Curtain up! Light the lights! If there's one show this spring that should be on your radar, it is the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Gypsy which opens for previews at the Savoy Theatre in London's West End on 28 March 2015. This production will be the first West End revival of the classic Broadway show since the original London production in 1973 which starred Angela Lansbury in the iconic role of 'Mama' Rose Hovick. After opening last autumn at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent's revival gained more five-star reviews than you can shake a stick at – with praise universally levelled at the star of the production, Imelda Staunton.
Staunton has proved herself time and again to be a theatrical force to be reckoned with. She was recently nominated for an Olivier Award for her performance in 'Good People' which transferred to the West End following a run at the Hampstead Theatre – and her success seems to only be growing exponentially.
Her success in musical theatre, specifically the work of America's greatest living composer of the medium, Stephen Sondheim, has been praised since she she took on the role of the Baker's Wife in the original London outing of Into the Woods back in 1990 at the Phoenix Theatre. In this fiendishly demanding role, Staunton excelled, winning her first Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical – an award she went on to win for a second time following 2012 West End transfer of Sweeney Todd, also directed by Jonathan Kent
For fans of musical theatre, the role of Mama Rose is one of the most challenging and exciting of roles, and debates could be held for hours over which performer has given the 'definitive' performance. With each new production comes a new take on this complex character, who is much more than a brassy stage mother fighting for survival against a dying industry.
Ahead of the London opening, we took a look at the most famous actresses who have played the role in original productions:
To many, the role will always be synonymous with the very first 'First Lady' of musical theatre. The role was specifically written for Merman's (unmiked) voice, and the original orchestrations reflect her tone and power. Stephen Sondheim originally turned down the job as lyricist on the show, until his mentor Oscar Hammerstein urged him to stay involved in order to learn how to write for a specific star – and oh, what a star to write for. In what was Merman's most demanding dramatic role, she will fondly be remembered for delivering each iconic number, etching a blueprint for future productions and leaving remarkably large shoes to fill.
Following the success of the stage show, the film version of the musical was released in 1962 produced by Russell's husband Frederick Brisson. Whilst many feared Russell wasn't the right person for the role, her singing was ultimately dubbed by Lisa Kirk, and the two voices blended together for some of the numbers. The film was a moderate success, but was beaten to the Oscar for the film adaptation of Meredith Wilson's 'The Music Man'. Her cold face brought a harshness to the role, and she was overshadowed somewhat by Natalie Wood who co-starred as her daughter Louise.
The original London production required a suitable Rose for London audiences, and who better than one of our country's finest exports? Originally scheduled to open with Elaine Stritch, producers made the switch to increase ticket sales and the production ran for a modest 300 performances. Who knew that as the curtain came down on 2 March 1974 that London wouldn't see another professional production of the musical for over forty years – something that makes this coming production all the more special. Lansbury went on to tour the USA with the production, transferring to the Winter Garden Theatre in September 1974, where she went on to win the 1975 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1989, Arthur Laurents again directed a Broadway-bound production, this time headed by 'Cagney & Lacey' star Tyne Daley. Cut from the Merman cloth, Daley's vocals were bold and powerful – but her performance lacked any individuality and didn't venture too far from the well-trod Merman territory. The production, on the whole, was well received, running for 476 performances and taking home the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival, as well as the Tony for Ms Daley.
Whilst her name had been circulating ahead of the previous Broadway revival, Midler missed out on playing the iconic role on stage. Instead, the popular singer and actress took on the role of Mama Rose for a television film version of the musical in 1993, with surprising results. Whilst no one was surprised at her vocal delivery, she managed to bring a new edge to Rose and was praised for her overall performance.
Many an eyebrow was raised following the announcement of Ms. Peters in a Sam Mendes-led revival, which opened on Broadway at the Schubert Theatre in March 2003. Despite her overwhelming talents the lady-like Peters seemed wrong for the role, leading Mendes to say that he was looking for someone closer to the real-life Rose: “She was a tiny woman. And she was a charmer. And so is Bernadette...” The bare production certainly had its critics, but Ms Peters proved to be the jewel in the crown, leading Ben Brantley to claim in the New York Times review of the show, that “there have been many illustrious successors to Merman as Rose...Only Ms. Peters, however, can be said to have broken the Merman mold completely.” The production set records for the Schubert Theatre and ran for a respectable 451 performances.
In a role she was born to play, Broadway royalty Patti LuPone's road to Mama Rose was certainly an interesting one. Having thought she was banned from performing in any of Arthur Laurents' work, she approached the project with trepidation, despite being many people's ideal candidate for the part. Following a stint at the Ravinia Festival, her differences with Laurents were put to one side, and a new production opened in Washington with an all-star cast, helmed by Laurents himself, committed to 'undoing' the previous work of Sam Mendes, and leaving the world with a definitive production of his most celebrated musical before he died. In a story that reads like the plot of a 30s film, the Broadway production finally completed its journey in 2008 where it opened at the St James Theatre, gaining rave reviews and a love letter from Ben Brantley, who had completely reversed his earlier opinion.
One of Britain's finest actresses is the perfect choice for a new production of Gypsy. Staunton managed to delve even deeper into the character to create a thunderously terrifying portrayal of Rose that has you on the edge of your seats from the first moment she enters. Despite her size, she commands the stage purposefully and you can't take your eyes off her for one second. Her performance at Chichester was one of the finest seen in 2014, and one that should have you lining up for tickets for the Savoy run.