A look at the mysterious Gypsy Robe ceremony.
It’s no secret that theater people are something of a superstitious lot. Myths about whistling or saying “Macbeth” backstage are well-known, as are the ghosts of Broadway, like Olive Thomas (who is said to reside at the New Amsterdam Theatre) and Martin Beck (who causes mischief over at the Al Hirschfeld). But one theater ritual remains relatively under the radar: the Gypsy Robe.
A tradition that dates back to the 1950s, the Gypsy Robe is a Broadway institution that honors the ensemble, the chorus “gypsies.” On opening night, in a private ceremony before the show, the robe—a muslin garment covered in mementos from the shows of the previous season—is awarded to the ensemble cast member with the most Broadway chorus credits. Throughout the season, the robe is passed from show to show, picking up patches from each production, until the whole thing is filled with art, cast lists, images, and embroidery like a technicolor dreamcoat yearbook.
In the acting community, the Gypsy Robe is a time-honored tradition but outside of the theater world, it’s something of a mystery, and I wanted to know more.
After a few calls to Actors Equity (the labor union representing American actors and stage managers, and the proprietors of the Gypsy Robe ceremony) and one chaotic trek through a tourist-filled Times Square, I found myself on-stage at the Nederlander Theatre on the opening night of Disaster.
“Everyone turns out for [the ceremony]—producers, management, stagehands—all of them show up onstage for the ceremony because it establishes the opening night. It’s emotional for the actors, because after all of their rehearsals and blood, sweat, and tears, it’s the acknowledgement that they’ve finally arrived,” says David Westphal, Actors Equity Business Representative and the “Keeper of the Robe.”
“They see this is really happening,” he continues. “This is it. It’s about them becoming a part of every musical that’s ever been on Broadway.”
Westphal serves as a Master of Ceremonies of sorts, and as the event begins, the crowd of actors, producers, crew members, actors equity staff, former Gypsy Robe recipients, and, well, me, circle around him.
Jeffrey Schecter, the most recent recipient of the robe, and a chorus member in the Fiddler on the Roof revival, is invited to step forward. “The Gypsy Robe tradition began in 1950 when Bill Bradley, a chorus dancer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, asked Florence Baum, a chorus girl, for her dressing gown,” he starts.
Schecter continues with his speech, telling the history of the robe and detailing the good luck ritual, until it’s time to announce the newest winner. It’s Paul Castree! A multi-time Robe recipient (it can be—and often is—awarded to the same person multiple times), he graciously accepts the garment, and then, as is tradition, he runs, circling the crowd three times, with everyone touching the robe for good luck.
“It’s a chance for the chorus to step out, specifically the winner, but I think it’s really for the entire ensemble to be recognized right before opening,” Castree says after the ceremony. “It’s also a nice historical tie to all broadway musicals going back to the 1950s. It’s a lovely tradition”
Betsy Struxness, who received the robe for Hamilton, agreed. “In a lot of Broadway, the chorus or the ensemble, we’re not really recognized for the work that we do, not the way the principles are recognized. So to have a ceremony like the gypsy robe, where it’s purely for people who have worked on chorus contracts, I think it’s a really lovely thing to acknowledge.”
After I caught the robe-clad Castree on the side of the stage, he headed downstairs, visiting each of the theater’s dressing rooms.
And just like that, the show was blessed.
Disaster is currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre; tickets are available at disastermusical.com.