Bred for the stage, a young, charming boy dazzles in the spotlight, while a naïve girl clumsily follows along. In the 1993 production of Gypsy, with music composed by Jule Styne and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim, the director by Emile Ardolino constructs the varying impact of sexuality on the career trajectories of Tulsa, played by Jeffrey Broadhurst, and Louise Hovick, played by Cynthia Gibb, within the musical scene.
In the beginning of the show, Louise depicts a less feminine character, capable of substituting male roles within her family’s Vaudeville productions. Louise’s androgynous nature is emphasized through the juxtaposition of her character against her sister June’s “all-American” persona that featured blonde hair, blue eyes, and a cute personality that enamored every audience. Already, the musical establishes the beauty standard for children by rewarding June with fame given her appearance and allowing Louise’s duller traits to remain in the background. After June leaves the show, Louise evolves to take center stage by adopting a blonde wig and dressing in more lavish costumes. The show establishes the concept that visual appearance influences Louise’s success within the industry. Over time, Louise’s popularity grows as she sexualizes her character. The men cheer, the audience grows, all to bear witness to Louise’s bare self. She strips her clothes to grasp a sense of attention and identity within society. In that moment, the writers of the musical comment on how women gain greater power through personal sexualization than any presentation of talent.
On the other hand, Tulsa is able to rise the ranks within his career without sexually appealing to his audience. Tulsa dreams of forging a new dance performance within theater where the male presence dominates the stage. He is able to achieve his goals through sheer ability and without concern of selling his body. Men are guided towards success and are revered with deeper respect. The musical constructs Louise and Tulsa as similar individuals who require vastly different paths to successfully rise to fame in the musical world. In “All I Need is The Girl,” Tulsa delineates the concept that he can pave success on his own merit. Women are presented as an accessory to his ventures. Louise dances alongside Tulsa, always just missing the spotlight and completely invisible within Tulsa’s dream. She dons hooves of the horse outfit and brown pleats in her hair, a comedic portrayal for her lack of feminine charm. This number correlates Louise’s boy-ish qualities as a cause for her lack of success. Tulsa and Louise’s lack of contact during intimate dance moves demonstrate the importance of physical appearance on sexuality. Louise is void from any consideration as a potential dance partner for Tulsa when she bears greater resemblance to mammal than a woman. After June and Tulsa leave Rose’s act, it is assumed that the duo meets great success as the musical effectively establishes the characters as society’s gender ideals. There is no need to show them again, since they are already perfect for the masses, so how could they fail?
Desperately grasping to her last opportunities of fame, Rose puts the innocent Louise out on stage as a stripper. While Rose formerly condemned the women of Burlesque, she asserts that Louise is a lady, unlike the other performers. However, once Louise gets on stage to perform “Let Me Entertain You”, the crowd heckles her, implying that she must “take something off.” She moves without confidence and, ultimately, Louise’s lack of sexual display and feeble singing are perceived as almost offensive to the expectations of the voracious audience. While Tulsa danced so lively and unafraid, Louise is petrified to perform on a stage without any glaring presentation of femininity. She learns that she needs to tap into her sexuality to be accepted within her industry.
The musical emphasizes the injustice between male and female roles within society by pinning Tulsa’s inevitable success against Louise’s more gradual rise to stardom. Louise must embody the female standard constructed by the burlesque performances at the time to become a star. She is practically invisible and devalued without a display of sexuality. On the other hand, Tulsa upholds an unbound self-confidence that his musical prowess can bring him fame. To Tulsa, women are a mere accessory to his glorious act. He maintains a sense of privilege and entitlement to his success that Louise is never endowed as a female. While Louise reaches ultimate stardom as a stripper, it stands to question whether she would have pursued this path if she had been supported for her merit more so than the standard objectification of women within her present-day culture. Additionally, given the varying treatment of men and women within the same industries, how does one truly compare the success a woman achieves to that of a man?