Today’s formative-album replay: Gypsy, original cast album. The first words that came to mind as I listened again to this, arguably the greatest of Broadway musicals, were “mania” and “warmth”--in fact, both words came early, during the first few bars of the overture, and recurred often as I revisited the alternately sharp, glinting edges and lush, pillowy corners of this towering but intimate score. Clearly, this unflinching portrait of a heedlessly grasping stage mom and the casualties of her relentless ambition wouldn’t work at all if the music didn’t fully convey both Momma Rose’s nervy, needy drive and the genuine if fleeting fellow feeling, even delight, she can arouse in others, if not herself.
This is all the more striking an achievement given how totally Momma dominates the score; she’s got what I think of as the score’s sturdy tentpoles--“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn”--as well as a series of songs in which she’s either cajoling or shoving others into line. And though both of her daughters and her would-be soulmate Herbie finally abandon her, none gets a big kiss-off farewell number; the daughters voice all their objections out of her earshot, either wistfully (“Little Lamb”) or teasingly (“If Momma Was Married”). Yes, younger daughter Rose has a kind of triumph in song during her penultimate strip number, but that’s more about her claiming her own place--bringing her mother’s dreams to bittersweet life, in fact--than it is an explicit break from Momma.
Of course, that’s exactly how Momma takes it, as the show inevitably veers back, again, to ask: What’s Momma gonna do now? As a nervous breakdown in song, the unhinged finale “Rose’s Turn”--which lyricist Stephen Sondheim can essentially call his own composition, as he and Jerry Robbins essentially hammered it together from composer Jule Styne's spare parts--has not been topped. Indeed, while Styne more than rose to the occasion, transcending mere tunefulness to delve into Momma’s madness--“Some People” and “Coming Up Roses” in particular are marvels of restless motivic construction and calculated dissonance--what was clearer than ever to me on this listen is how tough and smart the tyro Sondheim’s lyrics are. In “Some People,” for instance, he’s packed in more internal rhymes than should be strictly necessary while still keeping it all within Momma’s brash, ungenteel vernacular (Frank Loesser is the only other lyricist I can think of who ever managed a similar trick, with the title song of Guys and Dolls). And as always in Sondheim’s best work, it’s the incisive drama, not the clever rhymes, that rings out. He would certainly go further and range more widely with his own scores, but I don’t think he ever did better. Original Facebook post here.