There are arguably few songs in the musical theatre cannon that elicit the same rapturous response as “Rose’s Turn”. If you’re reading this, you probably already know how it shakes down, but just in case— in the last song in the show, we have 'Rose' alone onstage after being rejected by the daughter whom she’d made a star. According to Sondheim, here’s how this mammoth moment came to be:
“Rose’s climactic breakdown was originally to be a surreal ballet, in which Rose would be confronted by all the people in her life (how Jerry [Robbins] intended to use Ethel Merman in a ballet is something we’ll never know, I’m sorry to say). One week into rehearsals, Jerry suddenly announced that he didn’t have time to choreograph the ballet; it would have to be a song.”
Jule Styne, the show’s composer, wasn’t available to work the re-write, so Sondheim met with Robbins alone. (According to Sondheim biographer Merle Secrest, Styne’s date that evening was with the actress playing Louise— Sandra Church. Despite a 32-year age difference, their affair lingered for several years. In 1961, syndicated gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen even falsely reported the couple’s plans to marry.)
Sondheim reflects on that evening with Jerome Robbins in his book “Finishing the Hat”:
"At that point, we were rehearsing in a small theater on the top floor of the New Amsterdam Theatre on Forty-Second Street. This theater had been the location of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, an informal extravaganza held every now and then after the Follies itself, involving many of the Follies performers strutting their stuff in front of an invited champagne-guzzling audience of society nobs and friends of the producer. By 1959, this theater was a shabby shell of its former self, but it had a ratty auditorium and a usable stage, and the atmosphere suited Gypsy well. I met Jerry around seven o’clock. The setting was excessively theatrical: everyone had gone home and there was no light in the auditorium except, on the stage, a ghost light. It was like every shimmering nighttime rehearsal scene I’d ever loved in the movies.
I suggested to Jerry that since he had wanted all the people in the story to collide in a ballet, perhaps if Rose’s breakdown were to be sung rather than danced it could comprise fragments of all the songs associated with her and the people in her life: the songs we’d heard all evening, colliding in an extended surreal medley consisting of fragments of the score. He asked me to improvise what I meant. I don’t like improvising in front of other people, but sitting at a piano in a deserted ghost-lit auditorium with a man I considered a genius was too glamorous to resist. As I pounded out variations on the burlesque music, Jerry clambered onto the stage and started to move back and forth across it like a stripper, but a clumsy one: like Rose doing a strip. That was the beginning of three exhilarating hours of musical and choreographic improvisation, as we shaped and constructed the number to be a summary of the score. [Including a number cut for time titled “Momma’s Talkin’ Soft.”])"
It was late in the day sometime during their third week of rehearsal when Styne and Sondheim delivered the finished package. All proceedings came to a halt as Styne sat down at the piano. Sondheim sang. Jack Klugman, who played ‘Herbie’ opposite Merman’s ‘Rose’, recalled that Sondheim performed the new number, “with such feeling and such awareness of what it was about that I just fell apart and bawled like a baby. It was so brilliant. I will never forget that moment. When Steve did ‘M-m-momma, M-m-momma,’ and couldn’t get it out, Ethel and I just burst into tears.”
In that original version of the song, Sondheim had convinced Styne to leave off the button (a “button” is the final chord at the end of a number that lets the audience know it’s okay to clap— sort of like the musical equivalent of, “TA-DA!”). He considered it gauche that a character having a mental breakdown would elicit praise from the audience. His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, disagreed quite vehemently. After seeing the show during its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia, Hammerstein told him, “You must give Ethel Merman an ending on ‘Rose’s Turn.’ The audience is so anxious to applaud her that they are not listening to the scene that follows. Since the scene that follows is what the entire play is about, if you want them to listen, you must let them release themselves… I know it’s dishonest, but please, fellows, put a big ending on that number if you want the rest of the play to play. Or bring the curtain down there.”
Needless to say, Hammerstein was right on the money. From that moment on, the number never failed to bring a hoot and holler.