The Mama Roses, Part 2: Angela Lansbury

Photo of Angela Lansbury.

Angela Lansbury

I wrote previously about Ethel Merman’s portrayal of Rose Hovick in Gypsy; La Merm’s performance of this, one of my all-time favorite Broadway characters, was the only one I didn’t see, live.

But I saw Angela Lansbury in the first Broadway revival, and even though that was way back in the dark ages of 1974 – and I only got to see it once -I haven’t forgotten it yet.  That right there is an indication of just how fabulous it was!

1974…it seems almost like another planet now, rather than another era.  I still recall that year’s major news stories: Patty Hearst, streakers, gas rationing determined by your license place number, and Nixon’s unprecedented resignation.  I was about thirteen years old, a creative kid who loved theater already, and deeply balked at having to be trapped in classrooms five days a week.  It didn’t help that I attended a school that allowed free rein to a some rather ghastly bullies.

So I adored Angela Lansbury’s Rose Hovick character song, “Some People,” on the Gypsy cast album.  It’s a hilarious lament against becoming stuck as a stay-at-home housewife, which was based on a memoir passage Gypsy Rose Lee wrote about her oft-married mother’s disdain for the whole condition of baking pies and sitting in the living room.  I felt cooped up against all logic too, so the song became my secret adolescent anthem.  I considered “Some People” the greatest philosophy I’d ever heard and an absolute verity of life.

I wanted to see it live on stage, and all the other great numbers from the Gypsy score as well, and said so until my parents brought me to the show for Christmas.  That ticket remains one of the nicest Christmas presents I ever got.

Gypsy opens as Rose’s daughters are competing in a talent contest that’s being fixed.  Rose isn’t supposed to be in the theater where it’s being held since all the stage mothers were banned, but she’s there, hiding in the back, and overhears the judges trying to fix the competition in favor of a kid costumed in balloons.  She entered through the audience, a luminous lady carrying a little tiny dog, and went steamrolling her way up the aisle.  Look out, world!  Here she comes.  The judges who were trying to fix the contest against her kids don’t have a chance against her – and nor should they.  She blackmails them out of their little “fix” plan.  She also takes a hairpin out of her hat and pops the other kid’s balloons.

“Some People” was the next number and I loved it more than ever.  Rose’s father won’t give her the money for a new act for her kids during the song, so at the end, she steals his gold retirement plaque off the wall to hock it.  Somehow Miss Lansbury could pull this off and make the audience roar at her cheek rather than roll our eyes.  We were all with her.

I could hardly believe how much fun it looked like Angela, and the rest of the cast, were able to have up on that stage at the Winter Garden Theater.  They were all following a script, sure, but they looked like they were allowed to be…free.

The story had some darker aspects, like parents living out their dreams through their children, which I somehow got, despite my age.  What I couldn’t get was why Rose’s two daughters, in one scene, complained that she let them travel the country in vaudeville and didn’t send them to school.  I couldn’t get my mind around that one.  They wanted to be in cooped up in a school?  What on earth was wrong with them?  They didn’t have any clue just how monumentally lucky they were!  I’d have traded places with them in a New York minute.

Every time I’ve seen another actress play Rose in the years since, I watch to see if they can do what Angela Lansbury did: hit every single laugh line in that script.  Three more actresses played it after Angela, and I saw them all.  My favorite one after Angela was Patti LuPone, who hit all of the laugh lines but one.  The others didn’t seem to realize some of them were even there.  I wasn’t surprised when, five years later, Angela originated the role of “Mrs. Lovett” in Sweeney Todd and made that role into an over-the-top, hilarious joy to watch, too.  (For those of you who may not know, “Mrs. Lovett” is a card-carrying sociopath.)

That’s the treat that is a performance by Angela Lansbury: whatever she does up there on that stage, you’ll be entertained to the hilt.

To this day, 38 walloping years later, surprise, surprise: I still can’t abide the idea of being trapped, can’t bake a pie to save my life, and don’t want live my life in the living room.  Nixon’s long gone, Patty Hearst has been recovered from captivity, the school that allowed free rein to the bullies was ultimately shuttered, but my hat’s still off to the lady that showed me there was a place for creative people in the world beyond school: Angela.


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