Broadway’s Musical Mothers

Broadway’s Musical Mothers

Just in time for Mother’s Day, we round up the great moms of musical theater, past and present.

When you go into a store to buy a Mother’s Day card, you see more than cards for mothers.
“To my Grandmother on Mother’s Day” . . . “To my Aunt on Mother’s Day” . . . “To my Stepmother on Mother’s Day” . . .

Yes, there are plenty of women in our lives who we’d like to thank on the second Sunday in May. And if there were Mother’s Day cards for such women in musicals, we’d all go broke buying for our favorites.

Right now on Broadway, we have a few musical theater mothers — although you only have until September 5 to see Donna, Sophie’s mother in Mamma Mia! Although Donna has kept her child’s paternity a secret — despite the kid desperately wanting to know just who her father is — there’s no question that Donna has been a devoted single mother. Since 2012, Judy McLane has let the audience experience Donna’s warmth and dedication. She’s worth at least a card, even an oversize one.

Then there’s Anna Leonowens in The King and I, as played by five-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara. Not only is Anna a caring single mother to her son, Louis, but she’ll soon become a honorary stepmother of sorts to a bevy of Siamese children. In fact, despite all the conflict she has with the King, her maternal instincts are what really keep her in Siam. She’d leave at a moment’s notice if it weren’t for “the children, the children; I’ll not forget the children.” Imagine how many cards and presents Anna would receive if only Siam would observe Mother’s Day.

We believe Fantine would have been an excellent single mother too, if indeed Victor Hugo and the creators of the musical Les Misérables hadn’t killed her off so early. How nice she returns in the final scene so she can see how well things have turned out for her daughter. Address all cards to Erika Henningsen, who now plays Fantine in the second long-run revival of the legendary hit.

Granted, in It Shoulda Been You, no one in the bride’s family is inclined to send the mother of the groom as much as a postcard. But to be fair, no one in the groom’s family will be rushing to the card store either. But every show needs conflict, doesn’t it, so Judy Steinberg (Tyne Daly) and Georgette Howard (Harriet Harris) are there to provide the slings and arrows of outrageous insults. And yet, we never have any doubt that what they most want in life is for their kids to be happy.

Speaking of Tyne Daly, in the 1989–1990 season she made a Tony-winning name for herself by playing the most famous mother in Broadway musical history: Rose Hovick of Gypsy. The character is often called Mama Rose, but let’s take this opportunity to point out that she’s never referred to by that name in the long two-and-a-half-hour show. Not once.

Some have called Madame Rose the mother from show business hell, given the pressures she put on her two daughters, June and Louise. Indeed, Rose’s “My way or the highway” attitude does cause June to find the nearest turnpike out of town. But Rose does want what she sincerely thinks is best for her girls, even if her modus operandi is subject to question.

And yet, for all of Rose’s demands, intransigence, and chicanery, the adult Louise had to admit that she did benefit from her mother pushing her into show business. If she hadn’t, to quote Rose in her dramatic eleven o’clock number: “Then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?”

So this May 10, let’s send Rose a card and even buy her a nice container of Chinese food. After all, she’s not the worst mom in musical theater: That distinction would have to go to the shogun’s mother in Pacific Overtures. When she realizes that her son is incapable of taking action against the foreign military men who’ve come to Japan, she takes her own action — and poisons him. No card for you, Ms. Shogun’s Mother!

A much more palatable mother is Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Granted, she discouraged her ample-sized daughter, Tracy, from trying to get into show business, but her motivation was to shield the girl from criticism and rejection. However, if anyone tries to disparage her darling, watch out. In truth, Edna and Tracy have one of the best mother-daughter relationships in musical theater history. As a result, Tracy should deliver an oversize card and present.

Also worrying that her “girl isn’t pretty like a Miss Atlantic City” is Rose Brice, mother of Fanny in Funny Girl. She too has her doubts that her ungainly daughter can succeed on stage, although she maintains (at least in the Broadway musical) that she “taught her everything she knows.” And while we could see that Rose questioned Fanny’s marrying a professional gambler, she doesn’t resort to “I told you so” when it all falls apart. Rose, like the best mothers, offers sympathy instead.

Kay Medford, the actress who originated Rose and repeated the role on film is the only performer to ever be nominated for both a Tony and an Oscar for playing a mother in a musical — well, unless you count Barbra Streisand in the same property. Fanny doesn’t start out as a mother, but she becomes one during the second act. But given that we don’t even get a glance at the baby, Fanny doesn’t quite count.

Bloody Mary in South Pacific may be seen as a glorified madam by some, for she’s willing to hand over her daughter Liat to a serviceman who will have his way with her. On closer examination, however, we can see this mother wants a better life for her child. She hopes that Lieutenant Cable will take her daughter to America and give her a much better, richer, and more fascinating life than she would ever have, even in the tropical paradise of Bali H’ai.

Golde in Fiddler on the Roof also wants what’s best for her daughters — which she determines is a softer and more affluent life than the one she’s endured for 25 years with the village milkman. So when wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf wants to make her daughter Tzeitel his wife, Golde is thrilled. Never mind that Lazar isn’t young or handsome, nor does he have anything in common with the girl; she’ll have steak every night. However, once Tzeitel marries Motel, the man of her dreams, Golde is supportive. Because she makes the leap, let’s give her a Mother’s Day card, present, and credit where credit is due.

We could also send a Mother’s Day card to the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, for she is indeed a most maternal figure to Maria Rainier. In aiming to solve a problem like Maria, she chooses to send the lass to become a governess at Captain von Trapp’s mansion. Maria protests and begs not to go, but Mother knows best, as Maria would eventually see. She wouldn’t have fame, fortune, and — certainly most important of all — love from a husband and seven children had she not left the convent.

The Sound of Music has made Maria von Trapp the most famous stepmother in Broadway musical history. But there are other worthies who deserve recognition on this Mother’s Day. And while the returns aren’t all in on Nellie Forbush of South Pacific — after all, we see her spend no more than five pleasant minutes meeting the kids she’ll be shepherding for the next 10 years or so — we have faith that Nellie will turn out to be a splendid stepmother. Optimism, be it cockeyed or grounded, is a nice asset for any mother to have.

The mother simply known as Mother in Ragtime becomes an honorary stepmother in one of the most courageous acts in all of musical theater — especially considering that the show takes place in 1906. When Mother finds a black baby in her backyard, she takes him in. After she discovers the babe’s mother, she gives her food, shelter, and clothing too. When Father returns home and doesn’t approve, she doesn’t let him stop her. As she later sings in the stirring aria, “We can never go back to before.”

As for grandmothers, there’s Abuela Claudia in In the Heights. She raised Usnavi when his parents could not. Now she holds a winning lottery ticket, and she is happier for him than she is for herself, because he has more of his life ahead of him than she does. That, sadly enough, turns out to be true. At least Usnavi really appreciated the lady when she was alive; here’s betting that he showed his gratitude with more than just a card every Mother’s Day.

There have been many nice aunts who have stood in for mothers in musicals: Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! and Auntie Em in The Wiz are two. The one who comes most to mind, however, is Auntie Mame Dennis. Her nephew Patrick is thrust upon her after his sole remaining parent has died, but Mame relishes the opportunity to open new windows for this boy and show him how to live life to the fullest.

True, they do come to an impasse as Patrick grows older, but isn’t that always the case? Happily, by show’s end, the older and wiser Mame turns out to have been correct on who was the right wife for Patrick. Now she’s ready to be a great aunt to Patrick’s son — although we could argue that she was a great aunt to begin with. To paraphrase one of her best songs: “We need a little Mother’s Day now,” for her and all the rest.

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