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  • “Who Let in One of Them Mothers?”Maternal Perversity on the American Musical Stage
  • Jennifer Worth (bio)

The musical is often hailed as a place within the American theatre where women are given voice, both literally and metaphorically. D. A. Miller of Columbia University is quick to note that although both women and men have their places on the stage, “the female performer will always enjoy the advantage of also being thought to represent the stage, as its sign, its celebrant, its essence, and its glory.”1 It must be equally recognized, however, that in most cases, those celebrated voices are not really their own but rather the ventriloquisms of male creators, built around conventional, heteronormative romance and leaving a particularly narrow range of female representations: dewy ingénues, femmes fatales, comically sexual sidekicks, and feisty, but typically sexless, older women.

While these sorts of characters have historically been very frequently, if not well, represented in musicals, mothers, the subject of the present interrogation, are noticeable more for their absence. Where they do emerge, their relationship to their children is not a plot point, and they are often limited to brief appearances in order to give sage advice to the young lovers, or simply to figure as vague background figures of approval or censure. Typically, when a character is primarily defined by her status as a mother, she is given a marginal role and correspondingly little stage time. This is not to say that motherwork, which encompasses a variety of tasks including physical care and protection as well as what Steph Lawler in her book Mothering the Self refers to as the “emotional [End Page 255] management” of another, has no place on musical stages.2 But motherwork can be performed by anyone, for anyone. When granted more than an advisory role, female characters who perform motherwork become slightly more complex but often lose their role as mother and resurface as caretakers of other sorts, like the aunts of Oklahoma! and Mame or the doting governess-cum-stepmother found in The Sound of Music. In such cases, motherwork is welcome, even celebrated. But actual mothers are rare, and when they do exist, they typically fill the stage with their fascinating perversity.

The “Star Mother”

It seems that any discussion of the treatment of mothers in musicals must begin with Gypsy’s Momma Rose, even though their presence, however slight, goes back much further, at least to Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat in 1927.3 Miller himself uses Momma Rose as the model for his trope of what he calls the “Star Mother” in the third section of his long essay Place for Us. Miller reports that Gypsy was his first experience of musical theatre, which, as a boy, he saw in the company of (naturally) his mother. He makes clear that his enchantment was complex and polymorphous but was largely due to the performance of its charismatic star Ethel Merman as Momma Rose, whose story of endlessly deferred desire mirrored his own.4

The Star Mother is that Broadway creation combining aspects of culturally acceptable feminine power—that is, primarily glamour, beauty, and a great, balcony-reaching belt—in an overt display allowing gay male spectators to enjoy “the thrills of femininity become their own.”5 Rather than wanting to possess her, they wish to be her. While I have no objection to Miller’s contention that the musical offers a secret subtextual haven for gays, even as it masquerades as a celebration of heteronormative romance, I must ask: At whose expense?

There is no question that the Star Mother represents a kind of power, but she is still the object of (in this case gay) male fantasy, to be colonized, projected upon, desired, but denied her own subjectivity. She is created and displayed in order to be worshipped and appropriated for his pleasure. Moreover, Miller makes few distinctions in doling out his Star Mother label—for him, the Star Mother seems to be any adult female who takes center stage (Momma Rose, Mame, Charity, Dolly, Fanny, etc.), regardless of her relationship—biological or otherwise—to children. But as I’ve already mentioned, there are significant [End Page 256...


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