“They don’t call it work for nothing.” Tyne Daly, best known to audiences as Mary Beth Lacey of television’s Cagney & Lacey, is reflecting on the relentless effort, the monumental disappointments and times of triumph that are the mixed bag of profession, and the more specifically, of her current knock-your-socks-off incarnation as Rose in the 30th anniversary production of Gypsy directed by its author, Arthur Laurents. The Laurents/Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim musical, loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, is down to the home stretch of a 14-city, 6-month national tour that culminates on November 16, when the show opens on Broadway at the St. James Theatre.
As she sits down to talk with Playbill, Daly removes the dark glasses she is wearing on this gloomy, overcast Washington, D.C., morning to reveal large brown eyes at half-mast with sleep but unmistakably excited at the prospect of her first starring role on Broadway. “The live experience, right now, is a lot of fun for me,” Daly says. “It’s thrilling, and it’s scary. And, sure, I want to make some kind of category change for a while and be an acceptable commodity in another market. It’s part of what you go for. Part of the fun doing this play is to take on a kind of Broadway style that has been honed by people like Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins and Jule Styne. And it’s part of the job to see if you can play it that way.”
But achieving that Broadway style was easier said than done for the actress who had spent much of her career perfecting the very detailed and naturalistic style of acting demanded by television. And she is the first to admit it. “The first time I sang ‘Some People,’ I was so nervous, terrified of Arthur Laurents. And I got to the end of the thing feeling just completely stupid and sweating. Working wrong, pushing like mad. And he said, ‘Well, we know one thing. You haven’t the vaguest idea how to sell a song!’ “
With that pronouncement Laurents proceeded to show his star the ropes. “He’s a terrific man of the theatre,” Daly says.”He knows a lot, has seen a lot. He’s real perceptive. He is sometimes less than gentle, but you have to shake yourself up to do this. And he did some of the shaking.”
The original Broadway production of Gypsy opened at the Broadway Theatre on May 21, 1959, starring Ethel Merman as the indomitable Rose. Set in the 1920’s, when the Depression and the talkies spelled an end to vaudeville and the beginning of burlesque, the musical covers a ten-year period in the lives of Gypsy Rose Lee (nee Louise), her sister June and the overpowering force in their young lives—their mother Rose. An incisive character study of a woman obsessed with her children, with her own ambitions and with the romance of winning, Gypsy created in Rose a brassy, fiery character perfectly suited to the unique talent that was Ethel Merman. With the songs “Some People,” “Small World,” “Together,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” it was the role of Merman’s lifetime and her performance still lives in theatre legend.
The musical was revived in 1974 to great success both in London and on Broadway, with Angela Lansbury winning a Tony Award for her depiction of Rose. Yet even with that acclaim, Lansbury had to grapple with the spectre of Merman.
And now it’s Tyne’s turn. “I thought the other day,” says Daly, “that perhaps this Gypsy is a play I’ve been nostalgic about my childhood. When I first saw it, I was about 11 or 12 years old and the excitement of sitting in a theatre and hearing the overture is a very real memory of childhood delight. Singing, dancing, and carrying on were also part of a long-range fantasy of mine. I think in many ways people who act yearn to continue to do what was fun for them as a kid.”
But what of the inevitable comparisons? Playwright-director Arthur Laurents thinks they’re unjust. “I don’t read too many reviews, but I’ve read reviews comparing Tyne to Merman, and on a couple of occasions I’ve said to the reviewer, ‘How old are you?’ The last one I asked said he was 40. So I said, ‘You were ten when Ethel Merman did it!’ He said, ‘I never saw her.’ I think there’s something very unfair about people having memories of something they’ve never seen.”
For Tyne Daly these comparisons are beside the point. “Theatre to me,” she says, “is saved in only one way and that is in the hearts of the audience, in their minds, in their memories—those are very private perceptions. I hope I can claim this character as my own and become part of the history of the play, adding my name to the sisterhood of the actresses who have given Rose a try. It can bolster your spirit to say, ‘I’m part of the tradition of performing this role.’ And now I get to borrow [Jule Styne’s] stuff and see what I can do with it and twist it around so that my personality fuses with Rose’s and nobody can tell the difference. That’s a wonderful chance, to get to sing those songs every night. It’s a lot of fun.”
But crawling into another person’s skin, particularly Rose’s, was also not without its agonizing moments, according to Daly. “It’s the fourth day of rehearsals,” she remembers, “and I’m going into the ladies’ room to put a cold cloth on my face because I’m now crying very hard and having a real difficult time with my life there. And I go in and there’s Jane Alexander, who’s rehearsing a play down the hall. She says, 'How’s it going, Tyne?’ I say, ‘Oh, God, it’s the pain part.’ She says, ‘Already?’” Daly laughs at the recollection but is quite serious when she adds, “Joyous experiences in the theatre are pain, tears and blood. All those vital juices: anything that’s slushy and juicy.”
Tyne Daly treats the subject of her profession with a great deal of respect. She has been at it for 25 years. Born into an acting family (her father was the late James Daly—Period of Adjustment, Medical Center—and her mother is the actress Hope Newell), Daly was “fascinated by it. It was my mom’s and dad’s business. There was a lot of talk about it, and a lot of people who were their friends were in it. There was something sort of outlaw and secret . . . gypsy about it.”
As a young girl Tyne, her sisters Peggen and Glynnis and brother Timothy (also in the family business) frequently relocated to be with their acting parents (“I couldn’t really claim to have been born in a trunk, but we moved around a lot”). By the time she was nine, her parents had settled in Suffern, New York, where the young Tyne began acting at the Rockland County Day School and in community theatres. “I was pretty convinced that I was an actress,” Daly says, so it was no surprise in 1958 when her father’s agent approached him to ask if Tyne might want to audition for the part of Louise in the original production of Gypsy. As Tyne remembers it, “They said, ‘This is what it would mean. Here would be the good stuff and here would be the bad stuff, if you get the job. And you can’t go to the audition unless you’re willing to take the job. So go and decide.’” For the 12-year-old Tyne the bad clearly outweighed the good, and as Daly relates, “It was painful at the time. I came out red of eye, snotty of nose and said, ‘Well, I’m not going to do the audition.’ “
But that experience was not discouraging enough to distinguish the acting fires, and Tyne continued performing locally. “I was in quite a number of plays for five years,” Daly remembers, “I counted them all as absolute credits. For years I carried around those bloody credits from youngest childhood, because I looked at them as real productions and things that I’d accomplished, which in fact, they were.”
While she got encouragement from her mother ("She’s a wonderful coach, she’s a smart lady about the theatre, and she taught me stuff”), her father was not as forthcoming. “Dad was a refuser for a while,” Daly remembers. “He did the kind of grumpy, Irish father routine about, ‘not my daughter, not in this filthy business,’ which only of course spurred the young passion on. To be refused by one’s father is always very, very good for encouraging ambition.”
The turning point came when 16-year-old Tyne played Emily in the Rockland Community College production of Our Town. "Daddy came,” she laughs. “My mother dragged him, and emotional slob that he was, he burst into tears, hung on my neck and welcomed me into the great brotherhood of acting and allowed as perhaps I, with a great deal of hard work and discipline, might make a career out of it. It was all very dramatic.
“It’s a shitty business,” Daly laughs somewhat ruefully. “It’s a great art, but a shitty business. It’s just unfair and it breaks your heart and it hurts your feelings. And when you think it’s gonna be something, it always isn’t. And when think you it’s not gonna be something, it always isn’t either.”
Nevertheless, the life of an actor is the one she chose, and she went on to study with Jasper Deeter of the Hedgegrown Theatre (“He filled me with the glory, the faith and the pursuit of the theatre”) and later with Philip Burton at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It was at the Academy that Daly met another young actor named Georg Stanford Brown. They were married in 1966, signed with the same talent agent and set up house in NYC with Tyne making her Off-Broadway debut in The Butter and Egg Man and Georg working for Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park.
As movie roles began to come Georg's way, the couple took their baby daughter Alisabeth (the Browns now have two other daughters, Kathryne and Alyxandra) and moved to L.A. It was a new beginning for Daly, and she set out to stake her claim in both television (appearing in shows including Medical Center with her dad and The Rookies with Georg) and the theatre, in several Mark Taper Forum productions, including Ashes, Black Angel and The Three Sisters.
Daly's first major film was The Enforcer with Clint Eastwood in 1976. In it she played a rookie cop. Little did she know at the time that the role would be prescient of another that would bring her her greatest success so far. It was five years later, in 1981, that she filmed the TV-movie pilot of "Cagney & Lacey and Detective Mary Beth Lacey was born.
The television series which resulted from the TV movie ran from 1982-1988 and was a watershed in the depiction of women on television. Daly, along with her partner Sharon Gless, created two memorable women who were loved by fans and honored by an industry that showered them with awards, not the least of which were the four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series taken home by Tyne Daly.
But after six years Daly was itching to move on and met the demise of the show with mixed feelings. "We were all ready to rest," she says, "coupled with being anxious to hang on. It was the end of a long period of real good work and fine associations."
Although she was "ready to start pretending to be somebody else," Daly clearly is not among those actors who make their names on television and spend the rest of their careers bad-mouthing the medium.
She continues to act in TV projects she enjoys and believes in, such as the 1987 Kids Like These, Emily Perl Kingsley's story about a mother's struggles with a Down's syndrome son, and the recent comedy, Stuck With Each Other, which she calls "a moral tale about greed in the modern world." Both of these TV movies were produced by Nexus Productions, Inc., the independent production company Daly formed with Brown.
"TV's a perfectly decent way to do your craft," Daly says, "if you use it right and say to yourself, 'I get to practice acting every day!' How many people get to do that in my profession? And when people come around when you're doing television and say, 'just lighten up for Chrissake, we're not curing cancer here,' that's not true! We were curing cancer. The stuff we did [on Cagney & Lacey]—people went out and got themselves checked out. Information. The straight goods. Something that moves you to do something. Tell me that's not a worthy thing! The numbers of people you reach is amazing.
"You have a great responsibility to not rip them off. There's no better or best or more wonderful situation in acting," she continues. "It's joyful for different reasons in different areas. But it's the acting that's all the same. Act with passion, that's all."
"Passion" is a word that pops up frequently during the course of a conversation with Tyne Daly. And it is not a bad word to use to describe the actress herself and the woman she is now pretending to be every night onstage in Gypsy. Daly, who has played the gamut of mothers from earth to ruthless ("Next I'll do Medea, and when I'm finally finished, the 'mom' cycle will be over, and I'll get to be a chick for the rest of my career"), once said about her desires for her own children, "I want them to want something very badly that they have to go get by themselves. I'd like them to be passionate about something. That's a present in life." But self-sufficiency doesn't enter into Rose's dreams for her children. "Rose is so remote from her children," Daly says.
"She is mostly performing for them and manipulating them. She loves them dearly; it doesn't mean she doesn't love them. They are her whole life. They're only children for a very short time, and then she's nostalgic for their being five and seven and tries to keep them that way, which is not possible." And in the pursuit of her own "mad dream," as Daly says, she drives her children—first June and eventually Louise—away from her.
"I think Rose is a truth teller," Daly says. "One of the things I really like about her—although she's a monster and abrasive—is that she's a flat-out, straight person. When her kid is in competition," she says, referring to an early point in the play when June competes with a balloon-laden little girl for a part in Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Show, "she whips out the hatpin, wrecks the other child's act. She doesn't do it sneakily in the back. Direct! Get rid of her! This is where the truth is—my kid. My kid is a star. Any plain fool can see that."
Arthur Laurents echoes that sentiment when he says, "These so-called monsters like Regina in The Little Foxes—there's something very gallant about these people. They're not hypocritical; they are what they are. Their values may be wrong, but their determination is admirable. What is wonderful about Tyne," he continues, "is she's found a great many positive things in Rose."
"She's invincible," Daly says, "Absolutely invincible. Whether she's charming people or bullying them or seducing them. When she's doing that, she's on a roll, she's winning. It's happening. And then that kid breaks her heart. And it makes her insane with fury."
Tyne believes there is a difference between "thwarted talents and thwarted ambitions." She sees Rose, not as a woman who missed out on a brilliant career herself and then laid her hopes on her kids (though she agrees that is a possible interpretation), but rather as someone consumed by ambition "thwarted ambition—backed up by nothing more than a love and romance about the whole thing, having it come before anything else in life about the attention ... about being a star."
The closest Rose comes to stardom is in the fantasy she creates in her own mind in "Rose's Turn," the final number in Gypsy and one of the most electrifying moments of epiphany in the American musical theatre. And Daly plays it for all it's worth. "I think," says Arthur Laurents, "she does 'Rose's Turn' better than anyone ever has. It's gritty, it's truthful, it's awkward, it's grotesque, it's embarrassing. And that's deliberate. And that's the way it always should have been. Tyne is an enormously gutsy actor," he continues. “she will do anything she feels is right for the character, and she does it full. You couldn't get an actor who was worried about what the audience would think to do it the way she's doing it. She's doing it for the performance, and I think it's devastating."
Returning the compliment, Daly simply says, "It's all in the play. The play is built with great care and beauty. I don't see myself tiring of it very soon. And if I talk about it too much, I keep thinking that people won't come and pay their money. Just like TV Guide," she laughs. "They used to say, 'So now Mary Beth gets shot and Christine saves her.' So great, why watch my story then?"
These days Tyne Daly is giving audiences plenty of reasons to watch her story. "The longer I act," she says, "the less I care to analyze it, the less I care what people think. I care what they feel. And what's lovely about being in the theatre is that you get to feel what they feel." By the time the curtain falls on Gypsy, Rose has gone through some tough changes—"a lot has happened to her and inside her," Daly says. "And as long as by the end of the play I can make the audience care passionately about Rose, I'm a happy girl."