Erik Preminger, the son of the striptease artist who’s the subject of the beloved 1959 musical “Gypsy,” appreciates the show’s power from popular and personal perspectives.
“This play is what keeps Gypsy Rose Lee alive,” the San Francisco resident told the cast and crew of Bay Area Musicals’ production of the multiple Tony Award-winning show opening this weekend at the Alcazar Theatre.
Before a recent rehearsal, Preminger, whose father was film director Otto Preminger, shared stories from his life growing up in show business as the child of Gypsy, one of the burlesque era’s final stars.
He started the session by praising vaudeville, where his hard-working family’s act had its roots.
“We think of it as corny and cheesy, but at the time, it was anything but,” said Preminger, who added, “June was one of the biggest stars on the circuit; when she got sick, nobody ate.”
June Havoc, just 7 or 8 years old at the time, was the younger sister of Louise, who went on to become Gypsy Rose Lee, a busy striptease performer working for burlesque impresarios including the famed Minsky family.
Preminger’s first job with his mother was go to into the theater, after the shows, to pick up the pins she tossed into the audience as she tastefully disrobed. (“Everything was held together with pins,” Preminger said.)
Interestingly, Preminger was not close to his grandmother, Rose Hovick, Louise and June’s blustery stage mother at the center of the show “Gypsy.”
“She was never part of the family, she was not grandma,” said Preminger, who shared an anecdote about Rose toting a gun and mentioned that she likely killed three people. As time went by, his mother became more forgiving of his grandmother, Preminger said, noting that she supported Rose financially until she died.
Although “Gypsy” was inspired by Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoirs, Preminger said his mother (who died in 1970) did not develop it with the notable creative team of Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book).
According to Preminger, she said, “I don’t care what you do, as long as you call it ‘Gypsy.’” Still, she loved it, as does Preminger, who has seen most of its big-time incarnations through the years.
He preferred Angela Lansbury’s performance as Mama Rose (she played it with “charm”) to that of “shrill” Ethel Merman, who originated the role on Broadway.
He doesn’t have much to say about Rosalind Russell, who appeared in the 1962 movie co-starring Natalie Wood as Gypsy.
Even though a film project with Bette Midler ended up on TV in 1993 and one with Barbra Streisand as Rose did not pan out, Preminger mentions that he’s been making money for years by “renting my mother’s book.” (In 2019, Amy Sherman-Palladino of “Gilmore Girls” fame went into talks about film rights, Variety reported.)
Meanwhile, Bay Area Musicals is in good hands with the experienced Ariela Morgenstern at the helm. The San Francisco native, who has returned to the Bay Area after enjoying a successful New York stage career, reprises the role of Rose after playing it in her Lowell High School production.
IF YOU GO
Presented by Bay Area Musicals
Where: Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., S.F.
When: Opens at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9; runs varied times Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 8
Tickets: $40 to $85