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Gypsy Title

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An article regarding the musical and the term “Gypsy”

The Muir Musical and the Roma People
John Moore, Provost, John Muir College

Every Spring, for over 20 years, John Muir College has presented the Muir Musical.  This production is completely student run: acting, directing, sound design, sets, costumes, marketing, and more.   Students from all six colleges come together to showcase the talent and creativity of our undergraduates.  This year, the musical is Gypsy: A Musical Fable; telling the story of the pioneer burlesque figure Gypsy Rose Lee, this 1959 work by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne is one of Broadway’s most acclaimed musicals.

The term ‘Gypsy’, however, is fraught.  It has been the usual term used in English for an ethnic group that travelled into Europe, originally from the India, long ago – perhaps 1000 years ago.   Members of this group self-identify in different ways in different parts of Europe: Roma, Sinti, Manush, Kale, Caló, to name a few.   The term ‘Roma’ (singular ‘Rom’) has also been used as a general term for the ethnic group, even for those who do not use the term themselves.  Because early Roma arrivals in Western Europe described themselves as pilgrims from Lesser Egypt, they became known as ‘Egyptians’, which was later shortened to ‘Gypsies’ in English (Gitanes in French and Gitanos in Spanish).

Throughout Europe and later elsewhere (e.g. North America), Roma have faced official and unofficial persecution and discrimination.   Over the past centuries, their itinerant lifestyle has been sanctioned with forced settlement and their traditional occupations (e.g. metallurgy, livestock trading, and music) have been prohibited in many places.  They were enslaved in Romania, jailed and sent to the mines and galleys in Spain, and were the victims of genocide during the Nazi holocaust.  Even in the absence of official persecution, Roma continue to be subjected to discrimination and murderous attacks at the hand of neo-Nazi groups and others.   Because of centuries of anti-Roma prejudice, the term ‘Gypsy’ has taken on negative connotations, including the coining of a related term ‘gyp’, which is based on a stereotype of dishonesty.

In addition, the term ‘Gypsy’ is associated with a number of romanticizing and exotocizing stereotypes – these include a happy-go-lucky itinerant lifestyle, blood feuds, colorful costumes, and the like.  It is probably safe to say that in the minds of many, the term ‘Gypsy’ evokes either the image of beggars seen on a European vacation or colorful characters dancing around a campfire in front of painted caravans.  While some of these are very loosely based on aspects of Roma culture, they are also far from accurate depictions.

Because of persecution and exoticization, some members of the Roma community find the term ‘Gypsy’ objectionable.  This is not universal;  self-identity and ethnic labeling are complex issues.  Some English-speaking Roma self-identify as ‘Gypsy’, and most Spanish Roma use the term Gitano with pride.   A related objection is to the use of the term ‘Gypsy’ to refer to stereotyped elements and practices that are employed by non-Roma in fanciful attempts to be ‘Gypsy-like’  – these include ‘Gypsy’ costumes, ‘Gypsy’ dance, etc.   It is important to understand these objections and even more important to be aware of Roma history and the reasons for the objections.

This brings us back to Gypsy – the musical.   The musical is not about Roma and does not depict ‘Gypsy’ stereotypes.  It is based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque performer who took ‘Gypsy’ as a stage name, perhaps due to the itinerant lifestyle of the vaudeville subculture in the 1930s.

While I understand that some may, nevertheless, object to the use in the musical’s title, I feel it is far removed from the persecution and stereotypes that are the basis of the objections.  I also feel that the issue itself provides an excellent opportunity to underscore the history of the Roma and the continuing challenges they face today – both of which are outside most people’s consciousness.  To the extent that our musical’s title provides an opportunity for these conversations, it makes an unexpected, but positive, contribution.