1983 WHS grad takes on role of ‘Mama Rose’ in Stoneham

Leigh Barrett is arguably the First Lady of the Boston musical stage.

The Wakefield native and 1983 Wakefield High School graduate has risen to the top of her profession performing in theaters all over the Boston area. She won the 2004 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actress for her performances in Sweeney Todd, Jacques Brel, Threepenny Opera and Follies. She won the 2003 INRE Award for Best Supporting Actress and won another Elliot Norton Award in 2007 for Souvenir and Ragtime.

And now, Barrett is preparing to take on the larger than life role of Mama Rose in Gypsy, which opens at Stoneham Theatre this week.

“When you think of female leads,” Barrett says, “she’s one of the ones you want to be able to cross off your list. It’s one of the roles that everyone would kill to play.”

Barrett figured she was still too young to play Mama Rose, but when the call came, she jumped at the chance.

“It was thrilling to get the call from [Stoneham Theatre Artistic Director] Weylin Symes,” Barrett recalls, “saying, ‘We’re going to do Gypsy and we’d love for you to play Mama Rose.’”
Barrett is well aware that people tend to have strong ideas about the character of Mama Rose. Barrett is also mindful of the ghosts of actresses who have played Mama Rose on Broadway and in film, like Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell and Tyne Daly.

Based on the memoirs of entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy tells the story of Rose, an overbearing stage mother who is determined to make her two girls, Louise (who later took the stage name Gypsy Rose Lee) and June, into stars. Set in the freewheeling days of vaudeville and burlesque, Gypsy explores ambition, jealousy, family relationships and the bittersweet loss of innocence.

“Mama Rose has come to represent the ‘stage mother,’” Barrett notes. But Barrett has a more sympathetic view of Mama Rose than some.

“She was a very determined woman for her time,” Barrett says. “She was a single mom trying to make a living. I believe that Mama had good intentions and didn’t realize what her personality did to people around her.”

Three virtuosos of the American theater wrote Gypsy. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, Jule Styne composed the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. When it opened on Broadway in 1959 with Ethel Merman in the lead role of Mama Rose, the show was an instant smash hit. Certainly one of the most memorable Broadway musicals, some critics have gone so far as to call Gypsy the best American musical of all time.

“It’s certainly one of the best,” Barrett says, noting that the songs and the book are “pretty equal” in terms of quality. Several of the songs from Gypsy, such as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Let Me Entertain You” have become huge hits in their own right.

“That’s what makes Gypsy a standout,” Barrett says. “All are great songs and can stand alone, which is unusual.”

While she has starred in a number of Sondheim musicals including Side by Side, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd and Passion, Barrett insists that it doesn’t reflect any conscious plan.

“It just sort of happened,” Barrett says, admitting that she loves Sondheim’s “darkness and sardonic bitterness.” She is also drawn to Sondheim’s clever and intelligent lyrics.

“I like to tell a story and communicate that through singing,” Barrett says. She also appreciates the fact that in Sondheim’s shows, the transitions from spoken dialog to song feel seamless and natural.

“It’s hard enough to make it believable that you’re going to bust into song every five minutes,” Barrett says. “Sondheim is an actors’ composer. He writes for the actor first and the music is second.

Barrett has worked in previous shows with several members of the creative team, including choreographer Kelli Edwards (The Wild Party, at New Rep) and Todd Gordon (Ragtime). Barrett points out that Gypsy marks her third show in a row with Gordon as music director.

“There’s a nice shorthand that develops,” Barrett says. “We understand how each other thinks. There’s also a nice collaboration, a nice give and take.”

Barrett is also glad to be back for her fourth show at Stoneham Theatre, having previously appeared John & Jen, You Never Know and Pal Joey. She notes that for Gypsy, the theater “is really pulling out all the stops. I’m really excited for them.

“Stoneham Theatre is a fantastic place to work,” Barrett says. “It’s a great space and a great theater environment.”

As a nice side benefit, Stoneham happens to be the town next door to Reading, her current home, and Wakefield, where she grew up.

Barrett isn’t the only Wakefield connection in the Stoneham production of Gypsy. Walton School fourth-grader Emily Sheeran, daughter of Chip and Elizabeth Sheeran and granddaughter of Selectman Betsy Sheeran appears in the show as Baby June.

As a mother of two boys, Barrett stresses that, despite the fact that Gypsy is about burlesque performers, it’s a family friendly show and parents shouldn’t be afraid to take their kids.

“I would take my kids to see it,” Barrett says.

Asked how her kids feel about having a mother who is a professional actress, Barrett laughs.

“It’s no big deal to them,” she says, although she adds that they will occasionally ask, “Are you famous? A lot of people know you.”

To accommodate the large cast and the on-stage live band, Stoneham Theater is using every inch of stage space and even some back stage area. Gypsy is shaping up to be a huge show in every sense of the word.

“It’s got something for everyone,” Barrett says with a laugh, “kids, pets and dancing girls.”

Gypsy runs September 13 – October 7, 2007 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham. For show times and tickets, go online at Stoneham Theatre or phone 781-279-2200.

[This story originally appeared in the September 13, 2007 Wakefield Daily Item]


  1. 1 Shirley Fuller

    Hi, happened to be one of the lucky ones to see Leigh Barrett in Gypsy. She is a great singer and actrees, playing the role of Mama Rose made you believe that she was her. Well at Stoneham a lady told us that she had seen Angela Lansbury playing Mama Rose and that Leigh was better. I can believe that. Hope to see her in more plays in our area in future.
    Thank you,

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