Let Her Entertain You: Leslie Uggams on Surviving Childhood Stardom and Playing Legendary Role of Mama Rose

Tony and Emmy Award winner Leslie Uggams continues her streak of classic leading lady roles by taking on Mama Rose in a groundbreaking multiracial production of Gypsy at Connecticut Repertory Theatre.

Leslie Uggams
Leslie Uggams (Photo by Krissie Fullerton)

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Leslie Uggams is still going strong... and still making great strides.

After playing Kizzy Kinte Reynolds in the landmark television miniseries and recently bringing Lena Horne's life story to the stage, the Tony and Emmy Award winner is continuing to make history with her newest role.

Uggams is currently taking on musical theatre's most infamous matriarch, Mama Rose, in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of Gypsy, which kicked off a 10-day run July 10 in The Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre located on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT.

As the "ultimate stage mother" in Arthur Laurents' classic musical, she is breaking ground as the first African American to take on the iconic role in an Equity production — rounded out with a multiracial cast.

"I must say it's an incredible musical, and I think it's one of Arthur's best books of a musical," Uggams told Playbill.com during a break in tech rehearsals for the show.

With The Bird Cage, West Side Story and Gypsy already to his credit, Laurents — who died in 2011 — wrote the book for the 1967 musical Hallelujah, Baby!, in which Uggams made her Broadway debut. The show, featuring music by Jule Styne, garnered the Best Musical Tony Award and netted Uggams the trophy for Best Actress.

For Gyspy — officially titled Gypsy: A Musical Fable — the playwright collaborated with Styne and Stephen Soundheim in creating the enduring, tear-jerking backstage story based on the memoirs of the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee about her meddling "momager" Rose, who had vaudevillian visions of making her daughters rich and famous — sometimes by any means necessary.

Leslie Uggams
Photo by Bob Copley

On Broadway, the musical first bowed in 1959 starring Ethel Merman as Mama Rose. In 1962, a glitzy cinematic adaptation starred Rosalind Russell in the role. In 1993, CBS broadcast a television film version starring Bette Midler. Throughout the years, some of Broadway's best — Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989), Bernadette Peters (2003) and Patti Lupone (2008) — have taken on the meaty role on The Great White Way.

Now, it's Leslie Uggams' turn.

"A lot of times, people look at Mama Rose as a monster, but she's not a monster. She loves children, and she loves animals and she does everything for her kids. It's just that she never asked them if this is what they wanted to do, and that's the problem," Uggams explained. "She's been married three times, and she likes excitement and she wants excitement for them. And she was abandoned herself by her mother, who just walked out of the house one day. There's so much there. It's an incredible story and funny at the same time.

"I grew up in that era of because I was a child star working on television and everything so I saw those kinds of mothers that lived through their children and pushed their children so that not only their children would have a better life, but they can have a better life," she continued. "I've been around it and it's a universal story."

"I mean you have these reality shows where you have these little pageant kids, and you see how those mothers are and everything, and you see the dancing schools and you see how those mothers are so this is a timeless story. This happens to be about Gypsy Rose Lee, but there are a lot of Mama Roses out there." Uggams said that Laurents initially asked her to lead a proposed national tour of the 2003 Sam Mendes-helmed production. "I said, 'Really?' and he said, 'Yes, you'd be a great Mama Rose.' And, of course, they never did a road company or anything like that."

"So when I got this offer," she continued, "I said, 'I don't know.' And then I realized that Arthur said [I] could do it, so he must've believed [I] could do it. So here I am and I must say, up here, these people are first class, first rate and it's an incredible cast. "

Uggams in Gypsy.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The cast includes Michael James Leslie ( The Wiz) as Pop, Scott Ripley as Herbie, Alanna Saunders as June, Amandina as Louise and Luke Hamilton as Tulsa, and features Ariana Shore as Tessie Tura, Dale AJ Rose as Mr. Goldstone/Cigar and Steve Hayes as Uncle Jocko/Kringelien.

Additional cast members include Brandon Beaver, Johnny Brantly III, Thomas Brazzle, Madison Coppola, Kristin Devine, Conor Donnally, Cassandra Dupler, Julia Estrada, Mackenzie Leigh Freidmann, Khetanya Henderson, James Jelkin, Sean Jones, Rebecca Mack, Coles Prince, Maria Sheehan, Kyle Schoeplein, Courtney Schoeplein, Annie Tolis, Gianna Yanelli and Madison Young.

According to Uggams, the multiracial dynamics of this particular production was not the intention. "They didn't just say, 'We don't want this color to be here and this color to be there.' These are very talented people and... you don't even think about it when we're doing it... It's quite a cast of many backgrounds, and it works."

With an illustrious career in film, television, theatre and music, the 71-year-old New York native is a true testament of career longevity and remains an example of the way to survive childhood stardom. From the Apollo Theater's world-famous stage to Hollywood, she started her career in television at the age of six on the ABC TV series "Beulah," starring Ethel Waters. While studying at The Julliard School, Uggams recorded her first album (of 10) for Columbia Records. Her Broadway repertoire includes Blues In the Night, Anything Goes and King Hedley II. She was last seen on Broadway in On Golden Pond in 2005 opposite James Earl Jones.

As of late, she's been taking on some of the theatre world's most iconic roles. Uggams led the cast of Hello, Dolly! in the 2008 Houston Theatre's Under The Stars production. Next up is a Norb Joerder-helmed production of Mame, kicking off December 4 at The Wick Theater in Boca Raton, FL. "I love what I do, and I'm always ready for the next challenge and lately some wonderful roles have come up for me... And it's about time," she added.