Rose is "one of the few really great roles in musical theater, Arthur Laurents said of the character who sits squarely at the center of "Gypsy, the musical being revived -- yet again -- on Broadway.
Having written the show's libretto, the outspoken 85-year-old Laurents is hardly objective, but his views come edged with a ton of history. Each of the women who've played the role has passed under his scrutiny, including Bernadette Peters, the current actress taking her "Rose's Turn -- the musical's powerful finale number -- at the Shubert Theatre.
Laurents fashioned the script from the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the stripper who was part of a pair of sisters forced into show business in the waning years of vaudeville by a pushy stage mother working out her own ambitions and frustrations through her daughters.
When producer David Merrick bought the rights to the book and presented the idea of a musical to Laurents, not long after the opening of his "West Side Story, the writer rejected the offer. Sometime later, perhaps a harbinger of one of the "Gypsy songs-to-be -- "You Gotta Have a Gimmick -- he hit upon the idea of focusing on the mother, not the famous stripper, and reconsidered. The show, which would open in 1959 with its score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, was on its way to becoming a landmark in American musicals.
The opening on Thursday will launch the musical's fourth Broadway run. There also have been two films, the most recent a 1993 television special. In each production, Rose has been tackled by a well-known actress, and the role has been considered a pinnacle of her career.
"It's the greatest challenge of all, says Sam Mendes, director of the current revival, who calls Rose "the King Lear of musical theater. I defy any actress to turn down the chance. Here's a look at the Roses:
Any production of "Gypsy is haunted -- or, the half-full version: blessed -- by the ghost of Merman, the original Mama Rose. The brash, trumpet-voiced actress set the standard for the mother of all stage mothers, and why not? The 1959 musical was written with Broadway's reigning musical comedy star in mind.
The character Rose was inspired by the real Rose, but librettist Laurents has said it was Merman's own personality -- "all that brassiness but a quality of naivete, innocence -- he thought of when he wrote his script about "a woman who didn't know what a monster she was.
"Gypsy was Merman's 13th Broadway musical, and many consider Rose her greatest performance. In her autobiography, the actress described the pushy, obsessive mother hen as "the most memorable character ever portrayed in any musical. From the moment she entered the show -- barreling down the aisle, swinging her satchel and shouting "Sing out, Louise! -- to "Rose's Turn, that most vocally and emotionally daunting of 11 o'clock numbers, Merman owned the stage. "It was like an opera to sing, she said of the dramatic musical soliloquy.
The Astoria-born star was 51 when she played Rose, the last musical-theater role she would create. While reviews were great ("best damn musical I've seen in years! Walter Kerr famously exclaimed in The New York Times), some major disappointments were to follow: neither Merman nor the musical won a Tony, and the actress lost out on playing Rose in the 1962 movie version.
The real Rose Hovick, who died in 1954, wasn't around when the musical opened, but her daughter, Rose Louise Hovick, aka Gypsy Rose Lee, on whose 1957 memoirs the show was based, came to see a performance and complimented Merman backstage. Hovick's story is set in the late '20s, but Merman preferred the '50s -- so the musical's costume style settled there.
The production was directed by Jerome Robbins (whose original choreography -- along with additional dances by Jerry Mitchell -- is credited in the current Playbill). Herbie, Rose's long-suffering paramour, was played by Jack Klugman. The show ran for more than 700 performances. Once asked to describe her singing style, Merman, who died in 1984, replied, "I just stand up and holler and hope my voice holds out. Unlike in the current revival, microphones were not used in 1959.
Opposing camps face off about the 1962 movie adaptation of "Gypsy, which starred Russell, the veteran movie star, as the grasping, indominable Mama Rose, desperate to get her two daughters into vaudeville.
One group is convinced the film was misguided, the role miscast. The late Jule Styne, the musical's composer, appears to have weighed in on this side, having supposedly dismissed the film as "dreadful. The other side is convinced Russell, 55 at the time the film was made, did an admirable job tackling the unenviable job of following Merman -- who had coveted the role and was furious at not being cast. (Judy Garland was supposedly another contender.)
The film did respectable business at the box office, and outside the world of Broadway theatergoers, it was most of the country's introduction to "Gypsy.
Conventional wisdom is that Rose's songs were mostly dubbed by Lisa Kirk. But Russell has been quoted as saying this -- and that she did all her own singing.
Mervyn LeRoy directed, and the cast also featured Karl Malden as Rose's companion, Herbie, and, as Gypsy Rose Lee, Natalie Wood. Russell, born in Connecticut, died in 1976.
A bossy, meddlesome woman would become Lansbury's territory with the success in the '80s of her long-running CBS series, "Murder She Wrote. But when she took on Mama Rose in "Gypsy for the musical's first revival, the actress was in the midst of a Broadway musical period during which she won four Tonys.
The third of these was for "Gypsy, which Lansbury first performed on stage in her native England in 1973 -- its London premiere -- to such favorable reviews that the show transferred to the United States, where it toured before opening in New York in the fall of 1974. This Rose was 49, and the actress has described the role as "a pile driver.
Arthur Laurents, who assumed the directing mantle for this production, said that memories of Merman's performance "were an obstacle, it got to her and she wasn't entirely able to overcome it. You get put on the defensive. " Ethel, Ethel. People will make comparisons,' Barry Brown, one of the show's producers recalled a resigned Lansbury lamenting. " But I am who I am and I'll have to forge ahead,' she told him.
The consummate actress made her peace with the role. "Rose is a mass of good intentions that go wrong, she remarked of the bulldozer she played. Rex Robbins was her Herbie.
Reviews, again, were glowing. Walter Kerr wrote this version "remains as dazzling as it was on the day it was so felicitously born.
"I'm not an impressionist, I'm an actor, is how Daly summed up how she intended to play Mama Rose. Her casting was a surprise: The 1989 revival of "Gypsy opened only a year after the final episode of the CBS series "Cagney & Lacey, and few people knew that police officer Mary Beth Lacey could sing and dance.
Fortunately for Daly, one of those who did was Laurents, again directing the musical, this time set in the '20s for its 30th-anniversary production. He ardently defended the selection, insisting that Daly was a far better actress than Merman and that her voice "sounds rather like Merman's. (Liza Minnelli and -- yes -- Bernadette Peters supposedly had been in the running for the role.)
"Rose has to be at full energy and intensity every moment, and Tyne does that, Laurents said. He also insisted that, unlike in the original, there was real chemistry between Daly's Rose and Jonathan Hadary's Herbie.
Daly was 43 when she took on the Rose persona, and offstage and on, she hung tough, saying that if you bought her interpretation, "swell -- and if you don't, live with your nostalgia and go play Ethel Merman records. But she soon developed tremendous respect for the stamina of anyone playing the physically and vocally demanding role, admitting she'd thought performing the "same play every night would be easier than playing TV's Lacey.
Reviewers as well as audiences liked her version. Kerr, still writing, opined, "I remain staggered by the monumental powers of Miss Daly . . . as the song ["Small World] says, she is big and funny and fine.'
The show opened on the road in April and on Broadway in November. Daly won the Tony for best actress and after a hiatus -- Linda Lavin replaced her in the role -- returned to the show in '91 for another run.
Publicizing the three-hour 1993 television special of "Gypsy, Bette Midler admitted, "I never thought I'd be old enough to play this part. On her first tour as a singer in the early '70s, she considered including songs from "Gypsy -- like Rose's "Everything's Coming Up Roses -- but decided she was too young to give the words credibility.
Midler had seen Russell, Lansbury and Daly play Rose, and her own, full-trottle singing style and larger-than-life personality had been compared to Merman's.
At 48, in the words of the song those actresses had belted out in their "Gypsys -- "here she is, boys, here she is, world, -- here came the Divine Miss M as Mama Rose. The actress described singing the role as "a lifelong dream, although, she admitted, "the ghost of Ethel was definitely hovering over me.
The broadcast was much hyped and turned out to be a remarkably faithful adaptation of the original production -- supposedly this had been guaranteed when the rights were obtained. Perhaps because of this pressure, filming was preceded by an unusual seven-week rehearsal. "We had to do major memorization, Midler said in an interview at the time. The song "Together, cut from the 1962 film, was restored.
For better or worse, critics concluded that Midler's interpretation made Rose a more likable person. The late Emile Ardolino directed (he died before the movie aired). The cast included Peter Riegert as Herbie and cameo roles by the likes of Christine Ebersole (as one of the strippers), Michael Jeter, Andrea Martin and Ed Asner. Costumes by Cher's costumer Bob Mackie proved he could do seedy as well as super-glam.
Of all the Roses, Peters' own young life comes closest to the show business background that pervades "Gypsy. The Queens-born actress began singing lessons at 3, and by 5 was appearing on a television variety show. When she was 13, she toured in a road company of "Gypsy, playing one of the Hollywood Blondes backing up Dainty June, the daughter on whom Rose first pins her hopes for family stardom.
Not only was this Peters' introduction to the show in which she's starring on Broadway, it was her first experience singing music associated with Stephen Sondheim, whose songs she has since widely interpreted. (Sondheim wrote the lyrics for "Gypsy; Jule Styne was the composer.)
This is Peters' second experience playing a role closely identified with Merman. In 1999, she won a Tony starring in "Annie Get Your Gun -- another backstage musical -- as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, created by Merman in 1946.
For this revival, the tiny, forever sexy Peters, who's 55, supposedly was the favorite choice of librettist Laurents, who told an interviewer that "finding the killer beneath Peters' soft exterior "would make Rose seem even more dramatic. Laurents had seen Peters as the witch in Sondheim's "Into the Woods in 1988 and later heard her sing "Some People, one of Rose's numbers, in a 1996 solo concert at Carnegie Hall.
"She's incredibly different from the other Roses, Laurents has said -- more like the real Rose Hovick, also a smallish woman whom he described as "very charming in pursuing her single-minded goal. Even before Peters opens her mouth, fans of the actress will notice that the wild corkscrew curls that are her trademark are covered with a '20s-style wig. "I told her, You need to play your age' -- which meant none of the usual Bernadette trappings like tight clothes, Mendes said.
The British director, who's tackling his first musical since 1997's much-acclaimed "Cabaret, has praised "Gypsy as an "unsentimental musical and described his own take as "not entirely conventional. For one thing, he's enhanced Rose's role "by adding her presence to some scenes. Now she can't leave the stage.
"I told Bernadette I was going to push her further than she'd ever gone before, he said, adding that to all of his challenges, "she's said fine'.
WHERE&WHEN"Gypsy, starring Bernadette Peters, with John Dossett as Herbie, is in previews at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., and opens Thursday. 212-239-6200.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun