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Paul Katz

Paul Katz

Posted: February 10, 2011 05:46 PM

Barbra Streisand has confirmed her intention to tackle the role of Madame ("Mama") Rose in a second silver-screen adaptation of the venerable musical Gypsy, according to an interview in the Los Angeles Times.

Although no deal is signed, I'm glad this rumor appears to be panning out instead of the years-long and unshakable one that Streisand would star in a musical remake of Sunset Boulevard. Debate in the Streisand fan community was heated over that idea. Some were emphatic that Streisand as Norma Desmond was a perfect match; others not so much. I fell into the latter category.

A similar, albeit much less heated, reaction seems to have turned up over Streisand as Mama Rose, which is considered the single greatest musical role for an actress in history. Yet, "some people" doubt that one of the single greatest and most revered musical actresses of the last 50 years can effectively pull off the part! Something is off.

Truth be told, I have skepticism, even as a long supportive Streisand fan. To play Rose, Streisand will have to muster a level of energy as an actress -- and singer, frankly -- that she has not displayed in years.

After her starring role in 1996's The Mirror Has Two Faces, it appeared that Streisand's desire to act evaporated. The self-described "actress who sings" fell in love, got married and justifiably shifted focus towards fulfillment in her personal life. No one could blame her.

However, those years away from acting and Streisand's recent comments about the drudgery she finds as an actress on film sets lead me to question if "Streisand the actress" has enough fire in her belly to pull off Madame Rose (she is never actually called "Mama Rose" in the show).

On top of that, the Gypsy score requires Streisand to employ a "belting" form of singing she has rarely entertained of late without a degree of strain.

If Streisand becomes aware of skepticism along these lines, it might be just what is needed to egg her on to great heights.

A major theme throughout Streisand's career until the mid-1990s was that of "I'll show you, world!" Proving naysayers wrong has served her quite well and always galvanized and inspired her fan base. Whether it's songs like "Don't Rain On My Parade" and the more obscure "I Can Do It," or becoming the first major female star to direct a successful Hollywood movie, Streisand the triumphant underdog always played, and played well!

While there may have been a bomb movie here or there, Streisand has never had to "come back" from anything. She has maintained a career with consistently spectacular highs and barely any lows, which is extraordinary and unparalleled in entertainment history. The more Streisand succeeded, the more inevitable it became that eventually she'd have little, if anything, left to prove as an artist.

Given that, I feel Streisand needs to rediscover some of that "I'll show you!" gumption in order to do Gypsy. One aspect that Gypsy writer Arthur Laurents revealed about his conversations with Streisand about the project gives me hope that gumption might be there.

Streisand apparently told Laurents she felt her own mother was a Mama Rose. Through my knowledge of Streisand's history, I am aware her mother Diana did not push her into show business like Mama Rose pushes her girls. Quite the contrary; Diana wanted her daughter to be a typist or work in the school system.

Yet, Streisand has always said that Diana had a great singing voice in her own right. In his comments to the New York Post, Laurents vaguely implied that Streisand is conscious her mother may have harbored some jealousies over, or lived vicariously through, her daughter's success. That is key to the character of Mama Rose, and gives Streisand license to pull from a deep pool of memories that would likely make for a much richer and more complex Rose than we've seen on film before.

To make it even more interesting, Streisand has generally played characters who need some reassurance of their worth, or have a "pretty" complex. With Mama Rose, Streisand would finally be on the opposite side of the fence. Now she would play a woman whose children want reassurance from her, particularly Louise, who has the "pretty" complex and becomes stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. That will be a welcome switch!

It has also been questioned whether another film version of Gypsy is warranted.

The 1962 version with Rosalind Russell is relatively beloved, but it's generally agreed Russell was not Ethel Merman (who originated the role onstage), and the screenplay unnecessarily altered enough of Laurents' original book to prevent it from being definitive or a classic.

The 1993 TV-Movie version with Bette Midler altered very little of the original show and was highly praised on airing. Over the years though, it's been subject to much maligning from the show's creators and musical theater aficionados, with Midler bearing the brunt of the criticism.

Speaking of Midler's version, in the LA Times article, Streisand mentioned that directing the film as well as starring might be a bit too much. I trust she will follow that instinct and simply act the role.

I have always felt that one of the reasons Midler's Mama Rose did not hold up well is because the director, Emile Ardolino, was incredibly ill during the time of filming. Set reports indicated Ardolino was not physically well enough to truly direct Midler and rein her in from some of her then-standard acting quirks like bugging her eyes.

Midler may have been left to largely direct herself as a result, and while Streisand's circumstances would be radically different, I feel the role of Mama Rose necessitates a strong director's eye other than that of the actress playing her.

Regardless of how it all shakes down, there is a grand opportunity here for Barbra Streisand to put the definitive film stamp on Mama Rose and Gypsy. It's hers for the taking if she decides she is up to the challenge and signs the dotted line.

Sing out, Barbra! "Show us your talent [again]. That's it!"