By InSung Cho
In the world of Broadway, seeking success demands following many superstitious rules of the theater. Besides the obvious, “break a leg,” to wish an actor good luck, the stage must be kept lit or the ghost believed to haunt it will get angry. Mention “Macbeth” and you will invoke the curse of the original play, leading to such catastrophes as fires, labor strikes, even an actor turning mute. To counter its effects, one must leave the room, spin in place, spit, and ask for permission to re-enter. And on opening night, every Broadway musical should begin with the passing of the Gypsy Robe.
Named for the chorus performers, or “gypsies,” who move from show to show, the Gypsy Robe is a smock adorned with mementoes from shows past and is awarded to the actor with the most stage credits.
The ritual was started more than 50 years ago by Bill Bradley, a chorus member in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” In a good-humored attempt to ease the jitters of his friend on the opening night of “Call Me Madam,” Bradley sent a pale pink dressing robe he received from another chorus member and claimed it was a legendary good luck charm worn by the beauties in the Ziegfield Follies. Bradley also added a charm from his own successful show, a large rhinestone to represent the musical’s hit song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
“Call Me Madam” garnered rave reviews. After including a talisman from his own production, a rose plucked from Ethel Mermen’s gown, Bradley’s friend bequeathed the robe to the next Broadway opening, “Guys and Dolls.” The show was a hit.
More than a good luck charm, the Gypsy Robe is a way to honor an actor in the ensemble cast, said Terry Marone, the guardian of the Gypsy Robe.
“The principals have the Tonys and other awards, but this is it for the chorus,” Marone said.
These singers and dancers are thought to be the unsung heroes of the stage. In Broadway’s earlier years, bios of them weren’t included in Playbills.
“A Chorus Line,” the 1975 award-winning musical that recently reopened on Broadway, chronicles the trials of these performers.
The regimented nature of the work forbids individuals from standing out. “Look at the Rockettes,” said Gloria Rosenthal, the Gypsy Robe’s official historian, “no one can kick higher than anyone else.”
“We call each other the mules of Broadway: We carry the water and the supplies,” joked Frank Mastrone, a chorus member in “Phantom of the Opera.” Mastrone has received the robe twice, once while performing in “Saturday Night Fever” and the second time in “BIG.”
The passing of the robe didn’t become a formal ceremony until the early 1980s, when Rosenthal asked Marone, then serving as the chief outside business representative at Actors’ Equity, to step in. Early on, it floated around arbitrarily, changing hands between friends. Without anyone in charge, the tradition began to fade.
Rosenthal and Marone, working with Bradley, drafted a set of guidelines: The robe must be delivered to the selected performer a half hour before the curtain rises on opening night. The new recipient must put on the robe and circle the stage three times while cast members touch the robe for luck. He or she must then visit the dressing room of every actor in the show.
Each recipient added their own decorative touches: the headdress of a nun’s habit from “The Sound of Music,” a gigantic white cloud with beads of rain from “Singin’ in the Rain,” a pair of white underpants slipping off a mold of a rear end from “The Full Monty.” A robe was retired and a new one started when there was no more space to put new items on. As the years passed, the ornaments became more elaborate and they were retired more quickly.
“The show ‘Mail’ had such a heavy mailbag that the gypsy couldn’t wear it and it had to be taken off,” Rosenthal said. One of the early muslin cloaks held items from 52 shows, she said. Now they are packed away after about 10 items are added.
“When you see [that] people like Donna McKechnie wore the robe, Chita Rivera wore the robe, and when you are mentioned in a sentence with those people, honey, I don’t care if they wore toilet tissue, it’s fabulous,” said Judine Somerville, a chorus member in “Hairspray.” “Those are the divas of musical theater.”
The robes are a piece of living history, said Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York. “Because these [Gypsy Robes] are not edited as to which shows survive and which shows fold after a few weeks, they provide a documentary of a season with all the heartaches,” she said.
A robe that made the rounds from 1987 to 1989 ended up at shows ranging from “Starlight Express” to “Phantom of the Opera.”
While no one is certain, it is estimated there are about 14 in existence. A few are on display at the Smithsonian, the Museum of the City of New York and the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
For Mastrone, receiving the robe wasn’t about him but about the community to which he belongs.
“It is a connection we have to the actor generations before us,” he said. “It makes you part of theater lore.”