“Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!”
Thus begins the most famous nervous breakdown in theatrical history. But we’ll get to that later. First, some context.
Gypsy is a 1959 musical classic with music by Jules Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Based loosely on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous American burlesque performer and striptease artist, Gypsy tells the story of crazed stage mother Rose as she tries to turn her two daughters, June and Louise, into vaudeville stars.
I’ve always been a little obsessed with Mama Rose, though for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I’m not a middle-aged narcissistic stage mom, and there’s realistically very little I should be able to relate to in Rose’s story. If anything, Louise or June should be more up my alley, considering I’m a late-adolescent theatre kid. But there’s something intoxicating about Rose’s ferocity and ambition that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first saw a production of the show nearly 5 years ago. Fortunately, in my most recent viewing of the 1993 TV film version of Gypsy, starring Bette Midler as that lovably monstrous mom, I was finally able to parse through why I love Mama Rose so much as a character- and why I think you should too.
But before we get too far into things, let’s start with an important note: Rose is an abusive mother. There is no denying that. The things she does are terrible, and they result in permanent psychological damage to her two daughters. I do not intend to excuse her behavior. In fact, I find the ending of Gypsy somewhat disappointing because Rose never quite gets what’s coming to her, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. I don’t think Rose should be forgiven by any means, but she does deserve to be understood.
The most obvious contributing factor to anyone’s Mama Rose Mania is the sheer icon status of the character and of any actor who has ever taken her on. Over the years, Rose has been played by such superstars as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Imelda Staunton, and Bernadette Peters, among others. The star power required to belt such anthems as “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and “Rose’s Turn” is second to none. So perhaps you might be asking if it’s not the character with which I connected as a young aspiring performer, but the roster of incredible actors she represents. And I think you wouldn’t be entirely wrong in that assessment. In my mind, the sheer act of portraying such a complex, challenging, unapologetic woman is an act of feminism on the part of the actor, regardless of the character’s many sins. Plus, she’s an alto lead! However, I think there’s more to it than that. Mama Rose isn’t just an opportunity to showcase female talent, she’s also the embodiment of what patriarchal systems do to women who don’t fit them, and how the pressure to conform can rip a woman- and her family- apart.
In particular, I want to talk about Rose’s identity as a mother. It’s so essential to her character that she’s come to be known almost exclusively as “Mama Rose”, even though she’s never actually called this in the text of the musical. Even we as the fans have given her no identity outside of her motherhood. The society she inhabits is no different. We learn that Rose has had two husbands, both of whom left her when June and Louise were still very young. As a single mother, Rose is expected to put her own ambitions aside and devote herself entirely to her daughters without the financial or emotional support of a partner. But ambitions don’t just die out when they turn unhelpful. They continue to linger and fester. This is revealed in the first number of the show when Rose sings to her father, “…I at least gotta try! When I think of all the sights that I gotta see and all the places I gotta play, All the things that I gotta be at. C’mon, papa, what do you say?” Rose is haunted by the thought of all she wants to see and do, and Midler’s frantic energy and fiery eyes further enforce Rose’s longing for a life of her own. However, she never gets the chance to pursue these dreams because her daughters must come first. The two men who left her (presumably the respective fathers of June and Louise, though it’s unspecified) receive no repercussions for being absent in their children’s lives. This leaves Rose alone to frantically try to combine her identity as mother, as defined by society, with her existing ambitions. She could’ve kept pursuing a career in show business for herself after her children were born rather than forcing it on them, but this likely would’ve been looked down upon as a selfish thing for a mother to do. Women are frequently asked to put their own careers and ambitions aside for their children or partners. The ironic part is that if Rose had chosen to pursue her own career while raising her children, June and Louise likely would have been much better off. But she doesn’t. She does what she views as the selfless thing by putting her daughters’ careers above all else. Her identities as mother and manager fuse together. When we meet her in the musical, she is no longer just Rose, she has become Mama Rose, and that identity is the direct result of societal expectations of what a single mother should do, namely, sacrifice everything for her kids.
At the end of the show, we finally come to “Rose’s Turn”, the iconic and powerful finale in which Rose must confront herself. She pleads with the audience, “Someone tell me when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself?” This is the sentiment that has been slowly bubbling under the surface from the first moments of the show. Rose just wants a dream for herself. And the suppression of that dream, as a result of her status as a mother and the expectations of that role, results in her failure to connect with her children and her complete emotional breakdown in the finale.
Which finally brings me back around to the show’s ending. I told you I’d get there eventually. Though “Rose’s Turn” is the last song of the show, a brief scene afterward between Louise and Rose gives the audience a sense of hope that the two might reconcile. In the Midler version, Louise gives her mother a gentle smile before exiting, and Rose lingers for a moment longer to gaze at the stage, as though taking one last look at her dreams before moving on forever. I, personally, hate this ending. I mean, c’mon! Rose is the ultimate tragic figure! Her ambition is her fatal flaw, just like Macbeth! And she descends into madness after being rejected by her daughters, just like King Lear! Her story deserves a Shakespearean ending! It’s not that I want Rose to be unhappy, but I definitely don’t want her to give up on the ambition that has defined her nature from the first moment of the show. Shakespeare would never backtrack on a character’s defining feature like that.
I think the musical should end with Louise cutting her mother out of her life entirely. Hear me out. This would still be a hopeful and in some ways empowering ending because Louise is able to cut the toxicity out of her life and forge her own path. But it would also be the ultimate tragedy for Rose, whose biggest fear is abandonment. What better way to demonstrate the pitfalls of the theatre industry and the damage done to ambitious women by patriarchal systems than by giving us an ending Shakespeare would applaud? I want a tragic heroine!
Regardless of the moderately disappointing final scene, I think I do have a clearer grasp of why I’ve been so drawn to Rose for my entire life. She is fundamentally unable to change who she is for anyone. Of course, that ultimately has disastrous consequences for her family, but that’s also the fault of the systems they had to navigate and fit within. I don’t really think Rose was ever meant to be a mother. But I think her kids would’ve been a lot better off if she wasn’t expected to put aside her dreams for them. And what about those absent fathers, huh? Why don’t we ever blame those guys?
I think I relate to Rose’s inability to be anyone but herself. As a queer person, I’ve found identity to be both fickle in some cases and utterly immutable in others. Rose’s story is that of an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object, with the immovable object being the theatre industry and the patriarchal expectations set upon her as a mother. And I, for one, think we need to drop the “Mama”. She is Rose. Just Rose. And that’s more than enough.