First of all, what do we call her? Technically, she's Rose Hovick, but Gypsy doesn't give her a last name. Many speak of a "Momma Rose," but Herbie calls her Rose and her daughters call her Momma; no one calls her Momma Rose. She is sometimes referred to and even addressed as Madam Rose, and that's what Gypsy's book writer, Arthur Laurents, calls her. It's catching on.
The role has become the Marschallin, Carmen, even Norma of the American musical: the platform from which divas ascend to immortality. It's fair to say that the belting star whose calendar of types includes the Tough Broad cannot conclude her career without at some point tackling Rose, preferably in a major production, on Broadway. True, some of the most gifted stars simply don't command the attitude, the physique du role, or the ability to embody or at least simulate the pungent intensity of proletarian wish-fulfillment. And how many major productions can the stock of potential Roses count on? Linda Lavin slipped into one on a technicality, as a replacement Rose in Tyne Daly's Gypsy. Betty Buckley got no closer than the Paper Mill Playhouse, in New Jersey. I saw both. In fact, I have seen all the New York Roses except Patti LuPone, whom I missed only because I was all Gypsyed out by then; I intend to catch up with her upstairs at Lincoln Center in the Netflix department (or whatever it's called) because of research I'll be undertaking presently.
Rating the Roses is sport for musical buffs, but it's enlightening as well, as understanding what each Rose uniquely contributes helps us comprehend this most dazzling of characters. Is there a richer one in the musical? Cervantes/Don Quixote? The hero of Ben Franklin in Paris, which has one of the most underrated librettos of the 1960s? Liza Elliott, the lady in the dark? Often, the musical gives its great roles to not single players but team partners--Anna and the King of Siam, Follies' four leads, even the three sailors in On the Town.
But Rose is so fully drawn by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Laurents that, for once, a single character is a show's contents. This may explain why interesting Gypsys are rare and most Herbies ineffectual: there's very little left for them to play once "Some People" reveals itself as something brand-new in the musical--a ruthless Heroine's Wanting Song--or once "Everything's Coming Up Roses" proves how demented show-biz dreams can get. Even the orchestrators are dramatists in this score, reminding us of Richard Rodgers' pet peeve in the days before shows were miked: the brass overwhelms everything just as Rose overwhelms everyone. When he heard the latter number, the show's director, Jerome Robbins, asked, "Everything's coming up Rose's what?" What else? Rose's show. Rose's life, Rose's insane great hunger to be, as she eventually puts it, "noticed."
I only saw one Herbie who was truly great--and apparently everybody else thought so, too: Jack Klugman, in the original cast. A tape exists of the show on the last night of the New York run, and the variety that Klugman brings to his line readings is extraordinary. No other Herbie is so enthusiastic, so loving, so crushed. It's Herbie's great irony that he fears nothing but Rose: and Rose really scares him. He doesn't walk out on her because she wants to put her daughter into burlesque. He walks out because he finally realizes that he simply doesn't matter to Rose. Nobody does. That's one of the show's secrets.
(Next time: the Rose sweepstakes)