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At the end of Gypsy, Mama Rose hits bottom. Her daughters - June and the ugly duckling Louise - have abandoned her. As has her devoted agent, Herbie. She's alone on a stage and asks "Why did I do it?" Why, in other words, was she the stage mother from hell?

The theater's empty. But she imagines a packed house. She decides to show them what she's got with a vaudevillian show-stopper. She creates a medley of songs (from Gypsy): "Some People," "Everything's Comin' Up Roses," and "Mama's Talkin' Soft." As her soliloquy unfolds, she verges on a nervous breakdown.

Called "Rose's Turn" - which Linda Libby is nailing in Ion Theatre's current production of Gypsy - the song is also a farewell to vaudeville. It dies a slow death in the musical, giving way to burlesque.

"Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here's Rose!

Curtain up! Light the lights!

Play it, boys! Ya either got it, Or ya ain't. And boys, I GOT IT!"

In the shadows of an empty stage, she could be enacting the dream she never reached, or demonstrating her skills to the mother who abandoned her. Or just singing out for the hell of it. With increasing desperation, she shows what could have been: "Mama's talkin' loud. Mama's doin' fine. Mama's gettin' hot. Mama's goin' strong."

The song's an emotional avalanche. And people didn't do that in musicals in 1959!

"Rose's Turn" was so ground-breaking, when Ethel Merman sang it in previews, prior to Broadway, the creators (Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents) had a problem: Merman had hit one of the loudest grand slams in musical history. The audience roared, and Merman took a richly deserved bow.

But Mama Rose shouldn't. She's at least half mad - and teetering toward the other half. Merman can't suddenly break out of the story and acknowledge a live audience.

Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist, argued that taking a bow would be completely out of character. "To have a mad scene and then bow violated everything I thought I had learned from Oscar Hammerstein," Sondheim's mentor, "who said be true to the character and true to the situation."

Hammerstein came to a preview in Philadelphia. He said Merman needed to bow "because the audience is so anxious to applaud her that they are not listening to the scene that follows." And since the next scene is "what the entire play is about, if you want them to listen you must let them release themselves."

When Merman sang "Rose's Turn" in the original production, she took a bow and audiences went nuts.

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, revived the musical in 1974. He was still bothered by the intrusion of real life into the story's innermost moment. So he devised a brilliant compromise. At the end of the song, he had Mama Rose bow.

But when the applause ceased, she was still bowing. The fanfare was all in her mind - which she was losing.

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