Is Imelda Staunton the best Momma Rose ever? She’s absolutely the best Momma Rose I’ve ever seen – but, then again, she’s also the only Momma Rose I’ve never seen.
Yes, my not-so-guilty confession is this: I’ve never seen Gypsy before…
I say that without much guilt because, incredibly, Jonathan Kent‘s current critically acclaimed Chichester Festival staging of Gypsy is only the second time the Broadway classic has had a major London production – and the last one was more than 40 years ago, starring Angela Lansbury at the Piccadilly Theatre. Lansbury, by the way, nabbed the role from Broadway’s Elaine Stritch, who was originally cast but didn’t drive enough ticket sales for Londoners (silly 1970s Londoners!). Last week, Lansbury was back (days after collecting her first Olivier, for Blithe Spirit) to applaud Staunton on her opening night.
In preparing this piece, as much as I love Staunton’s performance, I can’t help but mourn the Mommas I’ve missed. Since 1959 when Ethel Merman originated the role of the ultimate stage mother on Broadway, there have been five major Broadway productions, earning no fewer than three of their leading ladies Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical: Lansbury, Tyne Daly and, most recently, Patti Lupone.
Why does London lag so far behind in Gypsy revivals? One London critic, Variety‘s Matt Trueman, reckons it’s because, until Staunton, we haven’t had a “Momma Rose to match” the show.
What do you think? Give me a shout if you’ve seen any of the other Mommas or would dream-cast someone else in the role? In the meantime, don’t miss the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to see the “mother of all Broadway musicals” starring Imelda Staunton, giving one of “the best musical theatre performances ever”.
Gypsy trivia: Did you know…?
- Gypsy is based on the 1957 memoirs of American burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (nee Rose Louise Hovick), and her vaudeville childhood on the road with her mother (Momma Rose) and sister
- The real Momma Rose, Rose Elizabeth Thompson Hovick, died in 1954 of colon cancer
- Gypsy’s sister “Baby June” became the actress June Havoc, whose credits included Pal Joey on Broadway, the films Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Gentleman’s Agreement with Gregory Peck (1947) and, on television in the 1980s, General Hospital and, with Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote
- Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc remained estranged as adults after their mother’s death. June wrote two volumes of her own memoirs about their family life, titled Early Havoc and More Havoc
- The Broadway producer David Merrick read a magazine extract from Gypsy: A Memoir and bought the rights as a vehicle for Ethel Merman
- Jule Styne was the fourth composer that original director Jerome Robbins approached to score Gypsy. Irving Berlin and Cole Porter turned it down. Stephen Sondheim, who had worked with book writer Arthur Laurents two years earlier on West Side Story (for which he wrote lyrics to Leonard Bernstein‘s score), agreed to write music and lyrics, but Ethel Merman pushed for Styne instead as she didn’t want to take the risk on an unknown composer
- The show’s full title is Gypsy: A Musical Fable
- Book writer Arthur Laurents took the helm directing Gypsy four times: once in London (1973) and three times on Broadway (1975, 1989 and 2008). The last was something of a riposte to Sam Mendes‘ stripped-down, Bernadette Peters-led 2003 Broadway production, which Laurents criticised
- Imelda Staunton and Gypsy Rose Lee share a birthday: 9 January. Stanton was born in London in 1956, Hovick/Lee was born in Seattle, Washington, USA in 1911 (probably – though Momma Rose had forged various birth certificates for both daughters, in order to keep them ‘child stars’, so we can’t be 100% certain). She died in Los Angeles in 1970, aged (probably) 59, the same age that her latest onstage mother, Staunton, is now.