Ethel Merman. Bernadette Peters. Patti LuPone. And, of course, Bette Midler. Such musical theater giants have all taken on the iconic role of Mama Rose, and productions of the 1959 musical Gypsy, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim,are often noted specifically for their leading ladies. In fact, with so much emphasis on Mama Rose and her daughters, there are few male protagonists present in the musical, and their actions do little to impact the plot, with Mama Rose often ignoring their input. Despite the heavy emphasis on women’s roles in this musical, Rose and Louise are often placed at the whims of male producers and audience members with fairly small roles in the musical as a whole. Consequently, I believe this musical, through the perspectives of Rose and Louise, does an excellent job of showing how, when men control the means to success, women often must cater to the desires of men in order to gain mainstream recognition, particularly in the entertainment industry.
In the 1993 television production of Gypsy that we watched for class, Bette Midler played Mama Rose, and much of how she portrayed the character involved her immediately asserting her dominance over men. From the opening scene of the musical, she marches into an audition that her daughters June and Louise were at. Despite the man running the audition’s adamant refusal to allow mothers into the auditions, clearly trying to avoid this very situation, Rose refuses to leave and tells Louise to “sing out.” In this scene, she repeatedly ignores the orders of a man in a position of power over her. Simultaneously, in her lines that she is interrupting with, she is also encouraging her daughters to be outspoken like her as she tries to improve Louise’s stage presence. However, these actions of ignoring a more powerful man also have immediate consequences for her and her daughters’ success, considering that they do not get cast in the variety show, presumably at least partly because of Rose’s interference in the audition. In the very first scene of the musical, Rose has already shown that she is willing to break gender stereotypes by fighting against powerful men, but the musical has also shown that there will be consequences to her success as a result of these actions.
Notably, the only time we see Rose herself, not Louise, find success in promoting her daughters’ careers is portrayed through the song “Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone”, in which Rose is extremely ingratiating to a casting agent, to a comical extent, in fact. Rose and Herbie’s success at getting June’s act onto the Orpheum Circuit is marked with a song about Rose trying extremely hard to be a good hostess, offering Mr. Goldstone anything she can think of. Though throughout the rest of the musical, Rose fails to book her daughters’ acts, on the one occasion she does succeed in reaching her goal, her success is portrayed through a number in which she essentially sucks up to a powerful man and ultimately assumes the role of a traditional female hostess, albeit in a comical fashion. Contrasting this, when June is offered a contract on the condition that Rose leave her, Rose tries to argue with the producer, Mr. Grantzinger and forces June to not sign the contract. Once again, Rose cannot become successful because she refuses to let powerful men control her, turning down a potentially lucrative offer because it puts power over her and June in the hands of a man that already has power within the entertainment industry.
Perhaps most importantly to the plot, Rose refuses to listen to men even when they are close to her and when she seems to love them. This is demonstrated through her relationship with Herbie, a relationship that lasts several years but finally ends when she signs Louise on to become a burlesque dancer without consulting Louise and in the process postpones her long-awaited marriage to Herbie. Although the immediate cause for Herbie deciding to leave could be taken as Rose’s decision to force her daughter into becoming a burlesque dancer, it also seems as though Rose’s demeanor has long been upsetting to Herbie because of her domineering nature, and this was simply the last straw. Also important is that, in making this decision, Rose has clearly placed her and her daughter’s success in their careers over her relationship with Herbie since she is postponing the marriage. Rose’s domineering of Herbie has occurred throughout the entire musical, with their first meeting being Rose pressuring Herbie into becoming her and her daughters’ agent through the song “Small World”. Though Herbie eventually agrees with her, and the song becomes a duet, it begins with Herbie being uninterested in her offer since he had recently stopped being an agent. In fact, Rose has such a domineering position over Herbie that their main love duet in the musical is titled “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and is sung directly after Herbie threatens to leave her because she cares too much about the act. Though the song is portrayed in a mainly light-hearted manner, it is a clear early indication in the musical that Herbie thinks Rose cares too much about her and her daughters’ careers and that she has the power in the relationship, as is demonstrated by the title of the song itself.
Throughout the musical, we see Rose continually ignore Herbie or intimidate him. One of the most obvious examples of this is when, in the song “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, Herbie seems almost scared of Rose as Louise clings to him. The actor who plays him, Peter Riegert, seems to have made a clear decision to portray Herbie as stunned, concerned, and intimidated during this scene through the use of his body language since he stands to the side and looks on, unable to affect Rose’s scheming. Meanwhile, Bette Midler plays Rose as physically domineering, gesturing very widely with her arms and physically taking up space on the set. The expression on Riegert’s face seems to convey that Herbie feels powerless to stop Rose’s decision to make Louise a star. However, Rose’s power and refusal to fit into the gendered norms of a heterosexual relationship do eventually drive Herbie away several scenes after this, which has a negative impact on her own personal life. She is unable to stay in a relationship, and the musical implies that this is her fault for being too domineering in a way that is unexpected for a woman, especially in dealing with a male romantic partner. Not only is Rose’s professional life negatively impacted by her willingness to stand up to men who would traditionally have power over her, but her personal life is also hurt by her domination.
Louise’s eventual rise to stardom through burlesque creates a sharp contrast to Rose’s unwillingness to bend to men’s demands. Louise becomes more powerful than Rose ever does, but she is only able to do so because she bases her career around pleasing men. We see that, when she performs for the first time, she is terrified of catering to the men in the audience, which Cynthia Gibb portrays through her acting choice by walking very tentatively and, at one point, turning back to her mother in fright, who in turn encourages her to keep going. However, eventually, through the montage shown in the reprise of “Let Me Entertain You”, the audience both in the show and the real audience watching the movie looks on as Louise, now going by Gypsy Rose Lee, grow in confidence, much of which is shown through her body language, which Gibb now makes much smoother and more decisive, and through her spoken dialogue between verses of the song. Her willingness and level of comfort with her career catering to men’s sexual desire is shown through the jokes she makes as part of her act. At one point, her jokes even reference the fact that her entire audience is men since she addresses the audience as, “monsieurs and monsieurs”, implying there are no women there. She has clearly realized that, by appealing directly to men, she has become financially successful and is seen as a celebrity, and as a result, she has decided that it is worth overcoming any sense of shame or embarrassment she was feeling at the beginning of the montage.
Rose’s and Louise’s contrasting views on catering to men’s sexual desires in exchange for success finally come into direct conflict when Rose comes to Louise’s dressing room after one of Louise’s performances and begins an argument with her, clearly upset that Louise has become successful without her. One of the first things Rose does to start this argument is call Louise a stripper, clearly contrasting Louise’s own view that her career has given her power in some ways, giving her financial and social success as she becomes famous. Instead, Rose still sees her as a stripper, which Louise, in “Let Me Entertain You”, had said did not apply to her because she was well paid. By calling her a stripper, Rose is combatting Louise’s position by saying that her job, however much success and acclaim it has won her, is still using her own body to cater to men’s sexual desires. While Louise views the career as positive since it has allowed her to gain wealth and fame, Rose sees it as degrading because it is, by nature, catering to powerful men. In this scene, we see these two characters’ viewpoints on interacting with men in power directly clash. In doing so, Laurents’ book demonstrates how women had to be submissive to men in the early twentieth century in order to become successful. Rose has refused to do so, and as a result, she never gained commercial success. Louise has made the opposite decision, and she has been rewarded with wealth and fame. In “Rose’s Turn”, we see that Rose acknowledges this fundamental truth of gender politics by unbuttoning the top of her dress while saying, “How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”, calling back to the one prior time in the musical that Rose capitulated to a powerful man’s demands. Now, by pantomiming Louise’s strip routine while calling back to that previous scene, Rose connects all acts of fulfilling men’s wishes in the musical, while singing a song wishing for fame, clearly demonstrating the theme of women being submissive to men as the only way in which to achieve mainstream success.
Through Rose and Louise’s differing attitudes towards powerful men, the musical Gypsy illustrates the position the entertainment industry, and society in general, placed women in during the early twentieth century. One of the main reasons Rose cannot find success in her professional life, and to some extent her personal life as well, is because she never allows a man in a position of power to control her. If a position seems too beneficial to the man she is dealing with, Rose will refuse to participate, even if that means a potential loss of finances, as her refusal to allow June to sign Mr. Grantzinger’s contract demonstrates. Contrastingly, Louise takes a job that some, including Rose, would call denigrating but becomes massively successful because of it. Because men control much of the cultural capital in patriarchy, for a woman like Rose or Louise to succeed in a public career, they must perform and behave in a way that fits into these men’s expectations and desires. Unfortunately, while women are beginning to control more cultural capital over time, this is still somewhat true today, as actresses and female singers are often expected to be beautiful as well as talented. Though Gypsy is set nearly a century in the past, it teaches an important lesson about limitations that can still be placed on women who wish to be in the spotlight today.