Coming Up Roses: Thoughts on Mama Rose’s Turn – The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Door Mother

Mention the phrase “stage door mother” and the first thought on most people’s minds is Mama Rose, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, in the musical Gypsy; for avid theater fans, this line of thinking can (and usually will) lead to a discussion/debate on the various actors who have portrayed the larger-than-life character on stage, screen and television since the musical’s debut in 1959. Yet the character as depicted in the musical, as well as some of the events that occur in the musical were loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, as discovered by Carolyn Quinn in her book, Mama Rose’s Turn – The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Door Mother, which recently was dramatized in conjunction with the Ziegfeld Society on February 22, 2014.

Mama Rose's Turn playbill

[Disclaimer: Once again for the sake of full disclosure, Carolyn Quinn is one of the good friends I met during my (almost) year of seeing the 2010-2011 revival production of La Cage aux Folles. As always, the opinions and musings stated in this blog are my own, with no influence from the author whatsoever.]

While the book was published last November, (at which time there was a discussion and book signing), I have yet to read her book (though it’s on my never-ending “to read” list). The dramatic summation of her book began with Loria Parker, playing the role of Rose, reenacting Gypsy’s act one finale, singing out the showstopper “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses” only to be interrupted by the narrator, who proceeded to tell the true life story of Rose Hovick, with the aid of archival photos. During the narration, there were several period-specific songs such as “I Want To Be A Janitor’s Child” and “Hard Boiled Rose” sung by June and Louise, portrayed by Merrill Grant and Vanessa Altshuler, respectively (piano accompaniment provided by Mark York from the Ziegfeld Society), and a few dialogue driven scenes in between songs, wherein the narrator assumed the role of various other characters who interacted (mainly) with Rose.

Mama Rose cast

From left to right: Author & Narrator Carolyn Quinn, Merrill Grant (June Havoc), Loria Parker (Rose Hovick) & Vanessa Altshuler (Gypsy Rose Lee)

The show was informative and entertaining, and the three actors portraying Rose, June and Gypsy were fantastic in their respective roles, capturing the spirit of those three memorable personages, with some of the inconsistencies and myths surrounding the family explained. The show’s content was thoroughly researched by the author with the aim of providing (for the first time) an accurate biography of such an iconic figure in entertainment history. To date, there is no word of whether this show will have a future, but considering the popularity of Gypsy and the character of Mama Rose (or at least the archetype she represents), there will always be an interest and fascination for this legendary character. While this production was put together in a short period of time (four days, to be precise) I do hope there will be an expanded version with a full cast – perhaps even billed as a companion to Gypsy – in the years to come.

To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, it’s about time Mama Rose had her turn to have her own dream to be in the spotlight.