Ethan Mordden, in his book ‘Coming Up Roses’ sums up Gypsy as a musical “about how your mother destroys you” (1998, p. 245). The musical originally opened in 1959 on Broadway with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, and was most recently revived in a production directed by Jonathan Kent at the Chichester Festival in 2014 before moving to the Savoy Theatre in 2015. It tells the story of the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, but the real star of the show is her mother ‘Momma’ Rose (played by Imelda Staunton), whose character commands the stage and the plot with a vice-like grip (
Wolf, 2002). Rose pushes her two daughters ‘Baby June (played by Gemma Sutton) and Louise (Lara Pulver) in the world of vaudeville, and eventually pushes Louise into the world of burlesque, leading her to become Gypsy Rose Lee. This is essay will look at the role of the mother within Gypsy, and the relationship mother-daughter relationship as a central relationship, starting with an analysis of the characterisation of Rose and then moving on to examine the relationship with June and Louise.
The relationship between Rose and Louise is the central relationship of the play, which sustains the show, especially after the heterosexual romantic relationship ends between Rose and the act’s manager, Herbie (played by Peter Davidson), which traditionally would be the central relationship of the show (Wolf, 2002). Rose is a misguided mother who is in many ways still an adolescent (Miller, 1996), and everything she does in the show is purely for the fulfilment of her own dreams, despite her constant self-denial that she is doing this for all of them .
Her selfishness is shown in the scene at Mr. Grantziger, where she refuses to let June become an actress if it meant staying out of the way. It would not be possible to leave her dreams vicariously through June if she is not allowed anywhere near the action. Mordden (1998) adds that Rose will stream roll over anyone and everyone in order to get her way, even her own daughters and yet despite this, people are charmed by her, not just to the audience, but also to the other characters (why else would Herbie stay with Rose for so long? ). She is the antithesis of the mother normally portrayed in popular culture: “nurturing, loving and self-sacrificing” (Mordden, 1998, p. 45).
In her book ‘Motherhood and Representation’, E. Ann Kaplan describes how the mother is portrayed in popular culture in one of two roles: the self-sacrificing, ideal ‘anges or the dominating, evil ‘witch’ (1998). When discussing the latter, Kaplan refers to maternal narcissism, which involves the projection of the mother’s own unfulfilled desires onto the child, which is embodied in the character of Rose. This maternal narcissism is then “reduced in the post-Freud period to notions of masculine identity and penis envy inhibiting successful mothering” (1992, p. 107).
Rose exhibits many masculine characteristics and when Wolf (2002) analyses Rose from a lesbian perspective, it is clear that she exhibits a butch persona, so Kaplan’s analysis would seem to apply well to the character of Rose. Wolf (2002) also describes how Rose is the stereotypical stage mother, pushing her own dreams onto her children. Stage mothers are a staple character seen in 1950s films; often they are punished for their actions. Wolf explains how this reflects American society’s uneasiness about pushy stage mothers, and in fact about powerful mothers in general.
They were seen as a threat to their children, turning their sons into perverts and the weak-willed. The excessive caricature of the stage mother pushes beyond the feminine, she is crude and savage, as seen in the very first scene of the play when Rose grabs Uncle Jocko by the by collar to force him to hire her daughters (Wolf, 2002). However, in contrast to the treatment of stage mothers onscreen, Rose is never redeemed or punished for her terrible parenting (Mordden, 1998).
Wolf (2002) continues her analysis of Rose as a mother to argue that not only is she is typical stage mother, she is also the “quintessential Jewish mother” (p. 08), although in the musical it is never explicitly said they are Jewish, the real life people were, and the characterisation of Rose is very much in line with the stereotypes of Jewish mothers that were in popular culture in the 50s. Her lesbianism is also not mentioned. Wolf goes on to explain that on film and especially on television in the late 1950s, the Jewish mother is portrayed as controlling and manipulative, obsessed with their children’s success because she sees it as a reflection of herself.
These portrayals of Jewish mothers were initially shown as not unkind stereotypes but gradually became less and less so as time went on. She also portrays many Jewish characteristics that are specific to Jewish men; she is smart, manipulative, and constantly concerned with money; she steals her father’s golden plaque to pay their way to Los Angeles, she steals silverware from restaurants, and makes all the girls in the act write to their parents for money (Wolf, 2002).
In another rejection of all that is the typical ‘proper’ mother, Rose is the opposite of all that is domestic (Wolf, 2002); the children eat takeaway Chinese all the time, she eats dog food out of a can. Her daughters have no concept of what a ‘real family is like, each has three, unseen fathers and have no concept of what a ‘normal nuclear family would be. Even the concept of a father is foreign to Louise, who lists him in her imagined menagerie of pets during ‘If Momma Was Married’. She also makes motherhood sexual, using her sexuality to influence Herbie into becoming the act’s manager and making it on the Orpheum circuit.
Bilbao explains that in a patriarchal society, once a woman has fulfilled her duty to reproduce, she no longer has any sexuality and must devote all her time and energy into her children (2011). While Rose devotes her attention to her daughters, it is in pursuit of her own dreams, and she uses her sexuality to achieve it. Musically, Rose is meaningfully is never a part of the diegetic songs that appear in the musical. The songs mark the passage of time within the show, but Rose never sings in them. She produces them from ‘offstage’, “practically giving birth to them” (Wolf, 2002, p. 110), but is never a part of them.
If Rose were to have a diegetic song of her own, she would not need to vicariously fulfil her dream of stardom through her daughters, and the show would be over (Fitzgerald, 2009). Rose’s lyrical motif that reoccurs throughout Gypsy, ‘I had a dream’, is symbolic of her obstinacy and her ability to make herself believe whatever she wants, she uses it to manipulate others into doing what she wants by pretending that it was predicted all along. Even when Baby June leaves, she pretends that she had a dream about Louise being a star, though conveniently she waited until June left to act upon it (Miller, 1996).
Rose is, in essence, an unpleasant person, and yet we are still charmed by her, and at the end of ‘Rose’s Turn’ the audience is enchanted, overcome with the same madness as Rose, only to be awakened from the reverie just as Rose is when Louise comes on to applaud (Fitzgerald, 2009). Fitzgerald, on seeing Patti LuPone as Rose in the 2007 Encores! revival of Gypsy describes the experience in his essay, how one becomes goes from simple fan revelling in the incredible performance of one of Broadway’s greats to a fictional member of Rose’s audience in her schizophrenic dream (2009).
He expresses the feeling of being as ‘caught out and as confused as Rose is when Louise (played in this production by Laura Benanti) comes on stage. The song changes Rose, she admits that she had in fact done it all for herself, and she lets go of her dream of greatness, leaving behind and empty shell of her former self, childlike and vulnerable (Fitzgerald, 2009). While not the primary, central relationship in the show, there is a heterosexual romantic relationship between Rose and Herbie (played by Peter Davidson), although it is very clear that Herbie cares more about Rose than she about him.
He is introduced relatively late in the show and becomes the manager of the act in order to be with Rose though he is not seen doing much with regards to his job, Rose does most of it herself (Wolf, 2002). Their duet ‘Small World demonstrates Rose’s manipulative side as she figures out how to keep Herbie around without having to marry him (Banfield, 1993). Herbie is a weak character, which is clearly demonstrated by the fact that he hardly ever sings. As Wolf explains, “a character that does not sing in a musical is either dispensable or dead” (Wolf, 2008, p. 3) and a character that hardly sings is only slightly less unimportant than a character that does not sing (Wolf, 2002).
Therefore, Herbie’s value to the show (or lack thereof) is clear stated. He also only ever sings with Rose, tying his character exclusively to her. Once Louise begins to put her hope in Herbie, that he might marry Rose and they can finally be a normal family, she joins in with their singing (Together’). Wolf (2002) explains that Herbie represents the traditional heteronormative desires of the 50s woman, all he wants is Rose to marry him and settle down.