BetteBack: A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose

Article from:Albany Times Union (Albany, NY) Article date:December 12, 1993
Byline: LYNN ELBER – Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Three decades ago, Broadway star Ethel Merman claimed the musical “Gypsy” as her own. Now another divine Miss M, Bette Midler, is trying it on for size.

Midler stars as Mama Rose, mother of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, in a three-hour CBS TV movie (8 p.m. Sunday) of the 1959 stage hit that later became a film vehicle for Rosalind Russell in 1962.

“I’ve always wanted to play that part,” says Midler, who co-stars with Peter Riegert.

“In the American theater, there’s a couple of roles for women you grow into … a part that people dream of playing all their lives,” she says. “And this Rose was a dream of mine.”

The score — including such gems as “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” — also enticed her, Midler says. “I love those songs. One after another, every single one of them is a hit.”

Perched on a chair in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, Midler looks every bit as chic as her surroundings. A black pantsuit shows off her newly slender figure, and she wears a fanciful mop of blond curls.

“I AM thin,” says Midler, in surprised tones, surveying her image in a mirror after an onlooker’s comment.

Very unlike Mama Rose, who conveys heft and an unyielding obstinacy. She is the mother of all stage mothers, a larger-than-life, driven woman who ultimately pushes her daughter into the seamy world of burlesque.

(The play, created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne, had two major and acclaimed stage revivals: in 1971 with Angela Lansbury as Rose and in 1989 with Tyne Daly in the starring role.)

Craig Zadan — a friend of co-creator Sondheim, Neil Meron, Robert Halmi Sr. and Midler’s partner, Bonnie Bruckheimer, served as executive producers for the CBS project. Emile Ardolino, who died last month, directed Midler in a faithful adaptation of the musical.

But unlike Merman, who played it brassy and hard, Midler says she decided to bring a softer-edged approach to the character drawn from Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs.

“My idea for it originally was even darker than what we wound up doing,” Midler says. “The truth is, a person who lets her daughter strip … what kind of a person is that? She really does have a problem.”

But she felt Mama Rose, who endured childhood poverty and periods of abandonment by her own mother, deserved more subtle shadings.

“I think she’s tough when she has to be tough; she’s not sentimental,” Midler said. “But you have to have a little vulnerability — otherwise, it’s just a one-dimensional character.”

She also wanted to portray the gusto of a woman who won’t settle for a routine life, and who refuses to allow her children do so.

“The wonderful thing about the way the character is written is that she’s monstrous but she’s also very charming, has great wit, is a ball to be around,” Midler says. “She makes life exciting.”

But she’s no role model for Midler, who wouldn’t consider steering her6-year-old daughter, Sophie, into an early show business career.

“I don’t think it’s a healthy environment,” she says. “This is a business where people are extremely rough, and people can kill your spirit. I don’t approve of it.”

Childhood, she adds, is “such a short time.”

Midler looks forward to more time with Sophie and her husband, Martin Von Haselberg, as a flurry of projects come to an end. She completed the movie “Hocus Pocus” five days before starting “Gypsy.” During filming of the TV movie, she began planning her current concert tour.

It was “Gypsy’s” music that sparked the tour, which has drawn rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences (it wraps up in San Francisco in January).

“I got a brand-new voice from ‘Gypsy’,” Midler says. “I got notes I never had before (and) I said ‘I want to do this again. I want to sing live again.”‘

Now, she says, enough is enough.

“I’d like to just be with my child for a while,” she says. “I’ve done a lot in the last year and a half. It’s been a real treadmill — and it’s been very rewarding — but I’m ready to turn it off for a while.”

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