Spent the last week of December listening to Mame.
I always do, and not because of “We Need a Little Christmas,” fun though it is.
But the final week of December is when Mame Dennis is most accurate when she sings in her opening song (“It’s Today”) “And though it’s far from the first of the year.”
Well, it certainly is during the closing days of December.
When you think of it, though, bookwriters Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee had established that the show doesn’t start “far from the first of the year.” They had Young Patrick and Agnes Gooch arrive on November 30, only thirty-two days from January 1.
Jerry Herman would have been more accurate with “Although it’s not quite the end of the year.” Besides, Mame is singing about celebrating — and isn’t New Year’s Eve the biggest night of all celebrations?
The first musical Mame was of course Angela Lansbury, who in the 1965-66 season was able to do what no other performer had been able to accomplish in four tries: deny Gwen Verdon a Tony.
Verdon first won as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Can-Can (1953-54); after that, it was Best Leading Musical Actress all the way: for Damn Yankees (1955-56), New Girl in Town (1957-58) and Redhead (1958-59). Those last two made her the first and only performer to win two consecutive Tonys in that category.
The closest anyone had come to upending Verdon was Thelma Ritter. Yes: Ritter and her whiny voice once did a musical — Verdon’s New Girl in Town, in fact. The two tied in what would be the first of two Best Musical Actress Tony dead-heats; ten years later, Patricia Routledge (Darling of the Day) and Leslie Uggams (Hallelujah, Baby!) shared the honor and the stage on Tony night.
So with Verdon’s track record — and for her dynamic Charity Hope Valentine that she’d created four months before Mame opened — many were assuming that her quartet of Tonys would become a quintet. On the other hand, there had to be a contingency that felt that Verdon had corralled her share.
That reminds me of the day in 2000 when I asked Audra McDonald — who’d already won three Tonys and was nominated for a fourth — if she thought she’d once again emerge victorious. After giving me an are-you-kidding look, she said “I don’t think anybody thinks I need another Tony.” McDonald was obviously incorrect, for in the ensuing years she’s won three more.
Verdon and Lansbury each had seven songs, but their workload wasn’t even: Verdon danced in five; Lansbury only hoofed in “That’s How Young I Feel,” although she was of course involved in much musical staging. But the choreography that Verdon had to do, courtesy of husband-genius-taskmaster Bob Fosse, was far more difficult.
Helen Gallagher, who’d had a featured role in Sweet Charity (and got a Tony nomination out of it), spelled Verdon during the star’s July, 1966 vacation. In 1997, Gallagher told me that when Verdon returned, she said “You can have this role. It’s much too much work.”
However, Lansbury had no fewer than fifteen costume changes while
Verdon wore the same non-Chanel black dress all night long. So Verdon, unlike Lansbury, never once had to go off-stage where a dresser was waiting to quick-change her. Not that Lansbury should have won a Tony for that reason, but it does make Mame an even more demanding role than it would seem at first glance.
Also in contention that year were the two Harrises: Julie, who was game in making her musical debut in Skyscraper and Barbara, who was spectacular too in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. She “only” appeared in five songs, but had to play two different characters from two different countries in two different centuries. She would be rewarded with a Best Actress Tony the following year via The Apple Tree, where she upped her Clear Day responsibilities to three roles.
This was the first time that the Best Actress in a Musical category was filled with performers who’d either already won a Tony or would eventually win one. That wouldn’t happen again for another forty years, until Sutton Foster, Patti LuPone, Kelli O’Hara, Chita Rivera and LaChanze (the eventual winner) competed.
But here’s betting that the 1965-66 race was between Lansbury and Verdon and that Lansbury won partly because audiences were seeing her in a new light. She’d been on Broadway three times prior to Mame, starting on April 11, 1957 in Hotel Paradiso and ending precisely seven years later on April 11, 1964 in Anyone Can Whistle. In those – as well as in A Taste of Honey – she had played, shall-we-say, difficult women. (Let’s not use the terms that border on — or reach — the profane.)
That’s the type of role she always landed in Hollywood, too. Remember how demanding she was in Blue Hawaii as Elvis Presley’s mother (although she was fewer than ten years older than he)?
So Mame — in which Lansbury had to be charming, vivacious, optimistic and resilient (and indeed was) – represented a startling change of character for her. In contrast, Verdon’s Charity was once again the type of role for which she’d become famous: the woman who’d had plenty of experience with men. Aside from her virginal Essie in Redhead, her other roles were various levels of loose women.
As for me, this December marked an extra (and extra-special) Mame experience: Jerry Lanning, the original Grown Patrick, took me to lunch. He told me that he was originally cast in Little World, Hello – but the 1966 musical never got as far as rehearsals. His agent called to tell him the bad news but added that Mame was auditioning at The 46th Street Theatre. Lanning went and got Patrick.
One of his fondest memories is coming downstairs from his dressing room and watching Act One, Scene Four where Mame and Vera are just awakening from their hangovers. Recalls Lanning, “Vera walks, or tries to, down stage and we notice she can’t seem to take her eyes off of the rising sun. She waits and waits, looks and looks – a very long stage wait — and then says, very loudly, ‘My God!!! That moon’s bright!’ Bea always timed it just right, taking her sweet time.”
But I had a question for Lanning. I once saw a script for My Best Girl, as Mame was originally titled. It had a second-act notation “Here there will be a song for Patrick and his college friends called ‘Fred Astaire.’”
It was inspired by a passage in Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame. Patrick recalls what he and his college chums felt: “Our only god was Fred Astaire. He was everything we wanted to be: smooth, suave, debonair, dapper, intelligent, adult, witty and wise.”
When time came for the production number to be staged, Lanning instead could have sung Fred Astaire’s big song in Roberta: “I won’t dance! Don’t ask me!” Says the actor, “Because I couldn’t, Onna White, the choreographer, wanted to take it out of the show.”
And so it went!
But can you imagine a Jerry Herman song called “Fred Astaire”?
As it turned out, I didn’t have to — for Lanning sang a bit of it:
“Those tapping feet are all that I hear in my brain,
One thing alone (consumes) me, I’ve got to explain,
If time stood still, tomorrow, I just wouldn’t care,
As long as I could watch the guy called Fred Astaire. “
“And then,” says Lanning, “I was to start dancing like Fred Astaire. Impossible!”
Lanning has become one of the best vocal coaches in town, and I just might sign up to become his student. Oh, don’t misunderstand; I have no talent. (Why do you think I had to become a critic?) I just figure that if I hang around Lanning long enough, I’ll get to hear the rest of the song – and hopefully, not far from the first of the year.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.