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Call Her Madame? by Matthew Murray

  • GypsyCD.jpgI have now officially inaugurated 2012 with my first theatre argument! Unfortunately, it's likely to also rank as the dumbest of the year. The issue? How to refer to the lead character in Gypsy.

    What, you may be asking? Why is this so hard? I honestly don't know. And yet it seems to be for so many people. My argument is, "Well, she's referred to as both 'Rose' and 'Madame Rose' in the script, so people should use one of those two to refer to her when talking about the character." The counterargument is, "She should be called 'Mama Rose.' Uh... just because."

    Sorry, I'm not intentionally trying to misstate the other side's viewpoint here, but that's as much explanation as I've ever been able to get about this. I can point to any number of script references that support calling her Madame Rose or Rose. Not a single one supports calling her Mama Rose. So why does this keep happening, even in such theoretically august places as New York Times theatre reviews?

    Adam Feldman, theater and cabaret critic for Time Out New York, president of the New York Drama Critics Circle, and someone I generally expect to know better than Ben Brantley, deployed two rationales in our Twitter discussion about this last night, neither of which I found particularly satisfying. "Mama Rose is the correct appellation for her" and "Shakespeare never called Hamlet 'the Melancholy Dane.' So what? 'Mama Rose' dates to early 60s Kerr."

    Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that reviews don't habitually and continuously refer to Hamlet as "the Melancholy Dane" or, for that matter, anything other than Hamlet. To my eye, Feldman is effectively arguing, "My being wrong is right because I say so," and "My being wrong is right because Walter Kerr said so 50 years ago." Is either really a good explanation? Not to me. Something better might be (and this is just off the top of my head), "The addition of 'mama' adds notes of babbling terror and maternal overreach to a name that otherwise implies a fragrance and beauty the character does not innately possess." I still think that's nonsense, but at least it's more substantive nonsense. (Oh, and before anyone else brings up the issue of Daddy Warbucks in Annie, as Feldman also did last night, that is in that script.)

    I asked Feldman (who, in the interests of full disclosure, I've known for more than a decade as both a colleague and from his Internet writings) for a more thorough explanation, and he provided this:

    ...it is irrelevant whether people in the play itself call Rose "Mama Rose." That is the sobriquet—a nickname, if you will—by which she has come to be known in critical and cultural discourse surrounding the play. It is not "wrong" to call Hamlet "the Melancholy Dane" either, though Shakespeare doesn't, nor is it "wrong" for that matter to call Shakespeare himself "the Bard of Avon" even though no one seems to have done so until years after his death. "Mama Rose" is nothing more or less than a cultural convention. (The earliest reference I can find to it is in Walter Kerr's 1963 book The Theater In Spite of Itself ("This 'Mama' Rose, 'Mama' to a teen-age Gypsy Rose Lee...") And as sobriquets go, it gets to the heart of the character far better than does the misleading "Madame Rose"—a phony name that Rose arrogates for herself in order to sound fancy. It seems to me that the strict script-based originalism you espouse on this question just plain misses the point of how and why the term is used.

    In other words, he avoided answering the question. So I pressed on, asking him to leave aside the question of what critics in the past had done and instead explain why he believes "Mama Rose" is "somhow more appropriate [a soubriquet] to use than "Madame Rose" or even just "Rose." To that request, he responded:

    People actually just call her Rose most [of] the time. But we also occasionally call her Mama Rose, which is her cultural nickname, and for no good reason that drives you nuts.

    No one will call her "Madam Rose" because that name is ridiculous. It's MEANT to be ridiculous in the script—it's phony.

    I like "Mama Rose" because it distinguishes her from other Roses in the cultural world and because it alludes to the centrality of motherhood to the character and the play.

    Similarly, you can call him "Oliver Warbucks" or "Mr. Warbucks" all you like, but Daddy Warbucks is a better name. It just is! That's why it sticks. And that's why
    Mama Rose sticks.

    I'm sure it goes without saying that I don't think that's an especially good line of reasoning, it is at least a more solid one than anyone has ever provided in the past, and I thank Feldman for that.

    Though he wasn't involved in the initial discussion last night, I asked Peter Filichia, oft-published theatre book author, columnist, and participant on the "This Week on Broadway" podcast, for his input. This was his take (which I probably don't need to say I agree with):

    When I get to heaven, the first question I'll ask God is "Who killed JFK?" but the second will be "Who's responsible for re-naming Rose 'Mama Rose' or 'Momma Rose?'" Whoever it is has a lot to answer for. This error has reached epidemic proportions.

    I'm astonished—and bitterly disappointed—at how many reviewers or even musical theater scholars of note routinely use this name when citing the true lead character in Gypsy. I would have assumed that they would have noticed that that name never once shows us in the script. Certainly there have been enough Broadway revivals, other productions and two films that would have reinforced what the lady's actual name is.

    This is musical theater's version of "Play it again, Sam"—something that has been passed down for so long that people truly believe it's in the script. I have a feeling that "If Momma Was Married" is partly responsible for this, and the "Mmmm-mamas!" during "Rose's Turn." Whatever the case, while people may chide me for being picky about this, I'd rather die than ever call Rose "Mama Rose."

    Ultimately, it comes down to this: How relevant is, or should be, the script and/or its author in determining how a show is analyzed and talked about? For Feldman, the cultural context is more important, regardless of whether it can be justified by what the author wrote. For both me and Filichia, what's contained in the script is both the starting point and the end point; if Rose's creators, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, had wanted to call the character "Mama Rose," they would have, but we're happy to abide by their decision.

    Who's right? The real issue here is: Does it even matter? I'll be the first to admit that it doesn't in any significant way. For people who know the musical, "Rose," "Madame Rose," and "Mama Rose" all summon the image of the ultimate stage mother, a woman who's willing to destroy her daughters' lives to grasp at the glory she could never attain herself. And when it comes to Gypsy, there are a million more interesting things to discuss—like why Patti LuPone was so awful in the last revival. On that matter, I disagree with both Feldman and Filichia, but no matter—there's not much question in anyone's mind that that is entirely a matter of opinion and interpretation, however one may refer to the character LuPone portrayed. As is, for example, whether Lauren Ambrose would have been a good Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (which, come to think of it, also has a character who could be legitimately referred to as Mama Rose... hmm...).

    This entire discussion does, however, highlight the passion that musical theatre lovers have for details—one that undoubtedly rivals that of the biggest sports fans alive. If we're willing to argue about this at 10:30 PM and then into the next day, what aren't we willing to tilt over? Not much, probably! And as long as people care that much about minutiae related to the art form and its major shows, there's reason to feel good about where musical theatre is headed. I for, one, would feel better still if people would refer to the character as Laurents, did: Madame Rose.

    Where do you stand on this? Please e-mail me—I'd love to hear from you!

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