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Gypsy: 60 Years of Iconic Leading Ladies

Gypsy: 60 Years of Iconic Leading Ladies

Gypsy, “the mother of all musicals,” made its Broadway debut 60 years ago this week. The groundbreaking show, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, opened at the Broadway Theatre on May 21, 1959 and became an instant classic. With a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship at its core, GYPSY explored the world of two-bit show business with brass, humor, heart and sophistication.

In addition to its unparalleled score, Gypsy introduced two iconic leading roles for women: the indomitable “Mama” Rose Hovick and her meek daughter Louise, who eventually transforms herself into the world-famous stripper “Gypsy Rose Lee.”

Over its 60-year history, Gypsy has paired many of musical theatre’s greatest stars in the roles of Rose and Louise. Here’s a look at some of these stellar partnerships:

1. Ethel Merman and Sandra Church (Original Broadway Cast, 1959)
“Here she is, world!” Ethel Merman originated Rose Hovick and made the role indelibly her own. After huge success starring on Broadway and in Hollywood in Anything Goes, Call Me Madam, and Annie Get Your Gun, Merman needed another big hit, and the creative team delivered with what is arguably Merman’s greatest role. With a honking belt and a no-nonsense attitude, she created a Rose who sang to the rafters and refused to back down. By contrast, Sandra Church, who had never done a Broadway musical before, brought an innocence and sweetness to the role of Rose’s put-upon daughter. 

2. Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood (1962 Film)
Making a name for herself in Hollywood comedies, Rosalind Russell had starred in just one Broadway book musical before Gypsy: 1953’s Wonderful Town, in which she played the persistent journalist Ruth Sherwood. Less of a singer than Merman (most of her vocals were dubbed by singer Lisa Kirk), Russell was a comic genius and seasoned film star, bringing humor, style, and pathos to the role. Natalie Wood added her own box office clout to the picture: she was a huge star after the success of West Side Story. Though her vocals had been dubbed in that film, the former teen star did all her own singing for Gypsy, giving a feisty, rebellious performance.

3. Angela Lansbury and Zan Charisse (West End Premiere, 1973; Broadway Revival, 1974)
Angela Lansbury had conquered Hollywood with roles in dozens of films, including Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate, when she gained true stardom on Broadway in the title role of Jerry Herman’s Mame. Bringing nuance, power, and desperation – along with her signature throaty belt – to the role of Rose, Lansbury wowed audiences on both sides of the pond, winning her third Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Zan Charisse, niece of famed MGM dancer/star Cyd Charisse, played Louise in what Clive Barnes called a “very special” performance, earning a Theatre World Award and Tony nomination.

4. Tyne Daly and Crista Moore (Broadway Revival, 1989)
Known primarily for her work on television (notably as Mary Beth Lacey on Cagney and Lacey, for which she won four Emmy Awards), Tyne Daly bowled audiences over with her voracious and fearless portrayal of musical theatre’s greatest stage mother. Making her Broadway debut, Crista Moore brought both homespun naivete and sultry sophistication to the role, inspiring critic John Simon to write, “She is the first performer to justify the show’s title being not Rose but Gypsy.”  

5. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb (Film remake, 1993)
The Divine Miss M tackled the role of Madame Rose in the 1993 film remake, in a performance Jonathan Taylor of Variety called “explosive, riveting and impossible, yet impossible not to love.” With a youthful energy, Bette Midler brought her comic chops to the role and attacked the vocals with her trademarked sound, melding the worlds of pop and musical theatre. Cynthia Gibb, a former model, had a number of film and TV credits to her name before earning a Golden Globe nomination for her star-making performance as Louise. 

6. Bernadette Peters and Tammy Blanchard (Broadway Revival, 2003)
Broadway’s fourth Gypsy starred Bernadette Peters in a new approach to the central role. Peters’ Rose was more coquettish; a child star who never was, desperately trying to recreate the career she never had. Flirtatious and playful, this Rose got what she wanted through more than brute strength. As Louise, Tammy Blanchard brought confident vocals and a mature fortitude, matching Peters blow for blow in their final confrontation. Two years earlier, Blanchard had won an Emmy Award for playing another icon of musical theatre: Judy Garland.

7. Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti (Broadway Revival, 2008)
Directed by bookwriter Arthur Laurents, Patti LuPone earned rave reviews as Rose, including one from Ben Brantley of the New York Times, who said, “Watch out, New York. Patti LuPone has found her focus. And when Ms. LuPone is truly focused, she’s a laser, she incinerates.” Kinetic, conniving, smothering and desperate, her Mama Rose was a powerhouse to be reckoned with. In a Tony-winning performance, Laura Benanti gave Louise a calibrated balance of vulnerability and self-determination. Brantley called it “the performance of her career.”

 8. Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver (West End Revival, 2015)
“One of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in musical theatre.” That’s how Michael Billington of The Guardian described Imelda Staunton’s “pushy, plucky, determined” Rose Hovick. In a career spanning television, film and theatre, Staunton had amassed a slew of acting awards before tackling Madame Rose. As Rose’s daughter, Laura Pulver carried some of Louise’s awkwardness and innocence to the title character’s final moments. Fortunately, both Olivier-winning performances have been captured on video.

Those are just 16 of the remarkable women who’ve brought Gypsy to life over its 60-year history. What will the next 60 years bring? A new movie adaptation remains a possibility, and casting rumors are flying. No matter who plays our next Rose and Louise, they’ve got nothing to hit but the heights.


To learn more about performing your own production of Gypsy, click here.

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