Unlike most Broadway musical librettists, Arthur Laurents was an actual legitimate nonmusical playwright, and while three of his five musicals were flops (albeit admired ones), he created two of the genre’s greatest achievements with his books for West Side Story and this show. This book is still one of the harshest and grittiest in Broadway history all these years later, and the dialogue has a level of sophistication and nuance that would have worked in a straight play, and a great straight play at that.
That’s not to say that this is one of those shows like A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum or 1776, where the book winds up outshining the music. Jule Styne produced a number of fine and enjoyable Broadway scores, but only three real masterpieces—Funny Girl, his half of the Peter Pan score, and this, the best of the three. With shattering anthems like “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, beautifully touching ballads like “Small World” and the heartbreaking “Little Lamb”, and infectious dance numbers like “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” and the Astaire-smooth “All I Need Is the Girl”, the show contains one of the great collections of old-style showtunes ever composed. It also contains Broadway’s most successful examples of deliberately manufactured Floppo numbers in the hilariously awful sequences showing the act Rose is trying to promote, as it only gets more ridiculous with each new incarnation.
The showpiece of the score, of course, is the virtuosic eleven-o’clock medley-aria “Rose’s Turn”, justly famous as one of the greatest climactic numbers in musical theater. The score has a level of ambition that even the best of Styne’s other work doesn’t approach; Sondheim idolaters like to credit his presence on the project for its quality, but while he did a superb job on the lyrics (and basically created the “Rose’s Turn” sequence himself out of Styne’s melodies for the show), it would be another decade before Sondheim would write anything this good on his own, so I’m skeptical about taking that theory too far.
So the composition is flawless, but ultimately, the most significant thing about the show is that it contains musical theater’s most coveted star part. Momma Rose (no-one ever actually calls her that in the show, but musical-theater fans seem to instinctively refer to her that way) is like Hamlet or Lear or the other truly legendary roles of the dramatic stage, in that no one performance will ever achieve of all the possibilities it offers, and you don’t want ‘ideal’ casting so much as a new and fresh spin on the character with each new production.
Ethel Merman merely embodied the character naturally with her blasting intensity in both dialogue and song, whereas Angela Lansbury brought all her classical training to the part and delivered an ultra-sophisticated acting performance. Tyne Daly was patently not up to the role vocally, but her very vocal inadequacy, combined with superb acting, stripped the character’s songs to their essence, making them sound less like catchy showtunes and more like the nervous breakdowns they are, whereas Bette Midler poured on the charm and delivered the most winning and likable Rose to date. Bernadette Peters brought all of Rose’s emotional subtext to the surface in a stunningly vulnerable performance, whereas Patti LuPone went wildly over-the-top to emphasize Rose’s near-insane passion. None of these ladies was the perfect Rose, and no-one will ever be, because that’s not how these kinds of great dramatic parts work, and the possibilities offered by the role will surely carry us through many generations of new interpretations.