Recently, I have found myself in a bit of a quandary: Personally, Gypsy is my all time favorite musical. It was the first show I ever saw on Broadway and I believe it was groundbreaking when it opened in 1959. Not only were men secondary in the cast, the lead was not the title character and in my own opinion, I believe this was one of the first musicals to feature such a strong female lead which could over shadow everyone else in the cast. For some background, Gypsy tells the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and her overbearing mother, Rose. The show is more about Mama Rose than it is about Gypsy herself as it depicts this woman who is obsessed with show business, despite what her children want. Ultimately, Rose loses her daughters because of this obsession only to realize she was not doing it for her children, but for herself.
Since it opened in 1959, it has been revived on Broadway four times and made into two movies; one for the big screen and one for television. My quandary is this: Who was the best Mama Rose? Here is where things get a little tricky; I have only seen three versions of Gypsy: The 1962 movie with Rosalind Russell, the 1989 revival with Tyne Daly and the 1994 television movie with Bette Midler. All of the other incarnations I have only heard the original cast recordings. Having listened to all of the cast recordings and knowing the story inside and out, I personally believe that Tyne Daly was the best actress to have ever played Mama Rose. Please do not burn me at the stake, all of the other actresses I love. Angela Lansbury is my favorite actress of all time. I believe her Mama Rose is probably my second favorite. Here is what separates Ms. Daly from the other actresses who have portrayed Mama Rose: Anger and frustration. From the moment one puts in the 1989 cast recording, Ms. Daly comes across as a frustrated woman whose only way to get into show business is through her children. She wants it so bad she can taste it, yet she is hampered along the way by these children who do not see or share her dream. Ms. Daly’s performance on the CD brings that frustration and anger home. You can hear it in her voice. During “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, one can her here trying to lull Louise into a false sense of security. She tries to soothe her older daughter, reassuring her “all you need is a hand. We can do it, Mama is gonna see to it.” The tempo changes and one can almost hear Ms. Daly push Louise aside to grasp take her dream. Because after all, Louise doesn’t want what her mother wants. One can feel Louise’s heartbreaking as Ms. Daly becomes a tornado of emotion, destroying everything in her path. That raw emotion is heard throughout the recording, again and again. In the video posted below (though poor quality), one can get a sense of that emotion in “Rose’s Turn”. In this author’s most humble opinion, the single best female Broadway showstopper in history.
As I said, I love all of these actresses. They are all-stars and groundbreaking women in their own right. Personally, I believe it takes a very strong actress to tackle the role of Mama Rose and while I personally believe Ms. Daly’s interpretation to be the best, it would be wrong to not mention the other women. Ms. Lansbury tackled Mama Rose in the 1974 revival. In that revival, audience members, who no doubt would compare Ms. Lansbury to or Ms. Merman saw a Rose which eluded Merman. They saw a woman with more depth more passion. A woman who was driven by her own passion, not her children’s passion. Here is a rare clip of Ms. Lansbury singing “Rose’s Turn”.
The other contenders, Ms. Peters, Ms. LuPone and Ms. Merman all do a wonderful job as Mama Rose. They really do. Yet their interpretations were missing something that Daly and Lansbury brought to the role. Please do not crucify me, as without Ethel Merman the world would not have the icon of Mama Rose. Having listened to these cast recordings over and over; I will say, her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is magnificent it doesn’t top Daly or Lansbury, but it’s Merman and what’s not to love and enjoy about that? This is just audio, but it’s just a joy to listen to.Everything\’s Coming Up Roses.