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.