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Don’t mess with this Jewish mother: Barbra Streisand to play Mama Rose in ‘Gypsy’

by Danielle Berrin

January 6, 2011 | 3:43 pm

Barbra Streisand has confirmed she is deep in talks to play the mother-of-all-stagemothers, Mama Rose, in a new film adaptation of “Gypsy”.

Apparently, the 92-year-old Broadway legend Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book in the 1950s, is dissatisfied with previous portrayals.

He told The New York Times’ Patrick Healy: “I would be very pleased if we had a different film version for the historical record.”

“Gypsy” was first made into a film in 1962 starring Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, but her interpretation was a little too “soft” according to The New York Post, who broke the news about Babs.

Laurents would like to see a more “brutal” character cement the play’s legend. And at first, he wasn’t sure Streisand was up for it. But the stage and screen diva assured him she has what it takes, revealing that her own mother was a bit of a nightmare.

“Barbra and I have had long talks on this very subject,” Laurents told The Posts’ Michael Riedel. “She had a mother who she always thought was Mama Rose. I don’t want to get into the details, but the point is she knows. She’s got it in her. She’s going to be much more than people expect.”

For Babs, pleasing the nonagenarian was crucial in securing the role. Laurents shares control of the “Gypsy” rights with lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and the estates of composer Jule Styne and Jerome Robbins (born Jerome Rabinowitz), who directed the original Broadway version in 1959. (Robbins is also somewhat infamous for testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and was quick to reveal the names of industry colleagues suspected of Communist sympathies when the committee threatened to expose his homosexuality.)

“Gypsy” is based on the 1957 memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a striptease artist, whose mother would stop at nothing to see her daughter’s name in lights. According to The Post, the real Mama Rose went so far as to push a displeasing agent out of the window, killing him.

Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone have all inhabited the skin of Mama Rose but Streisand, along with Bette Midler, who played Mama Rose in the 1993 TV version are the only Jews to take on the part. (As far as I know and despite rumors to the contrary, Ethel Merman is not Jewish. According to The Telegraph: “Her fans, who call themselves “Mermaphiles”, persist in claiming that she was a) lesbian and b) Jewish, though there is no evidence for either. The Jewish claim probably comes from her birth name, Zimmermann, but her parents were Episcopalians, and she would write to newspapers demanding a correction if they ever said she was Jewish.”)

Streisand, who is one of the most talented entertainers alive, seems particularly well suited for the role, in that it requires a ferocity, power and obstinacy that living legends tend to inhabit. Of course The Times’ Patrick Healy, was quick to insinuate Streisand’s 69 years might be a disadvantage (because in Hollywood, even mothers are too old to play mothers) which Laurents rightly dismissed out of hand: “First of all, they can do magic in Hollywood. Second, does it really matter?”

I doubt that comment would prompt Babs to push an agent out the window; but I do think she’d wrap herself in some lush, glamorous fur and run out into the streets shouting: “DON’T RAIN ON MY PARADE!”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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