They chat breezily about this and that before getting down to business, but these three actresses — Donna Bellone, Elise Godfrey and Marian McCabe — are standing at base camp, about to scale the Everest of theatrical roles.
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The next three weekends, each will open separate runs as Mama Rose, the stage mother from hell in the musical “Gypsy,” in productions in Yonkers, Bedford and Nyack.
“Gypsy,” based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, has a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
It also has one of the most demanding roles in musical theater: Rose, a pushy, demanding, opportunistic, charming, bullying, haunted, never-say-die mother whose dreams of stardom for her daughters — first June, then Louise — mask her own unfulfilled dreams. She’s a mother and a monster.
The role has been essayed by giants of musical theater: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and, most recently, by Tony-winner Patti LuPone.
Karen Mason, of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia!” made a memorable Mama Rose at Westchester Broadway Theatre in 2007.
“Every great woman of the theater has played this role,” says Godfrey, who leads the Bedford Community Theater production, directed by Carin Zakes, opening Nov. 12.
“You have to be fearless,” she says. “To get out there and do this.”
That makes Godfrey fearless times three.
This is her third go-round with Rose, having played her in 1992 for Pleasantville Music Theater and in 1999 at Irvington Town Hall Theater.
She says returning to the role brings mixed emotions.
“At first, you’re sort of like ‘Oh, great! I get to do this part again!’ And then you’re like ‘Oh, my God. I?forgot what this part is.’ But there’s nothing like doing that 11 o’clock number, out there by yourself. It’s a great feeling.”
The 11 o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn,” marks the character’s unraveling, as her demons and real motivations emerge. Rose has a breakdown, down-stage center.
Marian McCabe — who plays Rose starting Nov. 19 at Nyack’s Elmwood Playhouse, directed by Cal Chiang — says “Rose’s Turn” is much more than a song.
“I’m thinking of it not so much as a musical number as a dramatic number,” she says. “If you think of it in terms of the dramatic arc of it and approach it that way, it’s a little less intimidating. It’s a story that you’re telling, not just music.”
McCabe likens “Rose’s Turn” to a long monologue she delivered in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” in which her character slowly loses her mind.
Donna Bellone — whose Actors Conservatory Theater production, directed by Arlene Wendt, opens Thursday — agrees.
“It’s less about singing than it is about telling everybody what she’s felt, up to this point.
“Everything she does in the play — for her daughters, for Herbie, for everyone else —?is really her drive,” Bellone says. “But at the end, she does it ‘for me.’ That what she says: ‘For me.’ I think letting that go is a great?release and a great way to end the play.
“Everyone waits for that number. Oh, here she comes. She’s going to do it now. And they judge you on that.”
Bellone says she can’t start the show thinking about “Rose’s Turn.”
“You have to stay in the moment,” she says. “You can’t think about what’s going to happen in the next scene. You have to think about what’s happening in that scene. So you ride the wave. You start and you keep going. And you don’t think about what went behind you.
“Like the Italian racecar driver: ‘What’s behind me of no concern.’ I’ve got to keep going. Otherwise, it’s not real to anybody.”
Godfrey loves the way the wave starts.
“You stand in the back of the house with a coat and a hat and a little dog in your purse. There’s a long overture — one of the best overtures ever written — and you’re standing back there waiting and waiting and you can see the entire audience. (You’re) waiting to make that famous entrance down the middle aisle. I just remember standing back there, listening to the overture, holding this little shaking dog. And you’re shaking, too.
“Then you say ‘Sing out, Louise!’ and you’re off.”
After you’re off, you’re rarely off stage, Bellone says.
“There are 11 scenes in Act 1 and she’s not in two of them; there are six scenes in Act 2 and she’s not in two of them,” Bellone says.
Some of Rose’s costume changes are faster than fast, Godfrey says.
“You change your coat, you’re back on. In a way it’s good because you don’t lose your energy and you don’t have time to think about what’s coming. You’re off and, scene change, you’re on.
It’s a huge role, but it can be a lonely one, the actresses say.
“There’s great responsibility,” Godfrey says. “The show lives or dies with Rose.”
“Did you have to say that?” Bellone deadpans, adding that she takes comfort in knowing that her interpretation will be just the latest in a long line of Roses.
“I think about that,” she says. “I mean, how bad could this be? Everybody else is doing, actresses of all different physical and vocal types are doing it. It can’t be that bad. I’m doing it.”
Godfrey has nothing but praise for the musical’s book.
“The wonderful thing about this show is that if you took the music out of it, Arthur Laurents’ words could stand on their own, just as a play, which is unusual. This has the best book of any musical ever.”
Coming back to Rose after 11 years brings a fresh perspective and an openness to new approaches, she says.
“I’ve become less worried about the audience liking me,” Godfrey says. “It’s OK if they don’t like her. This woman is horrible. What a horrible woman. Look at how she pushed her daughters. But on the other hand, if she hadn’t, would you have ever heard of Gypsy Rose Lee or June Havoc? No. They would have stayed in Seattle.”
It’s a fine line, McCabe says.
“She can’t be a harpy, I don’t think, because she’s had three husbands and Herbie loves her,” she says. “Louise will do anything for her, maybe just for approval.”
“I think she’s very charming,” Bellone says. “And I think sex appeal has to be one of her characteristics.”
“She would have made a great stripper in her day,” Godfrey adds. “That’s what (the stripper) Tessie Tura says when she sees her walking.”
McCabe says “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,”?the final song in Act 1, provides a glimpse into what made Rose Rose.
It comes after her daughter, June, has left to pursue her own life, leaving Rose with her other daughter, Louise, who would grow to be Gypsy Rose Lee.
“She says ‘When my own mother walked out on me, I cried for a week. Your father did it then the man I married after him did it. And this time I’m not crying.’ Hopefully, the audience starts to have a sense, in little moments like that, that there’s a reason she’s the way she is.
“I’m almost a little more nervous in that number (than ‘Rose’s Turn’). First of all, it’s so well-known from Ethel Merman, but also because if you’re not careful, it can get very one-note. It’s gotta build. You can’t start full-out full-bore ahead. Otherwise dramatically and vocally the song has nowhere to go.”
But sing it right and you’ve got nothing to hit but the heights.
‘Gypsy’ times 3
Community theaters from Nyack to Yonkers to Bedford are readying productions of “Gypsy” in the next few weeks. Here’s a rundown:
Actors Conservatory Theatre, Nov. 4 through 14. Directed by Arlene Wendt. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 2 p.m. Sundays. $20, $15 for seniors and students 18 and younger. 20 Buckingham Road, Yonkers. 914-391-6558. Go to the ACT website.
Bedford Community Theatre: Nov. 12 through 21. Directed by Carin Zakes. 7 p.m. Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Bedford Hills Community House, 74 Main St., Bedford Hills. $18. 914-244-0474. Go to the Bedford Community Theater website.
Elmwood Playhouse: Nov. 19 through Dec. 18, Cal Chiang directs and choreographs “Gypsy.” 8 p.m., Fridays, Saturdays and some Thursdays; 2 p.m., Sundays. $23, $21 for students and seniors. 10 Park St., Nyack. 845-353-1313. Go to the Elmwood Playhouse website.
Photo by Xavier Mascareñas/The Journal News: “Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!” — The actresses playing Mama Rose in three separate productions of “Gypsy” are, from left: Marian McCabe, Donna Bellone and Elise Godfrey. McCabe will perform with the Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack starting Nov. 19, Bellone with the Actors Conservatory Theater in Yonkers starting Nov. 4, and Godfrey at the Bedford Community Theater in Bedford starting Nov. 12.