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.