Bernadette Peters

Bernadette Peters in 'Gypsy.' (Newsday Photo/Ari Mintz)

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:

ETHEL MERMAN

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.

ROSALIND RUSSELL

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.