Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rose's Turns, Part Two

Let me get to the controversial section now: I think Angela Lansbury's Rose has been overpraised, even though she is one of our great singing actresses and anything she does is fascinating. Lansbury's was a great Rose, no question. But I think it was an odd Rose as well, an off-center Rose, because Rose is essentially a dumb but shrewd proletarian wannabe trying to score by manipulating and cheating. True, Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd perfectly limned a similar character. But Mrs. Lovett is something of a comic figure slipped into a Greek tragedy, calling for a different playing style than Rose. In Gypsy's far more naturalistic setting, Lansbury, for all her versatility, could not hide her innate intelligence and glamor--the qualities that gave her top stardom (after some twenty years in show business) in Mame.

As the first New York Rose after Merman, Lansbury did enlarge the scope of the character, having more fun with the role than Merman had done and bringing more variety to her line readings. Lansbury even gave line readings of lyrics. In what musicians would term the "trio section" of "Mr. Goldstone," when Rose catalogues the indicated noun from "curbstones" to "gallstones," Merman simply presented the list. Lansbury "created" it, thinking it up on the spot, as if improvising variations on a theme in real time. There was as well the famous eerie moment after "Rose's Turn," in which Lansbury bowed to the expected ovation...and then kept on bowing as the applause died down, even after it had stopped completely. All this with a bizarre smile, as though dreaming of the performer she might have been, offering an objective-corelative for one of Rose's countless great lines: "I guess I did do it for me."

And, of course, one of the questions Gypsy raises is: Why didn't Rose try to make it as a performer herself? Lansbury in particular emphasized this, for her abundant joie de vivre suggested the kind of person who, in that long-ago day, might easily have scored in vaudeville. Every town of any size at all in America had at least one vaudeville house, each one employing a dozen acts every week; that's a lot of employment, with openings for even the semi-talents. Louise asks Rose about this, but Rose brushes it away with "Because I was born too soon and started too late." It was Lansbury's weakest moment, for all her actress's power, because this ebullient Rose would surely have made it in show business if she had dared it.

Lansbury's weakness generally was her singing. Hers is a solid Broadway sound, too thin for Rose's biggest numbers, written to demonstrate her four-wheel drive, heavy and crushing. Even miked, a slender voice sounds undernourished and so to say strategized, as for instance Glenn Close's did in a Patti LuPone vocal line in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. Close was wonderful overall, but she had to husband her resources, rationing tone and managing climaxes. It robs the music of its smash-and-grab grandeur, reducing the fanatic nature of the character. So it is, too, with Rose. The vocal thrust of "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and even just the last two words that she sings--they are, tellingly, "For me!"--needs more than just singing, even singing big. This is the noise of how Rose lives.

Birthright Rose voices are as rare as naturally endowed Isoldes. Oddly, Betty Buckley, who had no problem with the score at Paper Mill, was unpersuasive between the numbers. "You were execrable," Arthur Laurents told her backstage after a matinee. No. She was...inconclusive, an unusual state for this most appetitive of the musical's leading roles. Presumably, all Buckley needs to complete her vocally exciting Rose is an eliciting director. On the opposite side of things is Kay Medford, a comic especially known for her mother roles in Bye, Bye, Birdie and Funny Girl and no one's idea of a singer. Yet after Medford joined Barbra Streisand in the London Funny Girl, someone at EMI Records in England thought Medford should record Rose, thus completing a trio of mother roles. EMI even sprang for a cover color photo of Medford spotlit onstage in dark dress and red boa, as if caught during "Rose's Turn," and billed her as "Momma Brice in Funny Girl." These English studio casts of American shows are an entire subculture in themselves, running from starry events (a Hello, Dolly! with Dora Bryan, who succeeded Mary Martin at Drury Lane) to woebegone sight readings by, I think, somebody's relatives. Medford's Rose recalls the haphazard singing once common in musical comedy (as opposed to operetta). This is how Gypsy would have sounded in 1915, with a lot of Sprechstimme and dying-swan lunges at high notes.

It was Ethel Merman, in fact, who led the revolution into genuinely singing casts in musical comedy in the 1930s, though no one thinks of her as a revolutionary. But the surviving recordings by musical-comedy stars of the generation preceding Merman's--the George M. Cohans, Elsie Janises, Montgomerys and Stones, and so on--reveal how little actual vocalizing obtained in musical comedy.

(Next time: more Broadway Roses)