by you no matter what. Family has a much broader meaning today than when I was growing up. It’s much more than blood ties or marriages. I know there are still people that only believe family is family but they are missing so much. I guess a lot has to do with how you want to look at your relationships and how set you are in defining with labels. In terms of definition, today, most family units are labeled as broken or dysfunctional if they don’t meet certain criteria and fall in the category of a healthy family environment.We’d all be better off if we didn’t try to put everything neatly in little boxes.

I would prefer to define family by the bonds that exist… many unexplainable… that forever tie us together. With a divorce rate of more than 50%, second marriages, the addition and deletion of spouses and siblings’ families…the legal family constantly changes with time. Today the chosen family plays an important role in the broader definition, creating a rich network of relationships; adding to, or replacing the traditional family unit. I really hate the term ‘chosen family’ because I think it’s something that happens, not by choice. It’s just destined to be.

Alana wanting my camera to take her own pictures.

I don’t want to water down or down play the meaning of family by any means. Often we may refer to a group of people we associate with as family in order to show bonds and commitment… theatre family, church family… business leaders are infamous for referring to their companies as families. (Who treats their family the way some companies do?) Those relationships are not the true family I identify with the most.

My own biological family was scattered around the country over the years but have now all settled back in Central Florida where I grew up. (Except for me… still the wayward child living many miles away.) We usually see each other once or twice a year and keep in touch by phone and social networking. (I’m far more aware of what my family is doing through Facebook than I was before it existed.) Michael and I have considered moving down there– but now that Michael is running the family business, that isn’t an option anytime in the near future.

So now Nicole is back in Texas getting settled in her house that she so desperately missed. (No redecorating phone calls yet?) Alana will probably forget our games of Peek-a-Boo and Itsy-Bitsy Spider… Peggy is already planning her next trip down and hopefully Michael and I will be able to plan a visit in the near future. In spite of the distance, they are here in our hearts.

Family is important. The bonds are unlike those of most other relationships… the history, understanding and the support. I’ve been very blessed to have these people in my life.

I was told repeatedly after coming out that I’d have a sad life with no family.

They were SO wrong.