Stage Mother from Hell: Needy, Greedy Mama Rose Gypsy's antiheroine is a woman boiling over with frustrated ambition, who channels all her energies into turning her daughters into stars — woe be to anyone who gets in her way. Jeff Lunden has an appreciation.

Stage Mother from Hell: Needy, Greedy Mama Rose

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Many people think it's the greatest role in all of American musical theater: Mama Rose, the powerhouse stage mother in "Gypsy." She's been played by legends - Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone. For our latest installment of In Character, Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of musical "Gypsy")

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN (Late Actress): (as Mama Rose) Here she is, boys. Here she is, world. Here's Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN: Ever since she made her first appearance in the brassy, larger-than-life performance of Ethel Merman in 1959, the character of Mama Rose has been a touchstone of musical theater. The only thing is, if you ask the man who created her — playwright Arthur Laurents — to talk about Mama Rose, the first thing he does is correct you. It's Madame Rose, not Mama Rose.

Mr. ARTHUR LAURENTS (Playwright): I've never understood that, because she certainly would loathe being called - and she was, nobody ever thought of her as a mother. Why she's called Mama Rose, I don't know.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MERMAN: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) Ready or not, here comes Mama. Mama's talking loud, mama's doing fine, mama's getting hot, mama's going strong, mama's…

LUNDEN: Whether you call her Madame Rose or Mama Rose, she is the stage mother from hell. In the dazzling score, by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and the coruscating script by Arthur Laurents, Rose is a woman boiling over with her own frustrated ambition and she channels all her energies into turning her daughters into stars — woe be it to anyone who gets in her way. She's horrifying. She's mesmerizing.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Chief Drama Critic, New York Times): I can't think of another part in a musical that's this complex, this large and this grand.

LUNDEN: Ben Brantley is chief drama critic of the New York Times.

Mr. BRANTLEY: It also allows all sorts of opportunities for reinterpretation.

LUNDEN: Like Bernadette Peters in 2003.

Ms. BERNADETTE PETERS (Actress): It's a brilliant show. It really is like "King Lear" with music. I mean, it's amazing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PETERS: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) You'll never get away from me, you can climb the tallest tree, I'll be there somehow.

LUNDEN: Arthur Laurents created Mama Rose pretty much out of whole cloth. Fifty years ago, he was approached by producer Leland Heyward to adapt burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs into a musical.

Mr. LAURENTS: I said I wasn't interested in writing a musical about the strip-tease queen of America. And Leland said, keep thinking; you'll come up with an idea. And then we had a cocktail party, and people were talking about their first lovers. And this girl said her first lover was Gypsy Rose Lee's mother. Well, first of all, the fact it was anybody's mother was interesting, but Gypsy Rose Lee's mother made it particularly interesting.

LUNDEN: And, as Laurents found out, the real Rose was no wilting flower. She toured the country on the cheap with a vaudeville troupe starring her daughters, June — who later became the famous actress June Havoc — and Louise, who became Gypsy Rose Lee, as well as some young boys.

Mr. LAURENTS: She had the two little girls and all the little boys in the newsboy act in one room in a hotel. The manager came, objected, and she pushed him out the window. Killed him. I didn't use that, but I've used her pushing him around.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PATTI LUPONE (Actress): (As Mama Rose) (Singing) Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. That's okay for some people who don't know they're alive…

LUNDEN: Patti LuPone is currently starring in a smash-hit Broadway revival directed by the 90-year-old playwright. While many find the steamrolling character Rose to be a monster, LuPone doesn't.

Ms. LUPONE: She has tunnel vision, she's driven, she loves her kids and she is a survivor. I do not see her as a monster at all — she may do monstrous things, but that does not make a monster.

LUNDEN: Rose is single-minded takes what she needs. Ben Brantley:

Mr. BRANTLEY: She's a classic American success story. You do what you need to fulfill your objective. And her objective is to get her daughters famous so she can experience it vicariously. So, sure, if it involves stealing the silverware, or taking the blankets from hotels to make coats, that's what you do.

LUNDEN: And when Rose is thwarted in her attempts to succeed, she just tries another way. Out of context, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," the Act 1 finale, seems like an upbeat song. But in the show, it's a chilling moment. Rose's daughter June has eloped and run away, and Rose decides to make the hitherto untalented Louise a star — if it kills her. Patti LuPone.

Ms. LUPONE: She talks about how everybody has walked out — you know, her mother walked out, her first husband, her second husband, and now the daughter that she created this act for has walked out. And now she turns on a dime and says she's going to make the second daughter a star. And there's desperation.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) You'll be swell, you'll be great, put the horrible world on a plate, starting here, starting now, honey, everything's coming up roses…

LUNDEN: And if Louise doesn't have the talent to become a vaudeville star, then by God she'll be a stripper — even if it destroys Rose's relationship with Herbie, her fiance, or morally compromises her daughter, says Ben Brantley.

Mr. BRANTLEY: When that last desperate chance is grabbed for — on the one hand you shudder, on the other hand you heave a sigh of relief, because you know you're about to experience yet another burst of intensity — one of the most intense moments in all musicals.

Ms. LUPONE: (As Mama Rose) Here she is, boys. Here she is, world. Here's Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRANTLEY: And because Gypsy Rose Lee becomes a star, and because Gypsy Rose Lee, as children often do, rejects her mother, it leads us to "Rose's Turn," which is unlike anything written previously and really since. It's a nervous breakdown set to music.

(Soundbite of song, "Rose's Turn")

Ms. ANGELA LANSBURY (Actress): (as Gypsy Lee Rose) (Singing) Mama's got to stop, mama's got to move, mama's got to go. Mama, mama…

LUNDEN: Angela Lansbury, from the 1973 production. "Rose's Turn" may be the great moment in American musical theater. Alone onstage, Rose confronts the truth: Her ambition and manipulation have made everyone leave her. And she has a blinding moment of recognition. Bernadette Peters in the role:

(Soundbite of song "Rose's Turn")

Ms. PETERS: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) All of your life, what does it get you? Thanks a lot and out with the garbage. They take bows and you're batting zero.

LUNDEN: Here's Ethel Merman, the original.

(Soundbite of song "Rose's Turn")

Ms. MERMAN: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) I had a dream, I dreamed it for you, June, it wasn't for me, Harvey, and if it wasn't for me then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: And Brantley says one reason Mama Rose appeals to actresses is because:

Mr. BRANTLEY: She's what show business is all about. She's why people go into it; it's that hunger for attention. It's look at me, watch me, I want to make a difference, I want to be seen.

(Soundbite of song, "Rose's Turn")

Ms. MERMAN: (As Mama Rose) (Singing) For me…

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

NEARY: To hear more about Mama Rose from Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and others, go to our Web site,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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