Ethel and Angela and Patti, Oh My! Who Is the Fiercest Mama Rose of All?

News   Ethel and Angela and Patti, Oh My! Who Is the Fiercest Mama Rose of All? Playbill.com looks at the various leading ladies and dynamic divas who have played the infamous stage mother, Mama Rose, in Gypsy.

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We've all heard that snippet of Gertrude Stein poetry "Sacred Emily" that goes "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." We of the musical theatre set are a little less blasé about our flora, especially when it comes to that thorniest of all flowers, Mama Rose of Gypsy. This character is considered by many to be the crowning achievement of an actress' musical theatre career, and certainly the choicest of roles for "women of a certain age." Whatever the allure of this complicated, slightly off-balance character, there certainly have been many actresses who have brought their own interpretation to this domineering stage mother with an insatiable drive to make stars out of her two children. This article is an examination of the variety of stage Roses as they were captured through cast recordings by personalities who left their unique imprint upon this fascinating character.

Gypsy is musical that loosely tells the story of burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, but the story focuses on her star struck, verging on maniacal, mother Rose Hovick who was bound and determined to make vaudeville stars out of her children. Originally, Stephen Sondheim was slated to create the entire score for Gypsy, but Ethel Merman, who was set to star in the piece, had experienced bad luck with unknown composers on her last Broadway outing, Happy Hunting. She insisted that a more tried and true musician be brought in, but Sondheim could still write the lyrics. Jule Styne stepped up to the plate and created the greatest music of his career, augmented by Sondheim’s unrelenting, edgy work as wordsmith. During its tryout, many songs were added, subtracted and cobbled together, including the thrilling montage "Rose’s Turn" which was created in one night and stopped the show.

For most of us, our first Mama Rose was Ethel Merman in Gypsy, recorded in 1959 by Columbia Masterworks under the guidance of Goddard Lieberson. Many have complained over the years about Merman not executing the songs attractively, utilizing her trademark bulldozer belt instead of finding the emotional nuances of the character. Merman is Merman, and subtlety was not one of her salient characteristics, but what she does well is capture the verve and command of Mama Rose. Fortunately, Jule Styne's music, expertly orchestrated by Robert Ginzler and Sid Ramin, lays the tracks for a rollercoaster of kinetic energy that Merman navigates with confidence, and when the music soars, Ethel soars. It is impossible for anyone to hear Merman insist that "everything's coming up roses" or that this time's "for me" without believing she will have her dream, and God help anyone who gets in her way.

Sandra Church, Ethel Merman and Jack Klugman in <i>Gypsy</i>, 1959
Sandra Church, Ethel Merman and Jack Klugman in Gypsy, 1959

Angela Lansbury's Mama Rose is a different storm altogether. Where Merman clobbered like an F5 tornado, Lansbury was a mounting storm, the brewing of a hurricane, bit by bit growing in intensity and calamity. Lansbury found a wider range of emotions and nuances to mine in her Mama Rose. She is delightfully charming in songs like "You'll Never Get Away from Me" or "Together." She appears almost sane in fact, until you hear her foggily indicating her capability of a nervous breakdown in "Some People," spiraling toward one in "Everything's Coming Up Roses" or entrenched in one during the penultimate "Rose's Turn." Rose Hovick, the real-life Mama Rose, was known for her ability to turn on the charm and then, in the flick of a light switch, morph into something cold and calculated. Lansbury's singing of the role seems to indicate that she is in sync with this aspect of the character. She defines the term "expert manipulator" in her joyously resolute "Mr. Goldstone," but she is as slippery as a snake as she coquettishly reels in the salesman Herbie with "Small World." You can hear Lansbury's versatile interpretation on the 1973 RCA Red Seal recording of the Original London Cast that eventually made its way to Broadway, winning Lansbury a Tony.

Zan Charisse, Angela Lansbury and Rex Robbins in <i>Gypsy</i>, 1974
Zan Charisse, Angela Lansbury and Rex Robbins in Gypsy, 1974

1990 brought us yet another Mama Rose, and this time the character was filtered through a gritty performance by Tyne Daly (in a Tony-winning turn). Elektra/Nonesuch recorded the show, and what is to be heard in this inception is a character teetering on the edge of desperation. Daly's voice is not exactly a pretty one, but what it does convey thoroughly is every ounce of determination and angst in this fanatical character. She acts the role first and sings it second, and for vocal purists this may not be the approach that they will appreciate. The trade-off is this is a well-acted Mama Rose and much of that comes through on the cast recording. Some of the best moments of this Gypsy are the little snatches of dialogue that introduce and that are interspersed throughout songs. Daly is more vocally at ease on the gentler comedy numbers, but her interpretations of the bolder, brassier numbers like "Some People" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" are lessons in how a great actress can overcome vocal limitations with an undaunted, deeply felt performance.

Jonathan Hadary, Tyne Daly and Crista Moore in <i>Gypsy</i>, 1989
Jonathan Hadary, Tyne Daly and Crista Moore in Gypsy, 1989

Up until Bernadette Peters tried on the role in 2003, the physicality of all former Broadway Mama Roses was off. Rose Hovick was less of a battle axe and more of a petite firecracker with an explosive personality. Peters was a closer fit, capitalizing on her kewpie doll looks and her bubbly personality to slyly hypnotize the audience into her charms, making them victims of her manipulations as well. We like her and we are reeled in by her. When she knows she has us, that's when her Rose turns up the heat. She inches her way toward a degeneration that we allow and accept because we are caught in the web. What choice do we have? The Angel Records recording of Gypsy allows us to feel Peters work this black magic. She is far more vocally effective on the gentler numbers where we get to hear her finesse her manipulations and practice her spells, but there is a certain bone-chilling terror that comes from hearing her sweet cherubic voice morph into something gravely, unholy and uncomfortable in "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn." Though this interpretation didn't delight everyone, it did offer a very fresh approach to this creature and her machinations.

John Dossett, Bernadette Peters and Tammy Blanchard in <i>Gypsy</i>, 2003
John Dossett, Bernadette Peters and Tammy Blanchard in Gypsy, 2003 Photo by Joan Marcus

Of any actress to be cast in the role of Mama Rose, Patti LuPone was probably the most likely choice. LuPone has made a career out of playing larger-than-life, domineering characters who are also capable of charm and manipulative sexuality. Slightly insane and ever-calculating in her interpretation, she painted Rose as chameleon-like, capable of adapting to any situation, knowing which emotions to turn on and off to get her job of stage mother done efficiently and effectively. In LuPone, we got the entire Mama Rose package. She delivered a tour-de-force performance that resulted in a Tony Award for Best Actress. The 2008 Time Life recording of Gypsy captures LuPone's nonpareil renditions of each song. It is remarkable how her voice can be tremulous and confident at the same time, raging her way through the stormy waters of "Everything's Coming Up Roses." She is simultaneously a misunderstood child and a seasoned gladiator, vacillating back and forth as she infuses "Rose's Turn" with enough thunderous psychosis to shake the firmament. This recording is heightened by an incandescent performance by Laura Benanti, whose carefully painted, sublimely composed portrayal of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (who is Rose's daughter Louise) is in perfect counterpoint with LuPone's driven ferocity. In this author's opinion, this is the Gypsy recording that outshines all others; the must-have in a line of unforgettable recordings. There is a crackling electricity underneath every note of it that reminds us that Gypsy is more than just a musical, it is an event.

Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Boyd Gaines in <i>Gypsy</i>, 2008
Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Boyd Gaines in Gypsy, 2008 Photo by Joan Marcus

Now, we add the recent London production of Gypsy to the mix. Imelda Staunton, known for a wide range of stage and film roles in Britain, gets her stab at playing the dragon lady of musical theatre. Courtesy of First Night Records, this new recording immediately captures Staunton as the most focused and driven of all Mama Roses. In her capable hands (and vocals), we hear a woman who decided, a long time ago, that she was going to be a star. "Some People" is less of a plea or "I wish" song than it is a clear declaration of war on the mediocre and the mundane. She sees the prize at the finish line and everything else in her way is a target to be taken out. Vocally, Staunton's voice leans more toward character interpretation than any kind of vocal beauty. That's okay. Rose doesn't have to be sung prettily, just effectively. There is something visceral and inhuman in how Staunton snarls and tears through the music. In "Everything's Coming Up Roses" she steps outside of her humanity every once and while and lets us see how a cheetah stalks its prey. She is less warm than we are used to on songs like "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away From Me," but, this is a Rose who suffers no fools, and it would be out of character for her to sink to girlish flirting and feigned enthusiasm to get what she wants. Staunton's Rose bullies and prods her way through these numbers. She is a tough lady and her personal relations are collateral damage. In her book, the ends justify the means.

Imelda Staunton in <i>Gypsy</i>
Imelda Staunton in Gypsy Photo by Johan Persson

Collectors will want this new recording because no musical theatre enthusiast's music collection is complete without every possible version of Gypsy lined up chronologically on a shelf, awaiting the repeated listening where they will prep themselves for the latest debate on "Who is the fiercest Mama Rose?" In returning to Ms. Stein's poem for a moment, "a rose" is not interchangeable with all others, but then Stein's poem is more complex than that, revealing just the opposite. Each Rose blooms differently and produces unique petals, fragrances and thorns, just as Mama Rose has been given a wide-range of complex performances and distinct interpretations. Staunton's latest embodiment of this character is just another long stem addition to the ever-growing bouquet.

Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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