Mama Rose: Mother or Monster?

What do think of when you hear the word “diva?” Is it the dictionary definition of a classical opera singer, or it is the cultural definition of a woman who is strong, out-spoken, demanding and unapologetic? I would probably guess it would be the latter. In theater, the role of “diva” has been around almost as long as the stage itself. This classic characterization is known by all and loved by, well, most. There is rarely a theatrical production or kindergarten classroom that does not have at least one classic diva.

“Kindergarten classroom?” you might ask. Yes, I mean that in the literal sense. There is always at least one child who believes that it is their world and the rest of us are just living in it. There is always one child who could belong on the hit television show “Toddlers and Tiaras” (See Exhibit A). In all honesty, I was indeed one of these children. My stubbornness never went unnoticed either as a gift or a curse. This diva attitude is often the female equivalent of “boys will be boys.” It often seems that the stage is the only place big enough to hold such a personality.

Exhibit A. This little girl was made for the stage.

Mama Rose from the televised version of Gypsy starring Bette Midler is a prime example of this “diva-hood.” She is a powerful woman, and when she speaks everyone listens. If you don’t the first time, she will make you the second time around. She knows what she wants, and she will do anything to make sure she gets it. The question of the hour is, does she advocate for her daughters’s careers for their benefit or her own?

The whole premise of the show is Mama Rose’s desire for fame and success, so she will do anything to achieve that. When she could not reach her goal by herself, she transferred that dream to her children. She was a stay-at-home mother which was standard for the time, but she did play this role well? To be frank, the answer is no. She by no means conformed to the cultural concept of motherhood, rather she defined this role by her own terms. She provided for her daughters. She cared for her daughters, but everything she did was for her own, selfish benefit. She “promised” to marry Herbie only because he can help her daughters become famous. She was not one to conform to the gender stereotypes to make socity happy, it would only be for her own benefit.

This can be clearly seen throughout the musical, but it reaches a pinnacle in the song “Rose’s Turn.” Midler’s acting in this scene is revolutionary. From the way she sings to the way she moves, everything portrays the same message: “I did all of this for my kids, but don’t I deserve some of the credit? Because it was supposed to be me.” We see this internal struggle become external. She uses the tone of her voice to portray the rising anger within her.

At the most intense part of the song, when she switches to focusing on herself and doing things “for Rose,” the instruments cut out. She sings, “Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself? Starting now it’s gonna be my turn. Gangway, world, get off of my runway!” This symbolizes that she is on her own. This part relies fully on her voice to make the point, so her voice reaches a pinnacle speed and urgency that is unmatched throughout the rest of the song.

She also uses her choreography to emphasize who she did it all for. At the very end of the number, we see her repeating the same line over and over again. “For me.” The first few times, she is performing. She is dancing for an audience with a smile on her face. She sings the line again with the same movements, but her facial expressions are more distraught. The next few times she says “for me,” she is reaching to the sky. She is trying to grasp the fame and fortune she spent her whole life trying to achieve for both herself and her daughters.

“Rose’s Turn” is a diva’s ballad if I have ever seen one. While she did not do most feminine things by the book, Rose is a picturesque diva. She was not a “good mother,” but she guaranteed the success of her children. This is not to say that if you are a diva, you cannot be a good mother or embrace different parts of your femeninity. Rose was many things: a strong business woman, a performer, and a diva, but those things were for her own benfit. She was not a loving mother, and some might say that her ambition turned her into a monster.