Everything’s Coming Up Roses

Backstage at the Folies Bergère © Jacques Rouchon
Backstage at the Folies Bergère © Jacques Rouchon

“Gypsy” is one of the great Broadway musicals and has at its centre one of the most horrifying and heartbreaking characters in musical history. Rose Tovick is the prototypical ambitious stage mother, desperately trying to turn her daughters into stars of the vaudeville stage just as vaudeville itself is dying out.

Three women in costume, 1910 © akg-images / Voller Ernst
Let us entertain you…! Three women in costume, 1910 © akg-images / Voller Ernst

Rose’s more talented daughter June eventually escapes her mother, leaving behind the shy Louise who becomes the unwilling focus for Rose’s single-minded ambition. Rose’s troupe eventually finds itself booked to perform at a burlesque theatre; to make ends meet, Rose bullies Louise into performing a striptease on stage. Louise steps into the limelight with a new stage name, Gypsy Rose Lee, and becomes an unlikely queen of burlesque.

A sad-looking woman, circa 1924 © akg-images / Universal Images Group / Underwood Archives
A sad-looking woman, circa 1924 © akg-images / Universal Images Group / Underwood Archives

The character of Mama Rose was written initially for Ethel Merman, and the score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has subsequently attracted acting talents like Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Tyne Daly, all keen to appear in the play that Peters once described as “King Lear with music“.

A design by Hannelore Brüderlin for a dancer's costume, 1947  © akg-images / E. Mierendorff
A design by Hannelore Brüderlin for a dancer’s costume, 1947 © akg-images / E. Mierendorff

“Gypsy” is now back in London’s West End, with Imelda Staunton receiving ecstatic reviews as Rose Tovick. The musical is a fascinating glimpse backstage at vaudeville in decline. With that in mind, I chose some images from the archive which reminded me of the show, from the innocence of June and Louise’s kiddie act through to the glamour of Gypsy Rose Lee’s “ecdysiast” turn. You can view the full selection of images over on the akg-images website.

Marquee at the Carman Theater © akg-images / George Mann
Marquee at the Carman Theater © akg-images / George Mann

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