Happy Almost Mother's Day, theatre fans! You're welcome. That's right, you've still got a whole day left to figure out how to honor your female Parental Unit. If you're shopping for a gift, how about tickets to a Broadway show? Naturally, lots of musicals have mothers as central characters. But sometimes, these ladies are at the center of the storm. If your mum is mild mannered, you don't want to accidentally suggest a comparison to someone who's, well, not. Actually, that's doubly true if your mama's into drama.
Here's a guide to some of the most memorable mothers in musicals.
10. Margaret Johnson in The Light In The Piazza
Who could forget Margaret Johnson in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas's 2005 musical adaption of Elizabeth Spencer's novella "The Light In The Piazza"? I can still see her leading her daughter through Florence, hat on head, guidebook in hand and North Carolina accent mangling the foreign street names. There's something so uniquely American about Margaret, and it's brought out in contrast to the Italians she meets. In the end, her unflagging maternal devotion proves to be as committed to passionate love as any of the fiery Florentinis, and she supports her daughter in following her heart, no matter the consequences.
9. The Witch in Into The Woods
A mother you probably don't want to compare yours to is The Witch in Into The Woods. While the show reveals her humanity and deep concern for her child, she wears her faults on the outside, even when she's beautiful in Act Two. The woman doesn't even have a name, she's "The Witch." (We're "the World.") Still, this is no one-dimensional fairy tale crone. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine outfitted their character with heaps of humor and motivating depth. When her daughter Rapunzel confronts her with, "You just locked me in a tower without company for 14 years, then you blinded my Prince and banished me to a desert," the Witch replies, "I was just trying to be a good mother."
8. Margaret White in Carrie
Margaret White was a chilling presence in Stephen King's novel, "Carrie," but in the musical adaptation, Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen really take her to new operatic heights. For all the controversy that has surrounded this horror musical since its initial creation in the late 1980s, there's no way to discount the power of Margaret White's big musical material. Her duet with Carrie, "And Eve Was Weak" may be one of the most thrilling moments in all of musical theatre.
7. Lady Thiang The King and I
Lady Thiang is something of an anomaly in The King and I. She's not a liberated English woman of independent means, like Anna Leonowens, nor is she one of the King's many concubines, or even merely a favored Palace wife. Lady Thiang is the head wife and the mother of the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Chulalonghorn. Her status in this position, straddling the line between powerlessness and freedom is a perfect reflection of the themes of the show. The way her love for her son and for her king supersedes all else is a significant force throughout the story and quite palpable in the heart-stirring "Something Wonderful." Ruthie Ann Miles' enthralling (and Tony-nominated performance) in the current Lincoln Center Theater revival is ample proof of the importance of Lady Thiang.
6. Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale in Grey Gardens
In real life, as captured in Albert and David Maysles' acclaimed 1975 documentary, "Grey Gardens," Big Edie was among many other things, extremely musical. Some of the highlights of the film include her singing "Tea for Two" and "You And The Night And The Music" as well as a couple of other songs. Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright's musicalization ups the ante by giving Big Edie actual character songs to sing. The reality on stage may be heightened, but it's just as human and for all her quirks, Big Edie's songs "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn" are completely relatable, and of course, unforgettable.
5. Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music
Sometimes we make our mothers proud (reminder: do something nice for Mother's Day!), but sometimes we disappoint them. Maybe they're judging us fairly, maybe harshly, but a stern word or two from Mom can send some people into a tizzy. Then some kids learn to take their mother's commentary with a healthy grain of salt. In A Little Night Music, Desiree and her mother Leonora clearly do not share the same style. However, as the latter clarifies, "I do not object to the immorality of your life; merely to its sloppiness."
4. Mae Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie
Another supporting character to make this list, Mae Peterson may be better described as an unsupporting character. She firmly objects to her son Albert's relationship with the long-suffering Rosie. Much humor is wrung out of this rift throughout the show and it is key to Albert's ultimate transformation, resulting in his decision to marry Rosie, move to Iowa and become, as Rosie always dreamed, an English teacher.
3. Fantine in Les Misérables
A musical theatre mother who offers her child nothing but support right up until her dying breath ("Tell Cosette I love her and I'll see her when I waaaake…"), Fantine is one of Broadway's most tragic heroines. She sacrificing everything for her beloved daughter, including her body and her dignity. As misérables as her life may be, we know that she rests in peace because Cosette is given such a good life by Jean Valjean.
2. Edna Turnblad in Hairspray
No offense to Fantine, but a Broadway musical mom who's a lot more fun is Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Even when she's nagging Tracy, telling her what do and what not to do and complaining about the loud music she dances to, Edna is still a hoot. In her scuffy slippers and housecoat, she is far from anyone's idea of Broadway glamour, but then she takes the stage to sing and dance Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's hilariously romantic showstopper, "Timeless to Me" with her loving husband, Wilbur.
1. Rose in Gypsy
What's left to say that hasn't been said about Rose in Gypsy — Mama Rose as she's known everywhere except in the show — the Mother of all stage mothers, the King Lear of musical theatre? So many of the greatest Broadway actress-singers have essayed the role since Ethel Merman created it. Dozens more have tried it on in stock and regional theatres. There are great songs and enormous dramatic range to Rose, but she really is the ultimate mother, struggling to live her dreams and find the balance with taking care of her children. That line is very confused for Rose as she was "born too soon and started too late," but her journey towards this realization is one of the most powerful stories in all of theatre.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through June 21 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)