We should be wary of assumptions about who would be simply perfect for what. Isn’t that how typecasting begins, after all? And what actor want to think of themselves as typecast? Actually, the new Broadway revival of Gypsy makes a strong argument for that maligned practice.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing about how Patti LuPone was just born to play Mama Rose, the staggering presence at the center of Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’s 1959 musical. This was essentially based on a couple of basic facts related to both the actor’s style and the widespread conception of the character: LuPone’s steel center would work great for a tough old broad like Rose, and like the original Rose, Ethel Merman, LuPone is an old-school Broadway belter.
Seeing Rose like this has become common wisdom: After Merman, Broadway revivals have starred such powerhouses as Angela Lansbury (1974) and Tyne Daly (1989), while Bette Midler led the 1993 TV adaptation. (Hollywood’s Rose was Rosalind Russell in 1962, qualifying as an outsize personality if not vocalist, since she was dubbed by Lisa Kirk.)
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it can lead to extremely narrow interpretations of both a part and a show. Does Rose have to be a brassy ballbreaker? Why wouldn’t she be a sneaky fink? Couldn’t we picture her as a willowy woman suggesting her neuroses rather than trumpeting them to the world? But no: Rose’s gotta be a bruiser. This is why so many fans and critics were turned off by the mere mention of Bernadette Peters starring in the 2003 revival: She just didn’t fit the preconceived idea of the character. (Significantly, this is the only Broadway revival so far not directed by the author of the show’s book, Laurents, but by Sam Mendes, which adds another wrinkle: In this case, does authorship translate into artistic ownership of a character? You could assume that Laurents, of all people, would know Rose inside out, but you could also assume that perhaps he doesn’t have a fresh perspective on her. Let’s just keep this particular can of worm for another time! )
I saw Gypsy during its month-long run at New York’s City Center last year, and was not overly impressed. In a blog post, I even wished for a Gypsy revisited by some deconstructionist German director. I’d still love to see that, but guess what? Nine months later, the same production with the same cast is electrifying. Certainly the transfer from the cavernous City Center to the more intimate St. James Theatre gives the show more focus. But LuPone—yes, the typecast one—has worked on her performance with a hammer and chisel, adding myriad facets that just weren’t there. (Typically, “Rose’s Turn” has evolved from a pretty straightforward rendition to a frantically mesmerizing one.) Back in July, LuPone delivered exactly what we thought we wanted of her; now, she’s transformed our very expectations about the role. Paradoxically, typecasting may have opened the door to more varied interpretations of this most emblematic of musical-theater roles.