I saw every Broadway production of Gypsy except for the very first one. I had a legitimate excuse: it opened before I was born and closed when I was about a year old. After I arrived on the planet, though, I never found a reason not to see a production of Gypsy on Broadway again.
I wish there were more film clips of Ethel Merman in the original production that I had to miss by not yet being here. I’ve only seen a fraction of La Merm performing as Mama Rose Hovick, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, in her explosive number at the very end of the show, “Rose’s Turn.” I have been hearing about Merman’s performance as Rose ever since I first got interested in the theater, and since I was practically born interested in the theater, that’s a lot of reports. Universally Ethel Merman was considered “the best of the Roses” by all those who had seen her in the role way back in 1959. Usually whoever was telling me how great La Merm was in the part would get all impassioned about the subject, insisting at top volume that Ethel was “the best one.”
The first one I ever got the privilege of seeing on Broadway was Angela Lansbury, and I was, from then on and forevermore, always fiercely loyal to her portrayal. I’d even defend her to the adults that were praising Merman. So I didn’t quite get what the Merman supporters were endlessly talking about until I saw Rick McKay’s fabulous documentary, “Broadway: The Golden Age,” in 2004 – and saw that little Merman-as-Mama-Rose clip.
Then I “got it.” Merman is shown for just a few seconds, singing her heart out and dancing to the song, parodying Gypsy Rose Lee’s routine – but she is electrifying. There’s no other word for it and I’m not exaggerating (for once). She must have rocked the place for whoever was lucky enough to see her in the role, live and in person. No wonder they all remembered it so well!
Ethel Merman made theatrical history with her portrayal of Rose Hovick. As written by Arthur Laurents, the show Gypsy did not really follow Gypsy Rose Lee’s actual memoir of her childhood in Vaudeville and adolescence in Burlesque very closely. Laurents tailored the role of Gypsy’s mother, who was the manager of Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister June Havoc’s acts, to make Rose more like Ethel Merman: dynamic, loud, brash, and a stereotypical “pushy New York broad.” The fact that the real Rose was from a Midwestern family which was transplanted to Seattle, Washington via a job transfer, and that she was actually soft-spoken and charming, were all downplayed, to put it mildly. On the original cast album, Merman sings numbers like “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Roses” so loudly that it would have made the actual Rose Hovick jump ten feet in the air, if she had ever heard it.
Ethel Merman was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Gypsy. She didn’t win. The Tony went to Mary Martin, who played Maria in The Sound of Music during the same theatrical season. It’s been said that Ethel had the grace to shrug her loss off with the joke, “How the Hell do you buck a nun?”
On the other hand, Ethel had grace and she had humor, but she wasn’t Angela Lansbury. There I go with my loyalty to Angela Lansbury again, but hey, I can’t help it. There will be more on Angela in my next post. And by the way, when Angela was nominated for her performance in the same role in 1974, she won.