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.