“I’m a Pretty Squid, Mama”: The Ongoing Self-Referential Legacy of Gypsy

Michael Schwartz*

When Squidward Tentacles, the cranky squid co-worker of the ebullient Spongebob Squarepants, proclaims in the middle of the recent SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, “I’m a pretty squid, mama!” he is doing more than reeling off a quick meta-theatrical one-liner. The joke in the musicalized version of the popular cartoon character’s adventures echoes one of the key lines of musical theatre history. The homage to the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy confirms and caps a greater-than-60-year history of camp-building. What makes this particular musical a go-to reference point for musical and musical-related humor? Much of the credit goes to Gypsy’s original Mama Rose, Ethel Merman. Before “camp” became an established art form and goal in and of itself, Merman’s presence constituted what was simultaneously the ultimate Merman role and a subversive commentary on that kind of role. Gypsy provided songs, quotes and moments that ultimately became shorthand for musical irony and meta-musical humor. From pastiche musicals, to musicals about musicals, to modern romps targeted toward children and families, quoting from Gypsy remains the definitive “this is a musical” statement, most often met with knowing laughter and recognition from appreciative audiences. For Gypsy became a musical that not only questioned and problematized what made a musical a musical, but also it challenged what made a musical star a musical star. What Gypsy accomplished was singularly exhilarating in its perverseness—the show successfully told the story of a monstrous parent whose chief instrument of abuse was musical comedy.
Keywords: gay musical theatre, diva musical, camp, Gypsy, Susan Sontag

The moment is arbitrary and fleeting; the audience response is appreciative if not explosive laughter, based on a viewing of the Nickelodeon Channel’s presentation of the musical. It happens in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,[1] but it is not the titular optimistic sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea who delivers the line. Rather, the moment that opens this essay centers on SpongeBob’s cranky neighbor and co-worker, Squidward Tentacles, who, in the middle of a show-business centered fantasy, cries out, “I’m a pretty squid, mama!” The line is a slight variation on a famous line from the 1959 musical Gypsy, where the young woman who will become noted striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee says, “I’m a pretty girl, mama.” (Also, it helps to know that Squidward is indeed a squid.)

SpongeBob SquarePants has run successfully on the Nickelodeon network since 1999, and, as of this writing, still produces new episodes. Each episode usually centers on SpongeBob, a naïve and optimistic sea sponge who lives, somewhat improbably, in a pineapple in the undersea village of Bikini Bottom. SpongeBob’s friends and associates include his best friend Patrick Star (a starfish); the aforementioned squid Squidward; Mr. Krabs, a crab who owns and operates The Krusty Krab, the fast-food establishment where SpongeBob and Squidward work; Sandy, a squirrel interested in exploring the ocean; and many others. The musical was squarely targeted at audiences who grew up enjoying SpongeBob’s misadventures on TV, as well as to their children.

Gypsy, the source of the fleeting reference in the SpongeBob musical, is, by way of contrast, notable as the final Broadway vehicle crafted specifically for Ethel Merman, who played Rose, Gypsy’s mother. The musical, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, told the (fictionalized) story of the fraught relationship between Gypsy Rose Lee and “Mama Rose,” a mother driven by the desire to see her daughter succeed onstage. Avoiding general hyperbole while describing the impact of Gypsy is somewhat challenging; one might refer to New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich’s review of a 1989 revival to get a sense of the adulation in which this musical is often held: “‘Gypsy’ is nothing if not Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to ‘King Lear.’” Furthermore, particularly for the purposes of this essay, Gypsy represents the earliest example of what John Clum refers to in Something for the Boys as a “diva musical,” one of the musicals that featured strong and often domineering heroines that for Clum embodies “the pinnacle of gay musical theatre” (167).

A very young SpongeBob fan most likely would not pick up on the musical comedy reference, although a child might well find Squidward referring to himself as “pretty” to be amusing in and of itself. Audience members of a mature age, as well as younger musical comedy fans, on the other hand, would recognize the reference to Gypsy right away, and the fact that the reference lands in this particular family-oriented musical could lead down several potential rabbit holes regarding the intended audience, and, perhaps, even the intended sexual orientation of the morose and misanthropic squid.

The rabbit hole this essay will try to follow, however, hews more closely to a question of dramaturgy: why this Gypsy joke now? The answer begins, as it must, with the driving force of Mama Rose’s original embodiment, Ethel Merman. The line that connects Merman to Squidward is neither necessarily straight nor strictly logical, but it is a line that is pure Broadway musical theatre nonetheless. As it happens, the connecting line also encompasses aspects of camp and the gay musical experience.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical theatrical program. Photo: Wikipedia

Arguably, musicals referencing other musicals for the humor of immediate recognition are not unique. Comic recreations of the flag-waving climax of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables figured in productions of Crazy for You, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Shrek: The Musical, all based on the assumption that a large segment of its audience would be familiar with the iconic image connected to an immensely popular show. The connection achieved by referencing Gypsy in particular, however, is a unique testament to its over 60-year building of a camp following—that is, roughly speaking, a queer-friendly celebration of exaggeration and extravagance that finds roots in the life and career of Oscar Wilde, in Mae West’s double entendres, as well as in the clandestine pre-Stonewall drag culture.

Camp might best be summarized by Susan Sontag in her seminal work “Notes on ‘Camp,'”: that is, camp encompasses “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms. . . . Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater” (278). What Merman may have lacked in what might paternalistically be termed “sexual characteristics,” she more than compensated for in “personality mannerisms.” As Mama Rose, she fully embodied what made this character the ultimate “stage mother,” and to a large degree, what made Merman a quotation of herself: “Merman.”

Sontag’s historic, and perhaps dated, take on camp is admittedly fair game for criticism, as Andrew Britton points out in “For Interpretation: Notes Against Camp,” as he accuses Sontag of “adopting a summarisingly crude behaviouristic model” (139). Nevertheless, the crudeness of the summary effectively jibes with the ongoing celebration of Gypsy as an inspiration to young gay men. As Clum describes: “There was a lot a gay young man in 1959, used to reading his fantasies through women characters, could read into Gypsy. . . . Gypsy becomes a parable for all the gay men with powerful mothers” (170). If the young man with a powerful mother leans into a hoary gay stereotype, as Clum admits, the stereotype itself, for many gay men, was a source of pride, albeit a closeted source (169–70). To tease out what Gypsy meant and means to those who first encountered the musical and those who continue to celebrate and pay homage to it, even in the seemingly unlikely environment of a musicalization of a beloved cartoon character, we turn to how it all began.

Ethel Merman. Photo: Library of Congress, Walter Albertin, photographer

The seed begins in anecdote: Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins were working with Ethel Merman on “Rose’s Turn,” the pivotal, and indeed, key transitional number from the 1959 production of Gypsy. The number turns on Rose’s stammering upon the word “mama”—Sondheim and Laurents’ attempt to convey, in musical terms, Rose’s harsh confrontation with the less-than-coming-up-roses aspects of her life. In that moment, Rose was meant to face her daughter’s rejection, the waste of her own misguided and misdirected ambitions, and her abandonment by her own mother. Merman’s sole question for the writers concerned where the stuttering should come in: the upbeat or the downbeat? It is an anecdote that illustrates Merman’s non-intellectual approach to entertainment. Nevertheless, Merman’s history, presence and sheer “Merman-ness” was, in collaboration with Jule Styne and Sondheim’s appropriately old-school compositions, necessary to make this major transitional musical happen. For Gypsy became a musical that not only questioned and problematized what made a musical a musical, but also it challenged what made a musical star a musical star.

In this sense, Gypsy took major strides in pushing the musical toward irony and self-reflection, toward darker anti-heroes and toward resolutions in which not everything was quite all right. Certainly, Gypsy did not arrive first at either of those notable musical innovations—the Gershwins provided a meta-musical template by teasing musical conventions musically in the 1930s; Pal Joey gave audiences a heel for a hero; and Sondheim’s previous collaboration, West Side Story, ends in death for its 1950s street version of Romeo (while sparing the Juliet). What Gypsy accomplished was singularly exhilarating in its perverseness—the show simultaneously gave Merman a star vehicle and songs that added to her reputation and repertoire, while creating a character that used these star turns to inflict irreparable damage to those closest to her. Merman’s unique instrument and equally unique gifts as a performer become, in the world of the play, instruments of familial torture. The initial Broadway audience was sufficiently appreciative of these instruments to give the show’s creators, and Merman, a solid hit that ran just short of two years on Broadway and, a few years later, a major motion picture adaptation (notably, without Merman, but with Rosalind Russell instead). For the burgeoning and ongoing “camp” audience, however, the music of these instruments played an indelible melody.

How aware were audiences and critics that something different was happening before their eyes? The New York Times’ stalwart critic Brooks Atkinson is at least accurate when he observed:

When Mrs. Rose Hovick was forcing her two small daughters on vaudeville audiences all over the country in the Nineteen Twenties, she was apparently ruthless to a degree that was not funny. . . . In the musical comedy, this forbidding aspect of her personality is duly noted. But it is difficult to feel censorious about any character that Miss Merman absorbs into her unique blend of heartiness and drum-major singing

The Theatre: Merman in ‘Gypsy’

The disturbing (and transitional) musical paradox was there in plain view and hearing—one of American musical theatre’s most likable and consistent stars, doing what audiences loved her for to the best of her considerable abilities, placed in the role of a deeply flawed and largely unsympathetic figure. Atkinson’s rather detached (though positive) tone reflects a plausible audience response to the initial run of performances. Mama Rose is making seriously (not comically) disastrous choices for herself and her defenseless kids, until the kids grow up enough to rebel in their individual fashions, causing her to lose Baby June and nearly lose Louise (Gypsy) permanently. Nevertheless, Mama Rose is making those disastrous choices through the voice and manner of Merman, one of the most consistent and reliable of musical comedy performers. As D. A. Miller writes in Place for Us, Merman “was famous for her ruthlessness in making sure that nothing and nobody on stage would ever eclipse her as what . . . she inarguably remains to this day: Broadway’s greatest star” (72). In this unique case, though, those who get steamrolled by Merman’s unstoppable presence do not necessarily have it coming, and the razzle-dazzle exacts a high human price.

To further complicate how audiences might have responded, Atkinson’s above-quoted ruminations were not, in fact, from his initial review. The remarks that noted the “not funny” and “forbidding” aspects of Mama Rose’s personality were first published in the New York Times on 31 May 1959. Atkinson’s first response came some nine days previously in the review entitled “The Theater: ‘Gypsy,’ Good Show!” In this review, Atkinson leads with a reassuring summation of Merman’s musical-comedy star presence and apparently unimpeachable place in the national popular culture: “Since Ethel Merman is the head woman in ‘Gypsy’ . . . nothing can go wrong. She would not permit ‘Gypsy’ to be anything less than the most satisfying musical of the season.” In perhaps a more telling section of the review, Atkinson expresses some displeasure over the final confrontation between Louise (Gypsy) and Rose: “Things look ominous in the last ten minutes. But trust Ethel. She concludes the proceedings with a song and dance of defiance . . . Miss Merman’s performance expresses her whole character—cocky and aggressive, but also sociable and goodhearted. Not for the first time in her fabulous career, her personal magnetism electrifies the whole theatre” (“Gypsy: Good Show!”).

Atkinson’s first response is clear: trust Ethel; she is fabulous. The character she embodies may be “aggressive,” but also “sociable and goodhearted.” The somewhat darker, and one might argue, more accurate, descriptors such as “not funny” and “forbidding” only come later, after some reflection about who Merman’s celebrated mother-figure really is.

Gypsy, original cast album. Photo: Wikipedia

Merman, with her trademark clarion intensity and willingness to give her all in what she intuitively knew to be an exceptionally juicy part, arguably could not have provided those transitional elements if she had known what was going on at the same level as its creators did. Indeed, at least one of the show’s aforementioned “big” numbers became a signature out-of-context show-stopping number for Merman in her concert and guest star appearances—“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” which served Merman just as “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” (from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun) did throughout the rest of her life and career. The “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” moment in the context of the theatre is, in fact, quite horrifying: Rose making a cataclysmically bad decision to obtain stardom for her only remaining daughter instead of settling down with Herbie destroys three lives at once, and Rose scorches the earth around her the way she always has: through the power of an encouraging, pick-me-up, big number. When Merman sang the song out of context, an audience could easily trust Ethel, delivering another show-stopper in a style much loved and much imitated. Within the context of the show, however, the audience senses that no, they will not be swell, they will not be great, and they will be denied the whole world on a plate.

In terms of how the role of Mama Rose is performed, several major performers have taken on the role just as the world’s most ambitious (and sometimes best) actors take on Hamlet. One of the fortunate elements of focusing on this moment of musical theater history is that, unlike whatever speculation we might have regarding Richard Burbage and Hamlet, we have Merman’s Mama Rose handy. And while experts might have a favorite (non-Merman) Mama Rose—Patti LuPone, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, all have their passionate advocates—they cannot provide what Merman did. What these later performers did was valuable: they helped to reveal the facets of corrosive show-business and human commentary that audiences could not fully face with Merman in the lead. To reference the Atkinson review, they trusted Ethel too much for that. Singers who were also character actors did not have the Merman history that clouded who Mama Rose was. Nevertheless, Merman had to come first. The show, story and character of Mama Rose might improve or reveal different elements with each of the later performers, and one could make the case that most of them (or all of them) are and were better actors than Merman, but they might not recreate the transition that only a Merman could deliver—a resolutely old-fashioned performer giving an old-fashioned performance in a show that often slyly and caustically undercut the kind of entertainment that it seems to celebrate.

The old-fashioned performance, in this case, embodies something rather novel for the musical comedy stage. Jennifer Worth writes with regard to mothers on the musical stage: “. . . actual mothers are rare, and when they do exist, they typically fill the stage with their fascinating perversity” (“Who Let in One of Them Mothers?” 256). It is this “fascinating perversity” of Mama Rose (and Merman’s portrayal) that lends the character much of its enduring camp value, a value that persists all the way through to Squidward and probably well beyond. To further illustrate this camp value, David M. Halperin, in How to Be Gay, focuses squarely on the connection between the “angry mother” and camp humor in his chapter entitled “Mommie Queerest”:

The spectacle of the angry mother would function . . . as a way of reperforming and working through one of the greatest terrors, or potential terrors, of queer childhood. If one of the functions of camp humor is to return to a scene of trauma and to replay that trauma on a ludicrously amplified scale . . . then the camp appropriation of these dramas of mother-daughter conflict might be thought to confront the fear that haunts many a gay boyhood . . . the fear that the adored mother might express . . . her unconquerable aversion to her offspring, her disgust at having begotten and raised a deviant child.

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Worth further notes that Mama Rose represents a particular kind of gay fantasy: “Rather than wanting to possess her, they [gay males] wish to be her. . . . She is created and displayed in order to be worshipped and appropriated for his pleasure” (256). The combination of flamboyance, “old school” show business and the simultaneous critique and commentary on this kind of entertainment makes Gypsy a key transitional musical of Broadway’s Golden Age, and Mama Rose a key transitional figure. Worth’s observations amplify D. A. Miller’s summation of the power Gypsy had for many gay young men: “The distinctiveness, then, of the Broadway musical in post-war mass culture is not that it leads a woman to inhabit the socially given idea of her gender . . . but that it seduces a man to inhabit the same idea” (89). The importance and recognizability of this seduction made Gypsy a notable source of references, quotations, tributes and inside jokes that grew increasingly less inside as the years passed. The kidding would eventually find its way to actual “kids”—Gypsy jokes in musicals for the whole family.

The unique transitional moment that Gypsy encompasses gives a camp playfulness as well as edge to a Gypsy joke, especially a Gypsy joke in a show with something of a built-in children and family audience. Broadway audiences witnessed such a connection earlier in the twenty-first century with Shrek The Musical in the song “Story of My Life.”[2] This number is performed by the fairy tale outcasts exiled by the evil Lord Farquaad, as several of the notable fairy tale figures tell their titular sad tale that led them to Shrek’s swamp home. It is Mama Bear’s contribution to the song, with her lyric, “Mama’s in the mud/ Mama’s in distress,” that makes the explicit Gypsy connection to “Rose’s Turn.” The reference, both lyrically and musically, gives Shrek and its audience an opportunity to make a key connection between what might be called two overbearing mothers, an important component in Gypsy’s camp cultural capital. The line also emphasizes a deeper connection the creators of Shrek seek to make between the fairy tale characters and the greater gay community—a connection not as strongly hinted at in the movie version of Shrek. This connection between “fairy tale” and the once-common gay connotation of “fairies” is made more explicitly in the Act II song “Freak Flag,” which ends with the irrepressible Pinocchio yelling, “We’re wood, we’re good, get used to it!”—a clear variation of the gay pride chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”[3]

In the case of Shrek the Musical, we can see the creators’ attempts to forge a musical that could be enjoyed on one level by children and at another level by adults, and, toward that end, a fair amount of not-too-subtle allusions to adult sexual situations (including a complaint by Pinocchio of a nasty case of “Dutch Elm Disease” he caught once in Tijuana). Turning back now, however, to Squidward’s moment in SpongeBob, we repeat the question “why this Gypsy joke now?” Is the joke simply a throwaway line, one to bring a brief knowing chuckle to those who get it, and something that can be quickly forgotten by those who do not? Is the joke just plain unsuccessful and ill-considered—making a connection that might be somewhat appropriate in Shrek, but completely out of place in the world of Bikini Bottom?

The world of SpongeBob, and indeed his aforementioned home of “Bikini Bottom,” reveals a rather more adult level of social and historical humor than might be noticed by the casual observer. SpongeBob’s home, for example, references not only the potentially provocative bottom half of a bikini swimsuit, but also Bikini Atoll, the site of numerous nuclear tests of the 1940s and 1950s. The opening voice of the first episode, and recurring as narrator throughout the over-20-year run of the cartoon, is meant to evoke noted undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, a reference that would not only escape the children in the audience, but, at this point, probably many of their parents as well. (It is also the first voice the audience hears in the musical.) The plot of the musical details the potential destruction of Bikini Bottom at the hands of the show’s arch-villain Sheldon J. Plankton, and the book of the show takes occasional jabs at the integrity, or lack thereof, of the press as well as of elected officials—an evergreen complaint that, nevertheless, most likely registered with the Broadway audiences of 2017–2018 who saw the show.

To address the Gypsy joke more fully, one needs some familiarity with SpongeBob and its position in the gay community. This is a popular culture feature that encompasses questions about Squidward’s, and indeed SpongeBob’s, sexuality. For example, a CNN story of June 2020 featured the provocative headline: “SpongeBob Squarepants Gay? Nickelodeon Just Reinforced that Theory.” The story includes the apparently foregone conclusion that “Due in part to his close relationship with best friend Patrick Star, the internet had long ago decided that SpongeBob was indeed gay” (France). The article appeared as a result of the TV show’s affiliation with gay pride and Gay Pride Month. Nor was the CNN article an outlier. Similarly themed articles from the New York Post and MSN substantiated the topic of gayness and SpongeBob as trending, in modern parlance. The desire to see LGBTQ+ representation in popular culture, including cartoons, is a strong one, and the world of SpongeBob, for many people, apparently fulfilled this particular desire. In supportive tweets during the summer of 2020, three popular Nickelodeon Channel characters were presented with rainbow colors, including SpongeBob.[4] While late creator Stephen Hillenburg claimed to have never intentionally written sexuality as part of the show, the presence of the popular character as an ally is significant.

Squidward Q. Tentacles, from SpongeBob SquarePants (TV series). Photo: Wikipedia

The Gypsy joke in SpongeBob, therefore, might serve as more than a wink toward the gay-friendly appeal of the children’s show. If a viewer takes into account the cartoon Squidward as an anthropomorphic rendition of a cranky, bald and not quite “out” gay man, whose passions are usually kept at home, and compares him with the ebullient (and often annoying) “out” SpongeBob who leads popular movements with his rainbow-colored imagination (referenced literally in one of the cartoon’s most beloved episodes), the joke might function as something of a bridge between, and an embrace of, two distinct generational gay sensibilities.[5]

In the end, the world of SpongeBob as allied with the gay community may well be at the heart of the Gypsy joke. Irrespective of whether or not the audience is meant to identify Squidward as specifically gay, he presents, as do his musical creators, as allies. Squidward is someone who understands what it means to not win an overbearing mother’s approval. He is someone who evinces an appreciation of musical theatre as an art form. And, perhaps like many of us, he yearns for acknowledgement that he is, indeed, a pretty squid. For a brief moment, Squidward can make the claim out loud and with pride, something he could not do as effectively without the ruthless and rousing brass of Ethel Merman.

Sing out, Squidward.


Endnotes

[1] SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical opened 4 December 2017, and closed 16 September 2018. The director was Tina Landau, and the cast included Ethan Slater as SpongeBob and Gavin Lee as Squidward.

[2] Shrek the Musical opened on Broadway 14 December 2008, with music by Jennie Tesori; book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, under the direction of Jason Moore. The show ran just over a year, closing 3 January 2010.

[3] A chant attributed to the activist group Queer Nation in demonstrations dating from 1990.

[4] The other two characters were “Shwoz,” from the show Henry Danger, played by a transgender actor, and Avatar Korra, from The Legend of Korra,who presents as a gay woman.

[5] Squidward’s cartoon voice, provided by Rodger Bumpass and imitated to a large extent by Broadway’s Gavin Lee, has more than a hint of Paul Lynde in his delivery of snarky one-liners. Notably, the Broadway designers gave Gavin Lee a rather brilliant head of hair.


Bibliography

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Theater: ‘Gypsy,’ Good Show!The New York Times, 22 May 1959.

—. “The Theatre: Merman in ‘Gypsy.’The New York Times, 31 May 1959.

Britton, Andrew. “For Interpretation: Notes against Camp.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, edited by Fabio Cleto, U of Michigan P, 2002.

Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theatre and Gay Culture. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

France, Lisa Respers. “SpongeBob Squarepants Gay? Nickelodeon Just Reinforced that Theory.” CNN, 15 June 2020.

Halperin, David M. How to Be Gay. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.

Miller, D. A. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Harvard UP, 1998.

Rich, Frank. “‘Gypsy’ is Back on Broadway with a Vengeance.” The New York Times, 17 Nov. 1989.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’Against Interpretation. Dell Publishing, 1969.

Worth, Jennifer. “‘Who Let in One of Them Mothers?’: Maternal Perversity on the American Musical Stage.” Theatre History Studies, vol. 35, 2016, p. 255–267. ProjectMUSE, doi:10.1353/ths.2016.0013. 


*Michael Schwartz is an associate professor in the department of theatre, dance and performance at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches playwriting, theatre history and improvisation. Michael has written two books, both published by Palgrave Macmillan: Broadway and Corporate Capitalism: The Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class 1900-1920; and Class Divisions on the Broadway Stage: The Staging and Taming of the I.W.W. He also contributed chapters to Performing the Progressive Era: Immigration, Urban Life, and Nationalism on Stage (University of Iowa Press) and The Palgrave Handbook of Musical Theatre Producers (Palgrave Macmillan).

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