By Peter Filichia —
October 16th marks the birthday of the star who’s achieved what no other person in the history of Broadway has.
Four consecutive Tony wins as Best Actress in a Musical.
This Tuesday is Angela Lansbury’s 87th birthday. That she was born in 1925 in a section of London called Poplar could be considered a bit of an omen; Poplar, after all, almost spells out what she’s been for decades: popular — with the populace and everyone else.
Hattie in Follies claims, “Hell, I’d even play the maid to be in a show,” which implies that the role of a domestic servant is the lowest of the low. Ah, but in 1944, Lansbury proved the old adage that all actors want to believe: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” For when Lansbury played the maid in the film of Gaslight, she got an Oscar nomination for it. And to think that it was her first-ever film role! She didn’t win the Academy Award, but if Hollywood gave out a Rookie of the Year award, she certainly would have won it.
The next year she was up for another Oscar for The Picture of Dorian Gray. So much for the sophomore jinx!
But not too many years had to pass before Hollywood started casting her as mothers – imperious and tough ones. She was Elvis Presley’s difficult mom in Blue Hawaii and Laurence Harvey’s genuinely evil one in The Manchurian Candidate (which resulted in her third Oscar nod). But these characters must have been sexually precocious, for Lansbury was fewer than eleven years older than Presley, and was Harvey’s senior by not even three years.
By then, she’d made it to Broadway as an unfaithful wife in Hotel Paradiso (1957). Three years later in A Taste of Honey, she was a mother who was a little more dangerous than her Presley mom but not as severe as her Harvey one.
Then in 1963, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents changed – and greatly improved — Lansbury’s life. Out of the blue, they sent her a letter asking if she’d like to play corrupt mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in their new musical Anyone Can Whistle. While Lansbury admits that she had misgivings about the show, she was also attracted to much of it. (Hey, don’t we all feel that way about Anyone Can Whistle?)
Lansbury certainly did her part to make it a success, from the first moments of “Me and My Town” to the final notes of “I’ve Got You to Lean On.” She proved to have a voice that would have never landed her a recording contract, but one that had style, sophistication and a native musicality.
She certainly got better reviews than the show, which opened and closed on successive Saturdays. Lansbury stayed loyal to it; in 1995, when a concert version was presented at Carnegie Hall, she agreed to narrate. Lansbury started the evening with two delightful lines: “Welcome to a town that’s so broke that only a miracle could save it,” she said, conveying the subtext that she was speaking about New York City, too. Then Lansbury added, “31 years ago, I myself was the mayoress of such a town — for a very short term.” She’s delicious in the way she says the lines; hearing the audience at the concert appreciate her is alone worth the price of the album.
Despite Anyone Can Whistle’s original nine-performance run, the show yielded an original cast album that showed that Angela Lansbury could carry a show. And did she ever when she got the title role in Mame.
She certainly wasn’t the first choice of composer-lyricist Jerry Herman or bookwriters Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. They wanted Rosalind Russell (“No, thank you.”), then Ethel Merman (“No, thank you.”), then Mary Martin (“No, thank you.”). In Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune, author Stephen Citron mentions thirty-seven other women who were considered before Lansbury was given the role.
Costume designer Robert Mackintosh had her make her entrance in a gold dress atop a staircase. Lansbury was glamorous — an adjective that had never before been used to describe her. But despite more than two dozen costumes, clothes didn’t make the woman or the character. Lansbury made Mame exuberant in “It’s Today,” determined in “Open a New Window,” indomitable in “We Need a Little Christmas,” youthful in “That’s How Young I Feel” and, yes, deliciously bitchy in “Bosom Buddies.”
However, when Mame had to show tenderness – such as appreciating nephew Patrick as “my best beau” – she was especially loving. Finally, when Mame reflected on and questioned the way that she had raised the lad, Lansbury delivered a most sincere “If He Walked into My Life.”
The result was her first Best Actress in a Musical Tony. Lansbury sent Gwen Verdon (as Sweet Charity) to her first-ever defeat. Only three years later, Lansbury would win again in another Lawrence-Lee-Herman musical: Dear World. In it, she followed playing Auntie Mame with an anti-Mame character. Indeed, while Mame embraced every facet of living, Countess Aurelia – The Madwoman of Chaillot – retreated from life into her own little world in a remote part of Paris.
Herman’s score is one of his best. The snazziness of Hello, Dolly! and Mame is found only in the title song. The rest of the time, it’s pretty much delicate music that has the right Gallic flavor. Lansbury is enchanting in “Each Tomorrow Morning,” a song so lovely that for a while the show was actually going to be produced with that as a title. Although she’s resolute on “I Don’t Want to Know,” she shows a lovely vulnerability in urging a young man in love to “Kiss Her Now” and to not lose an important person as she once did.
On Sept. 23, 1974 — almost twenty years to the day after her mother Moyna McGill had made her Broadway debut as Lady Brockhurst in The Boy Friend — Lansbury opened as Rose in Gypsy at the Winter Garden. (This followed a triumph in London, where she recorded a cast album.) Lansbury would become the first Rose to get a Tony for the part. Her approach and speech sounded a bit more low-class than Ethel Merman’s had been. But that choice made sense for the person that Rose Hovick was.
The fourth Tony came for her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. How well I remember her first entrance, when she rushed on ready to make some ill-tasting pies as we all applauded mightily. We clapped harder, however, after she did “The Worst Pies in London” – another of Stephen Sondheim’s lickety-split-lyric songs with odd musical punctuation. This may have been the toughest number Lansbury had ever had to perform on Broadway (yes, including “Rose’s Turn”), but she did it flawlessly. And wasn’t she wicked in “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea”? (As we native Bostonians say: “wicked good.”)
Now in a way, Lansbury didn’t win four consecutive times, for in between Gypsy and Sweeney Todd came her Anna in The King and I in 1978. But she was a replacement for Constance Towers, and replacements aren’t eligible for Tonys. If they were, Lansbury might well have gone five-for-five.
She might have even gone six-for-six. In 1971, she headed a musical called Prettybelle. Yes, Alexis Smith was magnificent in Follies and certainly deserved her Best Actress in a Musical Tony over her competition. But take it from someone who saw both her and Lansbury in Prettybelle (the latter four times): had the show come to New York and Lansbury had been eligible for her disgruntled and carnal Southern housewife, she would have bested Smith.
You’re still wondering why a star of Lansbury’s magnitude followed the far less-well-known and not-as-honored Constance Towers. Yul Brynner was going on vacation, so the producers thought they’d better have a star on hand to bring in the crowds. So instead of trying to find a worthy King, they decided to offer a splendid Anna. And they did.
Another Tony would come Lansbury’s way for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Blithe Spirit in 2009. Last season, she had to settle for a nomination for The Best Man. We’re lucky we saw her do it, for early on, she fell and hurt herself. That would be enough reason for an 86-year-old to miss performances if not bow out of the show. But leave it to Lansbury to not disappoint her fans and play it with a cane. In an era where performers call in sick for paper cuts, Angela Lansbury’s resilience made her worthy of yet another Tony as well as a Purple Heart.