Betty Buckley Reveals Battle With Arthur Laurents--And So Do I!

Categories: Theater

In 1998, Betty Buckley played the immortal stage-mother role of Mama Rose in the Papermill Playhouse of Gypsy, with Debbie Gibson as the title character.

It was good (I saw it, naturally), with Buckley bringing her customary wells of emotion to the material.

And it was going to transfer to Toronto (and who knows, maybe other places after that), but for that to happen, the move had to be approved by composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents.

Well, the two titans came to a performance, which Buckley felt knocked it out of the park. It was a solid show and the star was confident they'd give it a thumbs up

And sure enough Sondheim was smiling afterward, but not Laurents, who was known to be one of the more persnickety queens who ever lived.

"Obviously you're a virtuoso," he told Buckley, "but you don't know how to play Rose."

Ouch. Boo. Hiss. And with that, all Buckley's dreams of the Orpheum circuit went kaput. No transfer.

On a whole other note, I once wrote that Laurents was chilly to me at an event when I approached him for a comment. But after I wrote about that supposed dis, Laurents left a nice message on my home machine, saying that he hadn't been dissing me at all.

And it gets better: After I wrote up the nice phone message, Stephen Sondheim faxed that column to Laurents and scrawled in the margin, "You certainly know the right people! Love, Steve."

Maybe they would have starred me in Gypsy in Toronto.

Below photograph by Brian Christopher Cummings on March 20, 2013. Library of Congress Arthur Laurents Collection, Box 109.


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I'm feeling nostalgia for print and fun with faxes! For years, I used to look forward to the new edition, the new column, because you were/are such a good read, because you know everyone, always have, and they you. I hope someone's archiving you because that's major social history?


I've checked out most of the "Madame Rose" performances on YouTube...Buckley, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Linda Lavin, Roz Russell, Patti LuPone...and only one, Angela Lansbury's, comes close (but still not enough) to matching the ferocity of Ethel Merman's original portrayal. What's more interesting is that you can only listen to Merman's interp because there is virtually no video footage of her performance. Still, she knocks it out of the ballpark compared to every single one of her successors.


I think it has more to do with the fact that he always dislikes a production that's not his. He hated Bernadette Peters and the Mendes production as well.

musto moderator editor 1 Like

Rather than nitpicking about what the character should be called, how about noting the fact that Sondheim thinks I'm special and sent Arthur my column? Applause, applause.


"It drove Arthur crazy when people said Mama Rose"

Oh, so that's what did it?


speaking of persnickety......Michael I adore you and our column, but every true musical theatre afficionado knows that the character or Rose is never referrred to in the show as Mama (or Momma) Rose.  The closest it comes is Madame Rose.  It drove Arthur crazy when people said Mama Rose, but I do agree with him.

It would be like calling Urinetown's  Little Sally "Young Sally".  Or Pippin's Leading Player "The Main Player".