I'm thinking back to some years ago when I was at the Tony Awards, where a quickly assembled all-and-semi-star cast was doing a medley of erstwhile Broadway hits. The series of songs was going on nicely enough, with no complaints from anyone. And then, all of a sudden, there was Bernadette Peters, roaring out a sensational rendition of "Some People" from (need I add?) Gypsy. Wow! It had never occurred to me that Bernadette Peters could play Rose, but now I thought, "What a terrific idea!"
But then I remembered the time I went to see Linda Lavin, after she'd just taken over for Tony Award winner Tyne Daly in the 1990 Tony-winning revival of Gypsy. Lavin sure threw herself into the role and, I later learned when I talked to her, was very proud of what she felt she accomplished. Granted, the lady sang and acted convincingly and technically rose to the occasion of Rose, yet I felt that she lacked the mammoth personality that Rose is. In short, though Lavin is terrific for most parts, a Stephen Sondheim lyric from Gypsy comes to mind: "But not Ro-ose."
I've never put Peters and Lavin near a doorframe and penciled off how tall each is, but I'll bet I'm not far off when I guess that they're approximately the same size. After decades of watching them in role after role after role, they certainly seem to me smaller than such Tony-winning Roses as Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly -- not to mention that most famous, Tony-losing Rose, Ethel Merman. (By the way, the .667 Tony-winning percentage for Rose is not the highest for musical theater roles; Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has batted 1.000, with Zero Mostel in 1963, Phil Silvers in 1971, and Nathan Lane in 1996 all emerging victorious.)
Starting this Monday, March 31 -- and only the Lord knows for how long thereafter -- we can see for ourselves whether Bernadette Peters is a beautiful Rose or a wilted Rose. That she has won a legendary role in one of the greatest musicals of all time makes this arguably The Most Anticipated Performance of the 2002-2003 season.
Virtually every day since Peters was announced for the project, I've had someone ask me what I thought of the idea. Sometimes, he or she gave a look and a smile that showed eager-as-a-puppy-dog excitement. Other times -- much more frequently, I'll admit -- he or she accompanied the remark with a jaundiced and skeptical eye. Many of the gloom-and-doom prophets have suggested that Peters is too young for the role. Actually, though Peters still looks just about as young as she ever has, she is suddenly 55 years old. This makes her the oldest Rose to open a Broadway production. Merman was 51 when she debuted the show. Lansbury was 48 when she revived it in the 1973 London production and 49 when she brought it to the not-yet-Cadillaced Winter Garden. Daly was the baby of the group, a mere 43 when she made her Broadway musical debut in the 1989 production.
Early middle-age makes sense for the character. We often think of Rose as old, but she really can't be -- not with grammar-school aged kids doing "May We Entertain You." (At least, they seem like grammar-school aged kids; if Louise wonders how old she is, I guess we should, too.) Even when Louise finally emerges as Gypsy Rose Lee and becomes a star, she isn't long out of her teen years, so Rose might not even be Peters's 55 when she and her cow's head aren't allowed backstage at Minsky's.
Several of those who have predicted that Peters would not be able to pull off Rose gave as their "Exhibit A" reason the opinion that she was pretty lousy as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. I thought Peters was terrific in the role, yet I won't give as my "Exhibit A" that she won the Tony. Lord knows we can all cite Tony-winners who gave stinky performances. But Peters did something I never saw any other Annie do, including Merman in the famous 1966 Granny Get Your Gun revival: She beautifully calibrated Annie's growth. Peters had those word-slurring hillbilly sensibilities at the beginning, but as on through the show she sailed, she showed me a girl who was growing into an extraordinary young woman. Just as Annie was turning from illiterate to a real reader, Peters displayed the confidence of someone who knows she's becoming a better turned-out person. After three months' worth of time had passed in the script, Peters convinced me that she was genuinely three months smarter than she'd been in the previous scene. In the second act, after the Wild West European tour, she seemed even more self-actualized. I'd like to think it was this aspect of her performance that won her the award.
This character development was something I desperately missed when the much-acclaimed Reba McEntire took over the role. She may have been more country and her twang did sit well on the flavorful music, but I found her to be always the same during the show, unaware of how to develop a character and very one-note compared to Peters's wonderfully layered performance.
Let's also remember that Peters is working on Gypsy with Sam Mendes, one of the most acclaimed directors of recent years. Between them, they may find something in Rose that hasn't been mined before. Soon after the crew pulls the curtain up and lights the lights, we're going to be hearing a peck of people with a peck of opinions -- some of which were formulated long before these patrons ever walked into the Shubert. But I say, let no one be surprised if Peters stands the world on its ear and sets it spinning. Whatever the case, now's your inning, Miss Peters, and I'm rooting for you to raise Rose's Tony-winning record from .667 to .750.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]