Monday, July 07, 2008

Everything's coming up Rose

And now, I attempt to disengorge my foot from my mouth. I saw the revival of Gypsy on Broadway over the weekend. I've badmouthed Patti LuPone to no end (to start: her Mrs. Lovett a couple years ago was irresponsible and awful), and even called her perhaps "the greatest scam perpetrated on the American people." You know I tend toward superlatives and absolutes. But I thought she was perfect perfect perfect and fabulous as crazy stage mother, Mama Rose, in this latest incarnation of the ultimate backstage musical. The show was uneven, but when it was on it was on. I especially relished the last third of the show, and the choices made by LuPone (and Laura Benanti as Louise). I think it's a classic case of actor and role being perfect for each other.

It's a lengthy, epic musical that builds to one of the best numbers in the canon: "Rose's Turn," wherein Mama Rose barbecues her ego and snacks on her id for dessert. Few climactic solo numbers have since lived up to this (except for maybe "Lot's Wife" from 2003's "Caroline, or Change"). Since Rose is on my brain, and since we've gotten a different version of her every decade since the '50s (including two in the past five years), here is a rundown of "Rose's Turn" with video and commentary. What's your favorite, and why?

Ethel Merman, Imperial Theatre, 1959

From the vantage point of 2008, she sounds like a parody of herself ("MAAA-mah"), but you can't deny her chops and how fresh this feels, even though it is an original cast recording from almost 50 years ago. It would've been so killer to see this live. I'd like to imagine her tearing apart the stage, but something tells me she probably stuck in one place and poured everything into the vocals. Merman's voice is prototypical Rose: big, brassy, demanding, deranged.

Rosalind Russell, Warner Bros., 1962

Russell barks most of the song (except when dubber Lisa Kirk sings for her), and the tricky emotional transitions are handled clumsily by director Mervyn LeRoy. Could've used a Steadicam, and less theatricality. But film does highlight the isolation of Rose: here, there simply is no audience. No one is around to give a rousing ovation, which happens every time in live theatre.

Angela Lansbury, Winter Garden Theatre, 1974

Stiff in movement, but manic in pacing, volume and facial acting, Lansbury hits the "Everything's coming up Rose" line with more speed than anyone before or since, and because of this we get a clear sense of her pathology. Whereas some actresses treat this climax as a chance to sell Rose's true-and-buried talent, Lansbury uses it to suggest Rose is maniacally delusional.

Tyne Daly, Marquis Theatre, 1989

Yikes. The first ever no-singing, no-acting performance of "Rose's Turn."

Bette Midler, CBS, 1993

Midler was, on paper, a smart choice for the TV version. She's a diva even before she begins to act. Here, she wails and flails. She stumbles in a daze and prowls with turn-turn-kick-turns. She tries every trick in the book and none of it feels exactly right.

Bernadette Peters, Shubert Theatre, 2003

This is an abbreviated version for the Tonys, and it gives us closeups we can't get in theater, but oh well. I saw this one in person at the Shubert. It was a crisp, clean show, and Peters' Rose was different than all who came before her: more coquettish, more vulnerable and spritely, more fragile than forceful. This Rose is pleading with us to right a wrong instead of demanding our attention or crumbling in a self-destructive heap. "Rose's Turn" here means "she wants this turn right now," not "I should've gotten a shot back then."

Patti LuPone, St. James Theatre, 2008

No video here, but you can imagine (if there's one thing the iterations of Gypsy are guilty of, it's relentlessly copycatting each other's look). There's a lot going on here, and it all works (unlike Midler's). Listen to her cackle and whisper. Listen to her shriek, "My name's ROSE." Listen to her mock Louise, then the audience, then herself. There's serious muscle behind this performance (unlike Bernadette's). And unlike Merman, Russell, Daly and all the traditional Roses she borrows bits from, LuPone's interpretation of the song feels most organic, like the lyrics are coming to her on the spot (the intentional vocal imperfections help). The song is a very bitter stream of consciousness, and this is the first time I can see and hear it as it was written.

There. Foot out of mouth.

5 comments:

Jamy said...

With Merman, you have to keep in mind that she kind of lost her voice as she aged and turned into a self-parody. A young(er) Merman singing Rose might have been the best ever (just as young Merman in "Annie Get Your Gun" is without peer--the Merman of the 1960 (?) revival is merely very good).

That said, the LuPone knocked my socks off. With no visuals and no context (I don't remember the show very well!) I got the whole story from her voice. Fantastic!

J.J. said...

Your comment prompted me to look at the ages of each actress when they tackled Rose:

Merman, 51.
Russell, 55.
Lansbury, 49.
Daly, 43.
Midler, 48.
Peters, 55.
LuPone, 59.

Seems like the best Rose is also the oldest.

The Fat Lady Sings said...

My mother used to listen to Ethel Merman sing whilst sitting outside the theatre eating her lunch. It was The Depression, and no one had any money. That meant theatre tickets were an unaffordable luxury (at least they were for immigrant Irish girls). With Merman, however - she sang so damn loud, you could hear every word - even outside. Back then they used to have Wednesday matinees. Mom said she’s head on down to the theatre district, park herself on the theatre’s steps, and eat the sandwich she brought from home. Merman was the only actress my mother ever liked as a result.

As for my preference – I have to say LuPone. My only glimpse of that performance was during the Tony’s – but I’ve always thought Patti was fabulous. Next in line would be Angela Lansbury – but then I knew her personally as a child (I was friends with her son, and I used to be in the business). She’s one of the nicest people on the planet (besides being a great actress). And I’ll have you know she did those performances of Gypsy under some personal duress – but then she always went home to the theatre when her spirits needed a lift.

Wonderful blog, by the way. Those Gypsy clips are fabulous! I found you while looking up info on Melvyn Douglass. I didn’t know he was a triple crown winner. Goes to show – you learn something new every day.

J.J. said...

What a wonderful story about your mother and Merman. That's really cool.

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