In Gypsy, A Rose Is Not A Rose
- New York Columnist
During the opening moments of the PBS broadcast of the Imelda Staunton West End revival of Gypsy, I joked to my roommate that every Rose sounds different but every Baby June always sounds the same. That was in response to the squeaking little blonde dancing around on the stage. I hadn’t heard Staunton’s bark yet. I had based my joking assessment of Roses on my assortment of Gypsy cast recordings. They are all I will ever know of most productions of Gypsy, as cast recordings are all I will ever know of most musicals. But Gypsy is one of my favorites, and the opportunity to revisit it last night, for the first time really since I saw the 2003 revival with Bernadette Peters, was something I could not turn down. Somehow, I had no idea what I was in for.
Putting aside the obvious fact that different actresses will inevitably bring different things to any one given role, at different points in a person’s life, one sees things differently also. Staunton’s Rose was very different than Peter’s, but perhaps if I had seen Peters do it today, I would have picked things up from the action and the dialogue and the songs that I didn’t as a teenager. I knew this character was based on a real life person who had attempted murder (something not depicted in the show). But what I remember about Peter’s performance, and the reason I return to her cast recording more even than Ethel Merman’s, is that I felt bad for the character. Everything was going wrong for her, and Peters was sympathetic in the role, because that is how Peters is. You root for her, even when you know you shouldn’t. That’s why she’s great, that’s why she’s effective.
Now I am older and wiser and Imelda Staunton is not Bernadette Peters. For me and for a significant portion of my generation, Staunton is Dolores Umbridge, the pink terror of the Wizarding World in the Harry Potter books. And I saw a lot of Umbridge in her eyes during Rose’s more raw moments (it helped that a television broadcast includes close-ups, but Staunton’s eyes are such that I think I could have sensed from the audience). Watching Gypsy at this point in my life, with all that I now know about people and the world, I noticed things about Rose that I never have before. She’s delusional. Maybe I already knew that one, just not to the extent I do now. She’s at once a con artist and an easy mark. She is a compulsive liar and a bully (ok, I already knew the one as well). She is a psychopath. She is dangerous. She is terrifying. Even Peter’s performance must have shown this, since it is in the material, but it wasn’t the dominant quality. In Staunton’s performance, it was.
The role of Rose was originally written for Ethel Merman, and I always just thought that was because of the outsized personality Merman’s voice alone could bring to any role. Rose is a forceful woman, Merman had a forceful voice, perhaps the most forceful in Broadway history. But Merman also had a forceful personality. People were afraid of her, and they had good reason to be. She could be temperamental. She could be scary. No wonder they wanted her to play Rose. And most Roses have stuck to the Merman mold, even while bringing new angles to the role. Bernadette Peters was a significant departure. She’s small and sweet, and has an amazing voice, but not a Merman voice. The New York Times, at the time of the Peters revival, ran an article (which I have been unable to find on Google, but trust me) that asked if she could even handle the role. They later ran a review saying, and I’m paraphrasing, boy, could she. She was apparently closer, physically, to the historical Rose, and while she had some vocal trouble, reportedly, she made the role hers in a way actresses hadn’t before. I’m really glad she’s the Rose I saw live.
Watch Peter’s Tony performance from that year and you can get a sense of what her Rose was like. It’s a slightly clipped version of “Rose’s Turn,” the legendary eleven o’clock number after which, I imagine, the actresses who play Rose don’t sing again until the top of the next show, for safety reasons. She makes the number desperate and sad. She often seems on the verge of tears, especially in the “Why did I do it” section toward the end, when it gets nice and close in on her face and she lists her grievances with suppressed resentment in her eyes. She is really hurting, trying to keep it together. And you root for her. By the end, you want to give her a hug and all the love she seems to crave. And so her daughter comes on to the stage to do, in the show. Whenever I listen to that last scene between them on the cast recording, I remember how hopeful it felt, like they were going to be alright, they were going to be friends. I did not get that impression from Staunton’s performance. Her Rose went places in “Rose’s Turn” that you don’t return from, but they were what the whole performance had been leading up to. And when Gypsy Rose Lee came out at the end and embraced the scared animal that was all that was left of her mother in this version, it was not hopeful or friendly. It was a parent becoming a significant burden on her child, and that child knowing she must take responsibility for her parent for the rest of her life. I saw many years of taking care of Rose in Gypsy’s future, shielding her from the world, protecting her from herself. Staunton’s Rose was truly broken beyond repair, and was lucky to have such a strong and powerful daughter to take her in. I never thought of Gypsy as really scary until I saw that production on PBS.
It only goes to show, molds are made to be broken, great performers are the ones to break them, and each production should seek to raise the stakes. I love both Peters’s and Staunton’s performances, and I have trouble choosing a favorite. I have thought for many years, and have heard others express, that the next Broadway revival of Gypsy should feature Audra McDonald as Rose. A role like Rose has so much to say, and has spent much of its existence stuck in one gear (Merman), so that Peters’s success in the role was such a shock given everyone’s expectations. Rose is a sympathetic monster that can be played many, many different ways, to many different effects, depending on what qualities are highlighted by a performance. Imagine throwing race into the mix. Gypsy’s action starts in the 1920s, and features a family struggling to get work and make ends meet and get noticed. Imagine adding a racial element to that. Imagine what the woman who, just in the past few years, has played Billie Holiday and Bess in Porgy and Bess could bring to Rose. A Tony would be a foregone conclusion, it being Audra McDonald playing a role that only two of the five women who have played it on Broadway didn’t win a Tony for (Peters and Merman), but more importantly, what could it say to us about our history, our society, ourselves? I’m not saying it should be an all black cast. You’d need the promoters, the agents, even some of the other performer characters to be white to emphasize the struggle the family goes through. I don’t get to see my favorite musicals as often as I do my favorite movies or television shows, and sometimes I question my list because the impressions I have of them are not fresh and I wonder if another musical might warrant that place of honor in my estimation. Then something like this happens, and I realize that Gypsy, a musical with a reputation for having been perfectly constructed, has only begun to reach its full potential, at least on Broadway, at nearly sixty years old. That is a testament to the eternal youth of a great piece of musical theatre, and a reminder of why we need to keep the form moving forward.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) on his personal blogs, and has written a yet unpublished musical theatre novel. His writing can also be seen on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and Medium.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.