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They're Coming Up Roses : Bette Midler headlines a new movie version of 'Gypsy,' a rare exact replication of a Broadway show. Therein lies a tale of tenacity, good timing and star power that Mama Rose herself would have appreciated

December 05, 1993|DAVID J. FOX | David J. Fox is a Times staff writer. and

Zadan's entree to "Gypsy" was his longstanding relationship with Sondheim--he wrote "Sondheim & Co.," a biography of the composer-lyricist--and he knew Laurents and Styne too. He also knew well their aversion to what Hollywood can do to Broadway musicals.

Above all, both he and Meron had enormous respect for "Gypsy," the backstage musical fable based on the 1957 memoirs of stripper Lee. The show is widely regarded among theater buffs as one of the best-written American musicals, with a strong story and hit songs that propel the drama.

For all of that, however, their proposal took several years to win acceptance from the reluctant authors. They virtually had given up on it ever happening.

Then last year, as agent Bernstein recalled: "Basically, one day I was talking with Neil (Meron), and I told him that if he cared to bring up the subject of a 'Gypsy' project, this might be a good time to bring it up."

What had changed, she said, was that Laurents, Styne and Sondheim felt the time had come to make a permanent record of their show as it was intended--and Zadan and Meron vowed absolute faithfulness to the original script and Jerome Robbins' choreography and gave the authors casting approval.

Television had been broached as a possibility before. Barry Brown, who was one of the producers of the Angela Lansbury "Gypsy" stage revival in 1974 and then of the Daly production in 1989, said he and his late partner Fritz Holt had once offered to produce a theatrical version with Burnett that also would have been taped for TV. But that proposal too was rejected.

"The real reason they changed their minds now," Brown believes, "is two words: \o7 Bette Midler\f7 ."

Styne doesn't dispute that she was a big factor: "When they (Zadan and Meron) came up with Bette, boy, that's who we wanted. Then the minute we agreed to Bette, (Streisand) called and said she wanted it (for a feature film)." Too late.

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After that, "Gypsy" pretty much sold itself. CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky told Zadan and Meron in a five-minute conversation that if they could sign a star, he would give the project a go. Midler was mentioned as one possibility.

At the same time, Sagansky also put them in touch with producer Robert Halmi Sr., who had co-produced "Lonesome Dove" for the network and is about to begin production on "Scarlett," a sequel to "Gone With the Wind," also for CBS.

Halmi would provide much of the $14-million production money--a sum virtually unheard of for one night of network television programming.

One of the keys to making "Gypsy" financially viable, Halmi said, was the fact that it will be shown as a theatrical feature in other countries. It will be released on home video Feb. 24, and a cast album is already in stores.

Zadan and Meron next called Bonnie Bruckheimer, Midler's partner in All-Girl Productions. She told them that 1993 was to be a busy period for Midler, who was to make the film "Hocus Pocus" and begin rehearsals for a live stage tour that would begin in September (and which arrives at the Universal Amphitheater on Dec. 15). How could they squeeze in "Gypsy"?

A month went by. "It was just before the time Bette went on 'The Tonight Show' and sang goodby to Johnny Carson," Zadan recalled.

"I finally talked to her and said, 'Is Rose not your favorite role?' She said, 'Yes.'

"I said, 'Is this not the greatest female role ever written for a musical?' She said, 'Yes.'

"I said, 'Isn't this the greatest musical ever written?" She said, 'Yes.'

"So I said, 'What's the problem?'

"And she said, 'You're right. Let's do it. "

Then it was back to CBS. "It wasn't a hard one to say yes to," Sagansky said. "The 'event' moniker is so overused, but that's exactly what this was to be. Anytime you can do something that is off the beaten path and with the kind of talent that Zadan and Meron were able to line up, you've got something that is really unique."

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Once Midler was locked in, the producers turned to finding a director who could retain the show's theatricality and yet give it a cinematic look so that it would look like a movie, not like a play that had been filmed.

"Bette was convinced it might never work because of this," Zadan said.

But the producers knew Emile Ardolino, the director of such films as the current "The Nutcracker" and 1987's "Dirty Dancing." He also directed "Sister Act," a film Midler had turned down, leaving the way open for Whoopi Goldberg to star. The producers also knew that Ardolino had directed in theater and for the PBS TV series "Dance in America"--a program close to the heart of "Gypsy" choreographer Robbins.

It seemed perfect. And when Zadan and Meron learned that, as a young man, Ardolino had seen "Gypsy" on Broadway 25 times, they offered him the job. This time, it would be Ardolino who would turn down a chance to direct "Sister Act 2"--to do a show with Midler. Ardolino and his partner, Cindy Gilmore, also functioned as co-producers.

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