At age 22, Sandra Church originated the role of Louise in Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy staged by Jerome Robbins. She retired from the theater in the 1960s to pursue a career in the visual arts. She now lives in California. She sat down with Brad Hathaway at her Sausalito home overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Everything Sondheim: Let’s start with a quick look at your life before Gypsy.
Sandra Church: I was born here in San Francisco. My father died when I was two, and I went to San Jose to live with my aunt and uncle, whom I love absolutely. But when I was five my mother took me to Hollywood, hoping I’d become a child star — perhaps the next Margaret O’Brien. We had an apartment over the garage of a house just off Sunset Boulevard, a neighborhood that has entirely changed with the development of “The Strip.” I went to private schools, including St. Ambrose for sixth, seventh and eighth grades and then Immaculate Heart High School. But I was taken out in the 11th grade to audition for replacing Janice Rule in the role of Madge in William Inge’s Picnic on Broadway. I remember that they called me out of class and told me I had to go home and pack to catch a plane at nine o’clock that night. I was 17, and I’d never been on an airplane before. Indeed, I’d never been out east before, and then the day we arrived in New York, there I was having dinner at the Langners. [Editor’s Note: Lawrence Langner was a founder of the Theatre Guild.] Queenie Smith, who ran the Children’s Repertory where I was studying, had sent a photo to the Langners, and they thought I was right for the part but probably too young for the role. That was a problem all through my time in theater. (Jerry Robbins thought I looked too young for the second act of Gypsy too. But we managed.) Janice Rule was leaving Picnic, and the show was going to tour. I was hired to finish out the run in New York and then go on tour, which I did. We even played here in San Francisco at the Geary Theatre for a month, which was a coming-home thrill.
When the tour closed in 1955, my mother gave me a choice of returning to school or staying in New York. That was probably the only time she gave me a choice on anything like that. And who wouldn’t, at that age, think it would be more fun being in New York? I didn’t land another real acting job right away, but I became the assistant color girl for NBC. We would stand on the set under the lights while the technicians adjusted the color before the actual actresses came on. At $25 an hour that was a great gig in 1955! I studied acting under the legendary Lee Strasberg and finally landed Uncle Vanya at the off-Broadway Fourth Street Theatre. Then it was back to Broadway for Holiday for Lovers (1957) at the Longacre with Don Ameche and the short-lived Winesburg, Ohio (1958) at what is now the Nederlander.
EvSo: Who was in the room when you auditioned for Gypsy?
Church: There were many faces out there in the dark. I don’t know who all of them were. Of course there were Jerry [Robbins] and Jule [Styne] and Arthur [Laurents] and Steve [Sondheim]. But I think [Musical Director] Milton Rosenstock and … oh, I don’t know who all. I do remember that Ethel [Merman] was there for the last audition. I auditioned five times! Jerry wanted Carol Lawrence for the part, but he couldn’t get her out of her contract at West Side Story. He wanted as many of the cast from West Side Story as he could get. The final audition, when Ethel was there, is my strongest memory. I pulled out all the stops! Andreas Voutsinas, the Greek actor and director, actually choreographed that final audition for me. Since Jerry thought I was too young for the second act, Andreas and I went to Lord & Taylor in New York and took out a sexy négligé on trial. You could do that then. I wore it for the final scene and then we returned it. Suzanne Pleshette was also auditioning that day, and I don’t think she could believe it when I went into the fully choreographed routine that Andreas came up with. It included “Let Me Entertain You,” “Little Lamb” and a strip. I remember that Ethel cried when I did it. I said to my agent, “It will be the first to go.” She did try to cut it, but it stayed in; thank God and Arthur Laurents, who worked hard to save it!
EvSo: Had you read the entire script, or did you just know about the scenes you were asked to read?
Church: I don’t know if I had read it all at the time of the first audition, but somewhere in the process I did. So I really did understand the role of each scene or selection in the story. My mother also read it. I remember her saying, “Wasn’t that girl good to her mother?” which I found a bit confusing. My mother was a real stage mother. She was often backstage. But she was nothing like the Rose that Ethel created!
EvSo: Tell us about the rehearsal process.
Church: We had five weeks of rehearsal in New York before we went down to Philadelphia. Jerry left Jack Klugman and me alone, and we worked as actors while he was staging and rehearsing the others who had been cast more for singing and dancing. Jerry got Ethel to act; she really acted! This was especially true in the first two months after the show opened. But slowly she went back to being Ethel. Jack and I worked on sense memories and all the other techniques that came from Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. After all, at that time my background had been more in drama than musicals. I’d done Picnic ild and Uncle Vanya f as well as the dramatization of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and the comedy Holiday for Lovers — but no musicals. The last rehearsal before we left for Philadelphia was the final-run through, and they let a lot of people in … friends, other people from the theater. That was when the word started to get out that this was going to be something special. We left for Philadelphia feeling pretty good about it, although we really didn’t hear much of that word-of-mouth as we were too far away and far too busy. Later we learned that there was a lot of buzz after the run through.
EvSo: Was that with full orchestra?
Church: No, we didn’t have the orchestra until we got to Philadelphia. I think we had two pianos for the run through, but usually just one piano.
EvSo: Was John Kander one of the pianists?
Church: Oh, yes! He was so nice to us.
EvSo: Did you get notes from all the creatives or did they tell Jerry and he passed them on?
Church: It didn’t seem quite that regimented at the time. I don’t recall having much contact with Steve, but Arthur helped a lot one-on-one, and, of course, Jule would rehearse the songs with us, along with Milton. But Arthur, as the author of the book, was the obvious one for Jack [Klugman] and me to seek out as we worked out the scenes. Also, Jack and I both were trying to “act the songs” more than just sing them. I do remember talking with Jule about the fact that “Little Lamb” falls right at the breakpoint of the voice, which made it a difficult song to sing. I don’t think he changed anything, though. The strip number was the last thing that Jerry handled with me. He kept putting it off. I think he just didn’t know what to do with it, and then he just didn’t have much time available by the time he did turn to it. We were trying all sorts of different gimmicks during the Philly run. One time he even wanted to have Ethel walking around upstage of me while I stripped! What a terrible idea! Well, I just did it lousy that night and, sure enough, he abandoned that idea. Also in Philly, Lane Bradbury replaced Carole D’Andrea as June. Carole was great, but she just couldn’t be heard. In those days we didn’t wear microphones, so you really had to project and get your voice out into the house. My agent brought in Lane. She was so sweet and was a great June. Jerry was so mean to her, but he had a reputation for being mean. One day when we were working on one of the “Let Me Entertain You” spots where Lane was supposed to do the splits while twirling her batons and Jerry hid her batons and made her keep doing the splits while twirling her empty hands. She had tears running down her cheeks.
EvSo: How about the real Gypsy Rose Lee?
Church: She was wonderful to me. She had me over to her house, showed me a lot of her memorabilia and was completely supportive. She didn’t try to control how I portrayed her. We both understood this was fiction: It was a play and I was acting. She even gave me a pair of her strip pants. I still have them! I remember that she had fabulous blue-and-white Royal Copenhagen open-weave china. I admired that so much I bought some myself.
EvSo: Can you tell us about the opening night on May 21, 1959?
Church: The party at Sardi’s was really the pre-party. It was the “wait for the reviews” routine, but then we had a great after-party-party where Jule could play the piano. He loved to be the one at the piano at parties. I remember one night when he took me to a gathering at the Barclay Hotel after the show while we were in Philadelphia. Not only did he play the piano, but Steve did, too. It wasn’t often you would see Jule let someone else play.
EvSo: How about recording the original cast album on May 24 and 31, 1959?
Church: It was fun! Jule and Arthur and Steve and Jerry were all there, telling us what to do that might be a little different than onstage. After all, on a record you can’t have the visuals. My real memory, though, was just how much fun it was. By then we knew we had a hit, and we knew it all worked. So it was fun putting it on tape. But it was also hard work. We didn’t get it all down in the one-day recording session that first Sunday, so we had to have a second session the next Sunday which meant I got another week’s pay. That’s what you got for a day’s recording: a week’s worth of your salary.
EvSo: What can you share with us about events during the run?
Church: Well, for one thing, it was great to have Milton Rostenstock in the pit. He was so encouraging. He urged us on with his body language while he was conducting. It helped us get into or stay in the groove, if you will pardon that trite expression. My relationship with Ethel was an on-again, off-again thing. Once, when a comment of mine was misrepresented as a criticism of her — I had complained that some cast members could stretch out a moment too long and someone told Ethel I was talking about her — she totally shut me out. I went to her dressing room, which was on the stage level downstairs from mine, but I was not allowed in. For months she wouldn’t even talk to me in the wings. But I guess she got as tired of it as I had because at Christmas she sent a lovely simple gold bracelet. When I opened it I ran downstairs and burst into her dressing room. I said, “Oh, Ethel. I love it!” and she turned to me and started talking just as if there had never been a problem. We had a lot of celebrities who came backstage after the show. Oh, I sure remember the night that Cary Grant came backstage. He was so handsome and suave and he shook everybody’s hand. The next night, when Jack Klugman arrived at the theater for the evening’s performance, he came in to my dressing room and said, “Sandra, you see this hand? I haven’t washed it since Cary Grant shook it.”
EvSo: Tell us about the night of the Tony Awards when the show had eight nominations but didn’t win any awards.
Church: Oh I didn’t attend at the … where was it? The Astor Hotel? I mean, why would I want to sit through that knowing that I didn’t win? In those days, they told you in advance if you were a winner. I remember I bet Jack $10 that he wouldn’t win. I don’t know if Ethel had to attend, but I didn’t and so I didn’t.
EvSo: After over a year, the show transferred from the Broadway Theatre to the Imperial. Shortly after the move, you left the show and Julienne Marie took over the role. How did the transition work?
Church: They wanted to make the shift to Julienne at the same time as the transfer, but since they hadn’t let me out of my contract to take movie offers early in the run I wasn’t inclined to bow out early for them. I said, “I have a contract so I’ll play the first three weeks at the Imperial.” And I did.
EvSo: Tell us about your last night in the show?
Church: The big deal that night was the way I did the strip. I actually rehearsed it with my singing teacher. I pulled out all the stops to sell the number with umphs and bumps on “We’ll! – Have! – A! – Real! – Good! – Time!” and made the dance more playful. I remember the look on Milton’s face as he realized I was singing it differently. Everyone backstage could tell as well, and Ethel came into the wings to watch. The band was so excited they stood up, and Dick Perry, the trumpet player, began blasting away as I threw pennies down into the pit! The number had gone differently during the run as we tried different things. Sometimes it was a question of “how will she strip tonight?” But that last night I really did what I wanted to with the moment and let it all out, getting down and, well, not necessarily dirty but jazzy. The audience reaction was different, and it really was what the script needed. In fact, when Julienne took over the next night they changed the number to be more like what I did that night.
EvSo: Did you want the part in the movie?
Church: Oh, sure! Doesn’t everyone want the movie of a role that was theirs? But Merrick had already hurt my chances in Hollywood when he wouldn’t let me take any of the offers I got during the run of the show. I had five good offers, but I was under an 18-month contract at $450 a week. I offered to extend the end of the contract for the time I was out to do a movie. But Merrick would not budge. And if you don’t take the offers when the taking is good, it’s too late by the time you are available.
EvSo: Did you see Natalie Wood’s performance? What did you think?
Church: She did a good job in it. But I still wish I’d gotten the part. She came to see the show five times while they were casting the movie. She came backstage each time. It made me so mad. I knew she was there to copy what was good in my performance, and they kept me on the hook for a long time so that there would be publicity about the possibility of my doing the role in the movie.
EvSo: Tell us more about David Merrick.
Church: Everybody hated him because he was such a cheapskate. But I didn’t hate him. He was never mean to me, always very proper. But he sure deserved his reputation as cheap! I heard that the seamstresses couldn’t even buy a spool of thread without getting approval. I had a very heavy leather jacket, which was torture in the summer when it was so very hot onstage. I asked for a lighter-weight one to use in the summer. But, no, he wouldn’t spend the money. I liked Leland Hayward, the other producer of Gypsy, but Merrick was just so cheap! Gypsy was the only show I did for him. Jule wanted me to do Do Re Mi, which Merrick did with him, Garson Kanin and Comden and Green for Phil Silvers. But I knew working with Silvers would be like working with Ethel again: They both always played way out front, playing to the audience and not to you. I mean, this is theater, not opera where you sing “I love you” facing the audience instead of the person you are supposed to be telling that you love them! Ethel was the most out-front actress, and Phil Silvers would be just like that. Right after Gypsy I did Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1960-1961) with Dean Jones and I was right back in that bind: He was always playing out front and leaving me nothing to play to.
EvSo: That was your last role on Broadway. Why did you quit?
Church: I took stock and decided that I didn’t want to grow up to be an Ethel Merman. I was offered some shows: Hal Prince offered me Cabaret. But I really quit. I had a small inheritance — some $15,000 — that my great aunt had left me. She had been a fascinating lady! Her name was Mary Florence Denton. She went to Japan in the 1880s to teach in missionary schools and stayed in Kyoto through both world wars. I used that money to take a trip that changed my life — three months in the Far East where I fell in love with all those wonderful sculptures in India, and decided I really wanted to turn to the visual arts, to painting. That trip was also the start of my lifelong love of traveling. But I knew that I’d have to be able to support myself as a painter so I needed to continue with acting for a while. I did some television: The Eleventh Hour, Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Doctors and Nurses. But it was the movie I did with Marlon Brando, The Ugly American, that gave me the chance not only to earn a substantial sum but the time to complete high school. They signed me to a contract for 12 weeks at something like $1,500 a week, and I went back to my high school, Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, and the nuns tutored me to cover what I had missed by leaving for New York to do Picnic. They were wonderful and included me in the graduating class of 1962. The 12-week job stretched and stretched because Marlon Brando never came on the set until 11 in the morning. The studio was furious over the delay and what it did to the budget, but I didn’t care. I was getting my weekly salary and had time for my studies. The 12 weeks ended up being seven months! I made $40,000. It all might have been different if Ethel had gotten to take Gypsy to London instead of the national tour. If she had, I probably would have done it, too. And the London theater world is so different from Broadway that I might have felt at home there and continued a live theater career. But it wasn’t meant to be. I still love going to theater, and I’ve seen quite a few productions of the show — all the Broadway revivals except Angela Lansbury’s. I think my favorite production (other than our original, of course) was the Paper Mill production in 1998 with Betty Buckley. But the real treat was when I went to London and saw Imelda Staunton in the West End. She is such an actress — the strongest Rose I ever saw. When I went to London I wrote out a note to her and took it by the stage door. I told the doorman, “This isn’t a fan note. She really will know who I am. Please get it to her.” The next morning she called on the phone, and we had just the friendliest chat. I asked if I could buy a house seat, but she wouldn’t hear of my paying. She was so welcoming!
EvSo: Thank you so much for taking this time with us.
BRAD HATHAWAY retired to live with his wife on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., after nearly two decades covering theatre in Washington, D.C., Broadway and nation-wide. He is a member of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association.