While I was reading an advance copy of Carolyn Quinn’s MAMA ROSE’S TURN – an extraordinary biography of you-know-who -- I was reminded of chess.
No, not the musical CHESS but the game -- or, more specifically, one of its most famous terms.
For there’s a scene in GYPSY in which Rose experiences what a chess player encounters when he simply has nowhere left to move his king. It happens in the penultimate scene when Rose and Louise have their dramatic fight.
Louise, like so many grown children who’ve endured too-interested mothers, now wants to break free and live her own life. She isn’t totally ungrateful for Rose’s guidance; she even offers to fund a school that Rose can run. But all Rose wants to run is Louise’s life, and the new Miss Gypsy Rose Lee just won’t have it.
That sends Rose on a tirade. “All right, miss. But just one thing I want to know. All the working and pushing and finagling. All the scheming and scrimping and lying awake nights figuring how do we get from one town to the next? How do we all eat on a buck? How do I make an act out of nothing? What’d I do it for? You say I fought my whole life. I fought your whole life. So now tell me. What’d I do it for?”
And Louise simply says, “I thought you did it for me, Momma.”
Checkmate! What can Rose say? Parents are SUPPOSED to make sacrifices for their children; it’s in the job description. So what’s the big deal, Rose? You were just doing what you were supposed to do (although how you did it is up for debate).
In THE MUSIC MAN, Marian and Harold have a late Act Two scene in which she confronts him about the previous girlfriends that she’s sure he’s had. “One hears rumors of travelling salesmen,” she says flatly, assuming that she’s checkmated him. She probably still thinks he’s trying to sweet-talk his way out of the indictment when he says, “Now, Miss Marian, you mustn’t believe everything you hear. After all, one even hears rumors about librarians.”
Checkmate! What can Marian say? She knows she’s been picked apart more than a little by gossipy townsladies who swear she had an illicit relationship with the richest man in town. Marian knows that she didn’t -- so could it be that some of the bad press that Harold Hill has received has been as inaccurate as what’s been said against her?
In DAMN YANKEES, Mr. Applegate tells the siren who was once the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island, “There isn’t a home-wrecker on my staff better than you, Lola, but this fellow’s stubborn.” Lola’s not worried; once she takes on the guise of Señorita Lolita Rodriguez Hernando and insists that “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” this Joe from Hannibal, MO will be shoeless, shirtless, pantless and briefless in a brief period of time -- except that after Lola completes the number, Joe has a most surprising line: “But if it was you I promised to come home to, you’d want me to, wouldn’t you?”
Checkmate! Lola blinks in astonishment and says “Oh, I see” in her real, non-Spanish voice. She’s been startled into reality now that she knows who Joe Hardy is: the real thing, a man totally devoted to his wife. She knows she’ll never get him and indeed doesn’t.
In CURTAINS, Lt. Frank Cioffi, investigating the murder of Jessica Cranshaw, meets critic Darryl Grady and tells him that “your review of ROBBIN’ HOOD was needlessly cruel and way off the mark.” Grady smugly responds, “Well, I’m not sure you know how to judge acting, Lieutenant.”
Cioffi must concede, “Well, you’re the expert. However, I regret to inform you that I’m now placing you under arrest for the crime of murder.”
Rupert Holmes’ stage direction states “All react in shock.” Grady says, “What?! Have you lost your mind?! What in God’s name are you saying?” And Cioffi, a community theater star when he’s not doing police work, says, “I’m saying my best lines from Agatha Christie’s MURDER AT THE VICARAGE. I played Chief Inspector Slack for the Natick Town Players two summers ago,” before he adds in mock-surprise, “Oh, did you think I was saying that for real? Gosh, I’m not sure you know how to judge acting.”
Sometimes the checkmates are especially sad ones. In WEST SIDE STORY after Bernardo’s murder, Maria asks Anita to go to the drugstore and tell Tony she’ll meet him later. It’s a lot to ask, for Anita will be aiding the man who killed her love. Maria prevails, however, and Anita goes to the drugstore.
The Jets taunt, humiliate and virtually rape her. When she cries out “I want to help!” Anybodys sneers, “Bernardo’s girl wants to help!”
Checkmate! How can Anita convincingly recount the conversation she’d just had with Maria and make the Jets believe she doesn’t now have some secret and nefarious plan for revenge? She cannot, of course. The way that the Jets treat Anita makes her so frustrated, angry and humiliated that she spits out the line that will lead to greater tragedy.
In THE LITTLE MERMAID, after Ariel has fallen in love with a human being, she meets her Aunt Ursula, from whom the family has been estranged. “Father says you’re wicked and hateful,” says Ariel – to which Ursula blithely says, “Mmmmyes! But he says the same thing of humans, doesn’t he, snookums? And we both know that’s not true, don’t we?”
Checkmate! Ariel is convinced her father can’t be right about the handsome Eric, so she must at least entertain the possibility that her father isn’t right about everything. He may not be, but he certainly is about Ursula.
In A CHORUS LINE, not much time passes before we meet Gregory Gardner (ne Sidney Kenneth Beckenstein), who recalls that all through high school he had a constant erection. How well I remember the first time that I saw the show and heard hearty masculine laughter from men who all too well identified with the plight. Their laughter grew, in fact, when he told of his adolescent angst while making out with a girl.
Then Gardner told of losing interest in what he was doing and that “it was probably the first time I realized that I was homosexual.”
And while, yes, the hearty masculine laughter abruptly stopped, the men couldn’t totally turn against him. This time, the checkmate was on them. The guys had spent enough time with Gregory to enjoy him and had genuinely come to like him. Could even the worst homophobes now change their minds simply because they’d learned that the guy’s sexual preference was different from their own? They couldn’t go back on their feelings just because of one technicality, could they?
I won’t equate it with Stonewall, but I still maintain that this line did a great deal for straight-gay relations.
In TWO BY TWO, Noah’s three sons say that if they’re going to build an ark, they’d best have a rudder on it, too. Noah, however, feels such a device is unnecessary because God didn’t mention it when He gave His orders. This leads to a potent song “You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark,” which pits father vs. sons. Finally, Noah gives what he believes to be the perfect answer: “God has chosen us to survive. He promised! So why do we need a rudder?”
“I don’t know, poppa,” youngest son Japheth says in mock-innocence. “Why do we need a boat?”
Checkmate -- although Noah still doesn’t realize it. More than an act will have to pass before he agrees to have a rudder on the ark. He learns that “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” as the song goes in ARI -- a musical that was checkmated from its first day of rehearsal.
— Peter Filichia