Gypsy’s pivotal character, Mama Rose is the ultimate stage mother, the needy, greedy woman who dumped her offspring onto the stage regardless of the consequences.
Mama Rose demanded attention, power, and glory. She is King Lear in a game of (fake) pearls.
From the innovative show, with the book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, premiered at the Broadway Theater in 1959, Mama Rose has proven to be both terrifying and fascinating.
The real Mama Rose, of course, toured the country with a vaudeville troupe starring her daughters, June (later to become famed actress June Havoc) and Louise, who became Gypsy Rose Lee.
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Mama Rose was a con artist, a con artist who stole silverware and blankets from hotels.
He had lesbian lovers. It was said that she had murdered lovers.
Now, Shona White is ready to step into the fast and loose shoes of the woman who created the template for the archetypal showbiz mother in the first Scottish production of Gypsy in 20 years.
“Well, we’re not telling the true story of Mama Rose,” says White, smiling.
“This is a musical fable based on the most infamous stage mother and her daughters and what happens to them along their journey.
“And we are before a woman who wanted the best for her daughters.”
She continues: “There has to be something endearing about her, or the audience will tune out.
“They have to like it too. We have to see that she is a lioness, that she is ahead of her time in the fight for female independence in a time when women couldn’t really live their dreams.
“And there’s a fragility there.”
Certainly, Mama Rose has a lot to feel fragile about.
Her mother abandoned her, as did her first husband and her second husband. After her, her daughter, June, for whom she has created an act, also leaves her when she runs away from her and runs away from her.
And so, he focuses on the second daughter, Louise. But Mama Rose is desperate now. And when we listen to Everything’s Coming Up Roses played, we know in our hearts that roses will die almost as soon as they bloom.
The morally corrupt Mama Rose can’t succeed. Her second daughter becomes a success but she rejects her mother. Rose’s lies, ambition and manipulation have made her toxic. Alone on stage, we see a nervous breakdown with music.
“It’s an incredible role,” says Shona White. “You just have to look at the actors who have played Mama Rose.” She is correct. The likes of Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, and most recently Imelda Staunton have jumped at the chance to create the wily, flirtatious, and often funny Rose Hovick.
Shona White grew up in Fife and from an early age dreamed of a life in musical theatre. She moved to London, studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and won the Ronald White Award for Acting Through Song.
His West End career has seen White appear on Chess, the Rocky Horror Show and Wicked.
But in addition to offering a fantastic voice, allied with an uncanny ability to communicate on stage, White’s commitment to the work is indisputable, highlighted by a tale of musical theater. “When she played Elphaba in Wicked, the end of the first act is highlighted by Elphaba’s appearance on stage as she climbs out of a trap door while she sings,” she recalls with a wry smile.
“However, the elevator got stuck. And there I was in the basement, and I wouldn’t go up. But I could hear the music grow and I knew I had to start my song.
“So as I ran from under the stage, they put a microphone on me and I started singing, which I continued as I ran up the flights of stairs, around the wings and onto the stage.”
She laughs: “I think it was the adrenaline that got me through that. but that’s him beauty live theatre. It doesn’t always go as planned.”
White, who will join Ben Stock to perform musical theater songs in The Greatest Musicals of All Time and the West End Musical Extravaganza at Pitlochry this summer, hopes her appearance as Mama Rose presents less traumatic moments.
“It’s going to be great. And it’s a fantastic musical. I think we all need a little cheer right now after a challenging few years, so I hope our version of this classic musical transport our audience to a place where they can escape for a few hours.”
She adds: “What I look forward to most about bringing him back to Scotland it is the fact that it has brought me back to Scotland.
“It’s wonderful to be performing so close to home when my career has taken me so far.”
Gypsy, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, May 19 – September 30