Rose: The Flawed Masterpiece of a Mother

Binula Illukpitiya

I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a discussion with my theatre friends about the greatest musical character. Every time, I’ve stuck to my guns and rooted for Sweeney Todd but with watching Gypsy, I cannot help but change my answer now to Mama Rose.

The 1993 musical was directed by Emile Ardolino based on the life of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Taking place in the 20s, the story is of a theatre performing family where the mother, Mama Rose, and her two daughters, June and Louise, are fixated on the prospect of making it in show business. Louise, the neglected daughter, is able to find success in life despite her mother, who has her parenting clouded with delusions of fame, creating an emotional and psychological environment not conducive to success. The lyrics of Stephen Sondeheim, composed music of Jule Styne, book written by Arthur Laurents, and production between All Girl Productions, Storyline Entertainment, and RHI Entertainment work together in harmony to paint a story that acknowledges American art of burlesque and theatre while radiating the American dream and perseverance through struggle.

Although ‘Gypsy’ (the stage name of Rose’s daughter, Louise) is the title of the play, Mama Rose is undoubtedly the most dominant actor in the play. She’s neither monster nor angel but rather, something in between. Without question, she is a horrible, monster of a parent who is willing to emotionally manipulate her daughters to have them reach fame. But on the flip side, it is without question that she cares for them and is willing to dedicate everything in her life to them. The relationship she has with Herbie is loving and genuine however, clouded by her greed and ambitions. The brilliant contradictions between the awful and amazing sides of Rose make her. Rose smashes the traditional role of a woman by creating a truly unique identity riddled with both awful and amazing characteristics while also challenging how important sexuality and romance can be compared to other priorities.

When trying to understand Rose, it is of utmost importance to first contextualize her life. We aren’t given too much into her early life however, we are told of her mother leaving for life outside of the home. The result of this as seen throughout the musical is Rose having abandonment issues that seep into her romantic and family relationships. She spent June’s childhood dreaming for her to be a star and desperately wanting her to become famous. However, when the best opportunity to become a star came for June in the form of getting to go to acting school, Mama Rose refuses. The act and June were the only things Rose cared about in the world. They were her life. To me, it was clear that the refusal of June to attend school was from fear of abandonment.

Rose’s entire identity in the musical is centered around her being a mother. That being said, Mama Rose is far from a perfect mother. In fact, she is abusive. It is not of a physical nature, but rather chronic emotional and psychological harm done through the years is significant and should not be overlooked. She spends the majority of Louise’s childhood neglecting her in favor of her daughter June, practically forces Louise into stripping along with depriving the two of what they truly desired in life. This is completely different from the stereotypical female mother role that we are accustomed to seeing in theatre.

Rose may not fit into the traditional gender role of mother; however, the musical does not cast this in a negative light. Instead, she is able to thrive as an ambitious yet imperfect mother who goes on a journey of self-development. We see her being the ambitious and driven through everything she is willing to give up and sacrifice in order to make her dream come through. We see her being fun and passionate during the rehearsals that she puts her heart and soul into. She isn’t afraid to be loud and let her voice be heard no matter who is in the room. The feminist inside me lights up from seeing how much of a strong, proud, independent, and goal-oriented mother Rose can be especially considering this takes place during the 20th century where the traditional stay at home wife without a career is the norm. Through the good and the bad, we see Rose time and time again shatter traditional gender roles.

The other aspect of Rose that we get to see play out in the musical is her as a romantic partner. We are told multiple times throughout the production that Rose was married to two different men in the past. Seeing as her entire life seems revolve around achieving fame for a daughter, it seems out of character for her to have invested so much in relationships. However, this is where I found Rose to challenge what sexuality and romance truly mean.

In most media, sexuality has traditionally been a form of showing affection and setting up a romantic dynamic between characters. I do not doubt one bit that Rose had an attraction and love for Herbie however, her ambitious nature shines here again. Despite her three relationships, Rose’s heterosexuality seems almost utilitarian. Herbie is dragged around for years helping with booking the act being a manager for the performance all in hopes of one day marrying Rose. She was always willing to delay a wedding if it meant even the slightest step forward to accomplishing her dream. On the other hand, all of the women in Gypsy put an elaborate display of their heterosexuality. June’s performances on stage always took advantage of her being the ‘pretty blonde’. Tulsa and Louise had their romantic scene moment dancing in the street together. The burlesque strippers and eventually Louise had large displays of their sexuality through dress and performance. Rose on the other hand, nothing. The essence of her character was trying to follow her dreams while sexuality and relationships were on the backburner. Watching this almost two decades later, I can’t tell if this deviation from the norm is an intentional feminist is move or the production failing to imagine an older mother figure with a sexual nature.

While it is not a complete resolution, we do get to see Rose’s reflection of herself at the end of the film through the song “Rose’s Turn”. Louise, having now turned into the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, and Rose end up in an argument that causes Rose to start singing about her life and what it has amounted to. In the end, she realizes that she always claimed that everything she did was for her daughters but in reality, it was for herself. In the end, she finally stops projecting her own dreams and desires through her daughters. Through acknowledging her desires and seeing how living vicariously through her children was her entire life, Rose grows as a mother and as a character. When Rose talks about wanting to see both her and Louise on magazine covers, it shows that Mama Rose hasn’t thrown away the dreams of fame she had. Instead, she is more open about it and able to talk and laugh it off without hiding behind the premise that it is a wish for her daughters. This level of character development paints Rose as woman still learning about herself and a parent still learning how to be a better mother.

Altogether, Gypsy paints a beautiful tale of the personal growth of an incredibly unorthodox female archetype. The flawed but still amazing Mama Rose rewrites our notions of what a woman can be through challenging the traditional role of a mother, exploring how romance and love does not need to be the defining quality of a woman, and through challenging the value we as a society places on sexuality and the display of it. In the current times where we strive to perfect and categorize every aspect of our being, Mama Rose is a reminder of how a successful and realistic character can thrive when room for nonconformity and personal change is given.

Through Rose-Tinted Glasses: Looking at a Descent Into Villainy

Main characters exist so that we know who to root for. But the minute you press play on Emile Ardolino’s 1993 film production of Gypsy, Arthur Laurents takes every expectation you’ve ever had about a strong female lead and turns it on its head. What we know about sacrificial mothers gets dragged through the murky story of Mama Rose and her two daughters until we aren’t sure which way is up or who we were supposed to root for all along. 

In Laurents’ case, this means taking the standard character of the strong, controlling mother and pushing her to madness. Because of her gender, we expect Rose to be loving, kind, and selfless but instead we discover she is obsessive, rude, and abrasive, and we don’t quite know what to do with her. 

The first time I saw the production, I found it so difficult to let go of this idea that Rose had to be the hero somehow. She is a mother, she cares for her children, and her children even love her back sometimes. I waited through every harsh word, selfish decision, and delusional sabotage, searching for that clue that would tell me when her redemption arc was about to begin, but never found it.

It took me until the closing scenes to finally sit there and say, “ok, fine, maybe she is the villain.” This confusion, where Laurents actually forces his audience to consider the characters and their choices, is what makes Gypsy so powerful. We expect one thing based on the stock characters we have encountered a thousand times before, and when they don’t follow the path we expect, we have to decide how to deal with the aftermath. 

At the first introduction, we see Rose as a caricature of a stage mom, a helicopter parent, a woman who fights hard for her children. Sure she’s comically overbearing and a bit intimidating and nobody knows what to do with her, but that’s just because she’s a powerful woman. Hey, we like powerful women! Feminism! After all, it’s about time we grew past characters like Laurey of Oklahoma! who have hardly a personality trait to call their own, and on to women like Katherine of Newsies who seem to fill the strong female roles America has been calling for. Girls who talk back and tap to keep up with the male ensemble. Girls who act more like boys, but still primarily support the male character arc.

But Rose is another beast entirely. She is larger than life. She is everything and more. And she is terrifying. 

“Some People” is our first hint that Rose may not be the loving mother we want her to be. The song is not a soprano lullaby, nor even a defiant belt. Bette Midler’s delivery is gritty, passionate, and clearly limited by the silver screen. Her voice nearly drowns out the beautiful orchestrations, contrastingly abrasive to the ear in all its power. The song is meant to be belted to the second mezzanine, where it slams you back in your seat and demands to be listened to. Midler steamrolls through the set as she sings, delivering sharp gestures and lyrics like oaths. Everything she does radiates power. 

At the Act I finale, when the curtain goes down after “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” you find yourself sitting there in shock and horror wondering not how these characters will fix this situation, but what atrocity this fearsome woman will commit next. The song setup is typical of the “belted act 1 finales of female self-assertion” genre that audiences have come to know and love.1 However, we are not left empowered or invigorated like we would be for “Defying Gravity,” but instead shaken by the display of madness so blatantly subverting what we know about female leads in musicals. 

This is no Laurey we have in front of us. 

Every expectation that we had for how this female should act is left in the dust as Rose blazes forward like a white hot bullet. Laurents has taken the stereotype of stubborn middle-aged women and pushed it to its breaking point, yet you still find yourself sitting there wondering what redemption will look like. We are blinded when we see that she’s a woman, she’s a mother, and deep down she probably only wants what’s best for her kids. This is what makes it so difficult to recognize and reconcile Mama Rose’s descent into villainy, even while we watch all the clues unfold before our eyes. Theres a reason WatchMojo ranks it as the hardest female role to play on Broadway. 

1 Wolf, Stacy Ellen. Changed for Good: a Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1–18. 

Gypsy asks: Are you REALLY unbiased?

By Ejew Kim

For the first time I was glad that I missed a class to binge on K-Drama, and that I got so angry at that one overprotective villain mom that I refused to leave my room for 3 days straight. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to understand Rose Hovick in the 1993 televised film Gypsy as a mother nor her daughter Louise as a girl who loves her mother, and be left hating on one of the most popular productions of all time.

To give a quick introduction of Gypsy before I slowly get into the why: Originally based on Arthur Laurents’ book Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Gypsy (1993) by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Songheim features Bette Midler as Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Rose’s daughter Louise. The musical illustrates the journey of Rose, full of dreams to be a star actress and trying to make her daughters one, through the Great Depression and the collapse of vaudeville, in which eventually one daughter leaves and her remaining daughter Louise becomes a stripper. In Gypsy, Rose and Louis represent femininity as encompassing power and complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias.

However, my first watch of Gypsy in BroadwayHD, plus the first week thinking about it, it was a horribly sexist film. Rose’s stubborn pushing of her daughters seemingly showed that women getting out of their way to try to achieve dreams are a pain while Louis’ “glow-up” seemed to scream that femininity equals being pretty for men. I had plenty of reasons why:

Rose. I bet everyone admits at some point in the movie that she’s a cringe. And from my first watch, she is a cringe that gets worse. The acceleration point is when Rose performs “Everything’s Turning Up Roses”: The way how her eyes were enlarged so much as she built up her determination and excitement to make Louise her star, and especially how she opened her eyes in a way that the audience could see so much whites of her eyes, portrayed her so full of energy and fierce determination that it was almost scary. Her body is so tensed up throughout the whole song, and her singing as well. She scratches her voice for an aggressive effect (ex. “coming up ROses”) and she gives a lot of strong accent to the beginning of almost every line, especially whenever she looks in a new direction and turns her body aggressively (for example, “NOw you’re, IN it”). The aggressive energy adds to her characterization of determined, focused, full of energy—all in a crazy way. And this is especially scary because this comes right after she gets depressed learning about June leaving—it’s disturbing that Rose cannot stop pushing her dreams even after seeing what it does to not only her daughters but herself as well…I feel an urge to distance her. Her stubbornness continues: Even after she finally admits that she pushed her children for her own dreams, she still does not let go of them; instead she sings her last number “Rose’s turn,’ which ends up with her getting angry—“When is it my turn?”—and repeated lines of “For me” plus a series of bows. She is so self-endorsed, still wanting to fulfill her desires that have been hurting so many people—Louise who just wanted a normal family life, Herbies whose promise for marriage was joked at, June who lost her chance going to acting school, etc. What we want to see at this point is annoying Rose to stop pushing people around, marry Herbie, and become a housewife like normal women of that time, like how everyone around her—her father, Herbie, and Louise—wants her to be. The film projects the idea of women trying to assert power to pursue their dreams, as something that causes issues—a definitely problematic depiction of gender roles for today.

Louise, from the very start, is that character the audience sympathizes with: Compared to her blonde (“thus pretty”), better performing sister, Louise has darker hair, smaller and lower voice, and a stiffer body—she has less of the typical “feminine” qualities and therefore is characterized as inferior. Even when she becomes mom’s new main actress after June leaves, she wears pants, a blazer, a black captain hat…even her blonde wig reminds me of 18th century old white men. She could have totally passed as masculine. The sad part for sympathy is that Louise herself believes in her “lack of femininity” and inferiority: Whenever she talks about June (not herself) being the star, she says it with such strength and positivity in her facial expression and voice (and with zero bitterness/sadness) that she seems very confident about this claim—the confidence missing most of the time, especially when performing. 

But when Louis puts on her dress for her spontaneously-booked stripper performance and looks at the mirror, she experiences a change in self-image. As she slowly freezes in front of the mirror with shock, the strings in the music vibrate rapidly at a high note, creating sudden tension—like the sudden ding of the bell when shocking information has been presented. And yes, it is confirmed in the following Louise’s dialogue that the shocking information here is “Mama, I’m pretty..!” Then a sweet melody of a softer and more positive tune plays right after, at the right timing as Louise touches the side curves of her body. And then she puts on a firm, determined face and walks out to the backstage behind the curtains, looking head straight, gaze forward, and open shoulders—she’s confident alright. And though that very first performance went pretty rough with her nervous stiffness, she soon starts moving with more courage. The later performances as the now famous Gypsy Rose Lee shows a clear boost in confidence—voice projection, a relaxed smile, wide strides, on beat, and moving in a way that she seems to make every movement very precise and intentional. And this change-up, along with her fancier outfits and makeup, definitely make her shine more. This overall improvement seems to suggest that Louise was able to become successful because she started being more feminine and pretty-looking. 

This is especially more fun to watch in the audience’s perspective, because Rose, such a stubborn and annoying character, is taken down by her daughter when she pleads to leave her alone—the very nightmare Rose was avoiding. Honestly, this breakdown was a relief—a relief that seems to be there to aid the sexist idea of ‘successful femininity = pretty’ to come through, and support the objectification of women that follows as a consequence.

And that was going to be my whole essay…except I watched the musical again after thinking about that overprotective K-drama mom (long story short, she was mean to her daughter’s boyfriend/potential husband who she thought wasn’t good enough because he lived without parents), and realizing how all she wanted, despite just wrong assumptions, could have been her daughter’s well-being. And then I thought about how it could be the same for Rose—her annoying actions being good intentions paired with unwise assumptions, and how maybe the film is not actually trying to say women should stay at home, pretty, and then I started thinking about Louise again…and here starts the flipside:

Think about Rose’ background. She was abandoned and hurt by her mother at a young age—she probably doesn’t want to repeat that traumatizing event, by doing the exact opposite for her own children: Never leaving their sides. When Gypsy pleads in the waiting room, “Mom, you gotta let go of me!” Rose’s face and voice suddenly softens as she responds with a heavy breath, “Let go?”—Rose never became this low in energy in the film, which shows that she’s truly hurt by the idea of leaving her daughter. Is it possible that Rose is just trying to do her best for her child? Consider the perspective of a mother: She believes that being a star is the best thing in the whole world—her eyes shine bright whenever she even mentions the word “act.” When Herbie suggests June and Louise go to school, Rose refuses by responding: “And be like other girls, cook and clean and sit and die.” This was the reality in the past—especially during the Depression: Not only was the idea of women working not accepted, but with not enough work for men, there was certainly not enough work for women. Being a star instead and being free and rich definitely can seem better for not only Rose in particular, but other women as well. Rose also seems to swallow up her own sadness and vulnerability for her children: For example, when Herbie finally leaves her, she seems truly sad—despite having to urgently prepare her daughter for her first-time stripper performance, she sits down, singing a softer version of “Small World.” She almost cries and pauses her singing after saying “Lucky, I’m a woman”—this seemed to demonstrate how Rose was devastated to no longer being a woman loved by a man (whom she enjoyed being seen..she would always dance with him!); but then still hands over the gloves to her daughter, though with a downed tone and drooping shoulder—despite her lack of energy, she still pushes on her job of making her child a star. She may be annoying, but she cannot help it to ensure the best future for her children. She had good intentions, but the environment shaped her with the wrong behaviors and methods for her to accomplish those intentions.

For Louise—or Gypsy—you can see that what mattered to her was not her becoming pretty and acquiring accepted femininity. I mean, it does matter because she repeatedly looks into the mirror, going “look at me mama, I’m gorgeous and I love it.” But what really lingers is Gypsy’s love and reception of love with her mother. Consider the series of Gypsy’s stripping performances. Interestingly, the film shows her performances after her switch up for quite a long time, while probably that last full performance in the red dress was enough to show how good of a performer she became…then why show several? One thing that really stands out is the fact that “Let me entertain you” is still and repeatedly used for Louis’ strip show number. The number(s) is (are) exciting because it really shows how much Louis changed, but it’s also like she’s mocking her mother, who’s not even her boss anymore, that she can do better off with her…almost. The length seems to give us time to think about the new Gypsy Rose Lee and her unbelievable turnout: Why is she suddenly so good? Why is she repeating “Let Me Entertain You? Perhaps it’s an indicator that she cannot escape her mother—she still loves her and references her—perhaps she’s finally getting her mother’s attention that she has always wanted. And at this point it’s not how attractive and confident Louis seems after her career change up, but how her childhood/internal experiences left her a hole that she needed to fill in…a pretty complex woman character, huh?

I think it took me quite a long time—despite my deliberate be-analytical-for-class view—to find out how the woman lead characters have more to them than submitting to gender roles because of my gender bias: I assumed, because this was a decently old Broadway show, that it would present negative gender roles; also, Rose seemed simply annoying even when showing a wide range emotions and conflicts because I, guiltily, assumed her to be a typical woman with problems controlling her emotions. Only when I started seeing Rose as a person, a mother, I was able to see Rose and Louis’ complexity. The film therefore, by showing how Rose and Louis represent femininity as complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias, encourages us to ignore our “educated” mindsets and consciously reflect our own gender biases once again.