Mean Girls Are People Too

A nice girl and star of "Gypsy," Amanda Flahive, talks playing dirty with Mama Rose.

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Willow Schneider & Amanda Flahive in “Gypsy” Photo by Flash of Glory Photography

First things first—as a person, I’ve been told I’m nice. I’ve been hearing it forever from directors, stage managers, producers, all sorts of people in the business—and I never really try to be anything other than me, so it would appear that I’m nice. I’ve learned that this is a valuable quality in the drama-filled, diva-heavy theatre business—that many people are NOT nice, and don’t know the value of being kind, polite and respectful to the people you work with so closely in the process of putting on a show. It just seems obvious to me…treating others well, like I’d want someone to treat me. Ever since I was an awkward farm kid growing up south of Chicago, my heart has been big, open, and located directly on my sleeve.

So I pride myself on being nice.  I hug a lot. I write thank-you notes regularly. I bring treats for opening night. I try to practice the fine art of being nice as much as possible, especially in the last few days before a show opens, when calamity and chaos lurks at every turn—and in the theatre classes I teach as part of Raue Center’s Sage Studio program, I stress the importance of niceness to my students. Nice people in this business are remembered for the right reasons.

And yet…some of the biggest roles I’ve been fortunate enough to play are mean girls.

Not just a little mean. VERY mean. Some in fact have called them “monsters.” In 2013, I played Mrs. Lovett in Williams Street Rep’s acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd, a woman who, among various wicked acts, assists her lover in murdering people and baking them into meat pies. And this Friday, I’ll be taking the Raue stage as “Momma” Rose in Gypsy—the story of a woman who many regard as the quintessential and worst stage mother in history, whose blind ambition drives away many of the people she loves, and leads her into pushing her daughter onstage to strip in a burlesque show, in the name of stardom by any means necessary.

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Rob Scharlow & Amanda Flahive in “Sweeney Todd” Photo: Robin Pendergrast

So in other words…two ladies who can be a little tough to relate to.

But for an actress, the fun part of the job is digging into these roles that are full to bursting with dramatic potential, and discovering what makes them tick—and WHY they are driven to such outlandish extremes. Both of these roles have long been on my “bucket list,” and though I never expected to get the chance to tackle them as early in my life as I have, I’m humbled and thrilled to have the chance to do this work.

I always felt people were somewhat forgiving of Lovett, in spite of the reprehensible nature of her behavior. Early on, at the callback for the show, Mark Mahallak—Sweeney’s brilliant director/choreographer and a longtime friend, who is also at the helm of Gypsy—told us his vision of the show revolving around obsession, and he asked me what I believed Lovett’s obsession was. I replied, “Herself.” Everything she does in the show revolves around her trying to better herself—from the man she chooses as her lover after years of pining for him, to the young boy she “adopts” as her own to make the perfect family, to those infamous pies that she has no qualms about selling by the dozens in spite of their secret ingredient. Everything is about making herself into her own idealized vision of herself. But because she is written to be so grand, funny, and larger than life, with song after song full of wit and vivacious energy, and even the occasional bit of heart—people love her. I sure loved playing her, and finding the humanity in this woman driven to violent extremes.

But with Rose, a role that many have called the King Lear of female-led musical theatre, much of what you hear about is how horrible she is. Yes, audiences love those big, brassy belt numbers that Ethel Merman made famous (and just about every other Broadway diva has taken on). But historians call her an ogre, a terror, a woman whose own frustrations drove her to fanatical, hysterical lengths to make her daughters famous. She barrels through many parts of the show like a battering ram, unafraid to go to any lengths for success.

As I prepared to take on this role—one of the most challenging I’ve ever been blessed enough to play—I was struck by a quote from one of my favorite Broadway personalities, the singular Patti LuPone, who played Rose in a 2008 revival, and said of her: “She has tunnel vision, she is driven, and she loves her kids. And she is a survivor. I do not see her as a monster at all—she may do monstrous things, but that does not make her a monster.”

Noted theatre critic Ben Brantley also said, “She’s a classic American success story—you do what you need to fulfill your objective. And her objective is to get her daughters famous, so she can experience it vicariously. So sure, if it involves stealing the silverware, or taking the blankets from hotels to make coats, that’s what you do.”

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Amanda Flahive as Mama Rose in “Gypsy” Photo: Flash of Glory Photography

Rose isn’t as overtly funny as Lovett (though she certainly has her moments). She is desperate and manipulative in her quest for the attention she never received. But I agree that she isn’t a monster. Her choices are not good, but she is layered and complex and fascinating. In “Rose’s Turn,” the show’s last big number and one of the greatest moments in American musical theatre, she confronts herself and what she’s done—and the realization that she’s driven away so many, only to be left alone. She is powerful, flawed, wholly imperfect—just like the rest of us. There is humanity in her, too. I have strived to make her more than just a loudmouth brute–I’ve tried to make her human.

In both cases, I was given spectacular, generous, and SUPER nice leading men to help me discover the many sides of these women—Rob Scharlow as the namesake “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and now Joe Lehman as the charming and long-suffering Herbie. I also have been fortunate to have some amazing onstage children—Dominic Rescigno as Lovett’s dear surrogate son Toby, and Willow Schneider and Shaina Summerville as Rose’s precious daughters Louise and June (with Delaney Wittlich and Mya Berg as adorable younger versions). I’ve also felt acting was a team sport, so to speak, and I love being part of an ensemble of actors who are working together to tell an incredible story—and in both cases I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the best. And of course, Mark, our musical director Mike Potts, and the entire production team help bring this world to life in astounding ways—and I am thankful beyond words for all they do.

With opening night for Gypsy just days away, I’ve been reflective of all these things and more—mostly asking myself if I’m doing justice to this story, since a good portion of it is true (if not a little embellished). And then I am thankful for the chance to tell the story in the first place—the story of a woman who got more than a little off-track, but whose story draws you in from the moment the play begins. You don’t have to like her all the time–I’m not sure you should—but I hope by the end you can feel something for her besides just disdain. I hope she makes you think. She may not be a nice girl, but she is REAL. And she is a very wild ride.