Saturday, July 14, 2007

Momma's talkin' loud, Momma's got the stuff, Momma's ... gettin' old - "Gypsy" Casting 1

There's yet another production of "Gypsy" in the works - this one being produced at New York's City Center under the auspices of Encores! and starring the great Patti Lupone as Rose, better known as Momma Rose in the musical. (Actually, the character is called Madame Rose throughout the show but, somehow, Momma Rose is the moniker that has stuck.)

I hasten to mention that "Gypsy" is my all-time favorite musical and I am very proprietary, possessive and, yes, opinionated about it. Also, I think that Lupone is the crown jewel of the modern musical theater. But I have a problem - and an opinion.

Why has the character of Rose traditionally been cast with an actress well into her 50s? I mean, the show spans only about 10 years or so, starting when Rose's two young daughters are 7 and 9 at best. Shouldn't the character be 30ish or maybe a little younger?
Imagine how revelatory - and different - it would be with a younger, youthful, vibrant performer in the role. But this has never happened.

I did a little research and here are the ages of the assorted actresses when they played Rose:

-Patti Lupone, age 58 (new 2007 Encores! production)

-Patti Lupone, age 57 (2006 Ravinia Festival production)

-Ethel Merman, age 57 (original 1959 Broadway production)

-Bernadette Peters, age 55 (2003 Sam Mendes revival)

-Rosalind Russell, age 55 (original 1962 film version)

-Linda Lavin, age 52 (succeeded Tyne Daly, below, in the 1989 revival)

-Betty Buckley, age 51 (1998 Papermill Playhouse production)

-Angela Lansbury, age 49 (1974 London production, followed by the first Broadway revival)

-Bette Midler, age 48 (1993 TV-movie remake)

-Betty Buckley, age 45 (1992 Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production)

-Tyne Daly, age 43 (1989 Broadway revival)

-Betty Hutton, age 40 (1961 National Tour)

Joanne Worley, Mary McCarty and Gisele MacKenzie have also played in productions of the show, Worley opposite Aundrey Landers as Louise/Gypsy. Somehow the role has evaded such powerhouses as Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and Liza Minnelli - and Stockard Channing, someone who I've always thought would be absolutely terrific in the part.

Anyway, given the contours of the show and its age requirement, who would you cast as Momma Rose/Madam Rose? Let me know. And be adventurous.

(Artwork: Poster art from the various productions of "Gypsy")

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Jim said...

I got with Sarah Jessica Parker or is she too old?

jim said...

I got with Sarah Jessica Parker or is she too old?

joe baltake said...

Jim-- Sarah Jessica Parker would be on par with Bernadette Peters, whose casting didn't work for me. (She seemed more like Baby June than Rose.)

Jill Asbury said...

Debra Winger would have been neat in the role - a real steamroller. But can she sing?

joe baltake said...


Great minds think alike. I think Debra Winger, when she was around 30-35, would have been great, atypical casting. A real dynamo with a husky voice. Who cares if she can sing? I always preferred Audrey Hepburn doing her own singing in "Funny Face" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to the soulless voice of Marni Nixon coming out of her in "My Fair Lady." I love movie musicals, but I'm no purist. Get a star, a real movie star, in the role, let them sing (or dub them a little) and I'm in movie-freak heaven

Carrie said...

I can't imagine Betty Hutton as Rose, though she did possess the requisite lungs of brass.

Harvey Fierstein would be a great Mama Rose, though he's on the older side.

Who would be your choice as a youthful Rose?

joe baltake said...


I also thought of a cross-dressing version of "Gypsy" with Harvey Fierstein. It's a terrific idea. In fact, I'd do a production where the entire cast cross-dresses, but I doubt if Arthur Laurents would approve. Still, it could be fun and revolutionary.

I agree with you about Hutton, but I also feel that way about Lansbury, who was Laurents-approved. I still think Roz Russell is the definitive Rose. I like the patrician airs she brought to the role. And Lisa Kirk who dubbed most of Russell's singing in the film remains the best interpreter of that score (and I saw Merman in the role as a kid). Her voice is robust, as the songs dictate, and yet feminine.

Re a youthful Rose, I'd go with - now this is a stretch - Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. I know she is closely associated with the country-music scene, but she has the right voice and right temperament for the role. Plus, she's the right age. Think Arthur would go along with this off-beat casting?

Daryl Chin said...

One of the problems with the casting of Rose has always been that (in most cases) the actresses were not "beauties". But from the way the material was presented, Rose was a frustrated actress in her own right, and the mother-daughter relationship should have been more equivocal. Also: in the original Broadway production, there had been several dance numbers created by Jerome Robbins (the original director-choreographer) but Ethel Merman... a dancer she ain't. And she refused to do the numbers, and they were all cut. (Shows you what star power is: Merman versus Robbins, Merman wins.)

When i saw Bobby Roth's BAJA OKLAHOMA, and i watched Leslie Anne Warren and Julia Roberts (early in her career, pre-PRETTY WOMAN) as mother and daughter, i thought, here's the duo that should do GYPSY. Warren can sing and dance, and then you could do the dance numbers originally planned, and if Roberts doesn't have the best singing voice or dance skills, well, isn't that the point? That Louise isn't THAT talented and so becomes a star by becoming a stripper? And Roberts had that big, broad smile, which was also a trademark of the real Gypsy Rose Lee.

But that would have been circa 1985 or so...

Mizoguchi said...

I'll bet Betty Hutton could have played both parts, and probably did some nights.

joe baltake said...

Daryl-- Great Casting! If only someone had recognized what you did back in 1985. Oh, well... A missed opportunity.

Daryl Chin said...

The casting game is one that so many of us play, especially if you see a movie (or a play) which would have been great, if only... or sometimes when you read a book. (In terms of Debra Winger, i remember when i was reading Rebecca Goldstein's brilliant comedy-of-academic-manners THE MIND-BODY PROBLEM, and then, in 1986 or so, it would have been the absolute PERFECT part for Winger... because it also played into her background, her attraction-repulsion with orthodox Judaism; i was actually thinking of working it into a screenplay, so that i could hand it to a friend of mine who knew Winger... but the best laid plans...)

But if we're thinking of people who are age-appropriate NOW, i would say (ok, this came to me while i was at the gym; an endorphin rush can often do it to you) Brooke Shields. In the past decade, she's actually become an adept musical-comedy performer (she was excellent when she took over from Donna Murphy in the recent Broadway revival of MY SISTER EILEEN), and if anyone knows from stage mothers, it's Brooke Shields.

(The problem - and it's a BIG one - with GYPSY is that the other parts,particularly Louise and Herbie, are never quite cast with people with the proper "weight". Though Natalie Wood may not have been ideal casting, at least she was a movie star, and had "star" quality. In the original Broadway production, Sandra Church was a "promising" young actress, and Jack Klugman as Herbie was actually a real match for Merman, as Karl Malden was a match for Russell in the movie. So, just to complete this, if you could get Brooke Shields as Rose, then i would suggest Anne Hathaway as Louise and Bill Campbell - he's tall enough - as Herbie.)

joe baltake said...


Shields is the definition of a later bloomer, in that she's really come into her own in middle age, and she and Anne Hathaway would match up beautifully (although I kinda see Zooey Dechshanel as Louise/Gypsy). As for Herbie, how about Aaron Eckhart or Greg Kinnear? Just a spur-of-the-moment thought.

Daryl Chin said...

One of the problems with a movie even remotely based on "reality" is that who plays the part often has to compete with the reality. In the case of GYPSY, people always forget that the person who is being portrayed as Louise was Gypsy Rose Lee. In the 1930s and 1940s, even in show business, women who were taller than 5' 5" were considered "too tall". (Who would they play opposite? Not Cagney, not Alan Ladd, not Bogart, not... for every Cary Grant or Gary Cooper or Joel McCrea who were 6' or over, there were an awful lot of leading men who were 5' 6", 5' 7"...) Gypsy Rose Lee was 5' 8", and part of the appeal of her act was that she (especially in heels) was tall and statuesque. (These are not words that would ever apply to Natalie Wood.) Of course, with movies, we are not dealing with the realistic level, but with (as the Rev. Shannon says in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA) the fantastic level.

But i just looked it up: Anne Hathaway is actually 5' 8".

But yes, i think Greg Kinnear would be terrific: he has the showbiz sleaziness/eagerness down cold.

joe baltake said...

Re Natalie Wood in "Gypsy," she's the only actress who has ever done anything with that role (and I've seen many productions of the show many times over). Yes, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she was a real movie star. But beyond that, it's a great performance - one of the great examples of subtle acting. Wood actually grows up and matures during the run of the story and credibly so. The way she uses her voice and carries herself as a teenager and the stature she brings to her reading of Gypsy Rose Lee are, for me, jaw-dropping. BTW, I've always been struck by how similar Rosalind Russell and the real Gypsy were, physically. Both very talk and statuesque.

jbryant said...

Natalie Maines is an interesting, outside-the-box idea -- even if they have to put her on stilts. :) In that same oddball spirit, how about Lucy Lawless? She did pretty well in those musical episodes of Xena (we'll overlook that celebrity duets show from a couple of years back).

joe baltake said...


Love it! Lawless, I mean, but even she may be a tad too, well, old for it. I think Maines could breathe some new life into a show that has come down with the middle-age crazies.

chris sch. said...

Just thought I'd say, in regard to your Liza Minnelli comment, that there is footage on YouTube of Minnelli performing "Rose's Turn." Or so I understand.

joe baltake said...

I'll have to check it out. She does a wicked "Some People" in her concerts which have been taped, too. One of the renditions is in her show with Charles Aznavour.