Happy Eighty-Ninth, Angela Lansbury!
The first three words that Angela Lansbury ever sang in a Broadway musical would in time turn out to be thoroughly inaccurate.
“Everyone hates me.”
Of course, she wasn’t speaking about herself, but as Cora Hoover Hooper, a character in Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ Anyone Can Whistle. She was “unpopular with the populace” because she was an ineffective mayoress.
“Mayoress,” yes, not “mayor,” as we’d say today. But the year was 1964, and our consciousness hadn’t yet been raised.
In fact, the consciousness of theatergoers and critics couldn’t abide Anyone Can Whistle – not then, anyway; after nine performances, it was gone.
Time would treat it more kindly, thanks to an original cast album ordered by Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson. Sondheim’s songs delivered by Lansbury, Lee Remick and Harry Guardino kept the show alive. In the ensuing nine years, as Sondheim became a musical theater icon (some say god) with three consecutive best score Tony wins for Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, people began investigating Anyone Can Whistle – and began being impressed by it. That led to a second cast album, thanks to a 1995 Gay Men’s Health Crisis’s AIDS benefit concert.
Lansbury was there, too, not to perform, but to narrate the condensed book. Her first two lines were priceless: “Welcome to a town that’s so broke only a miracle can save it,” slyly referring to New York itself. “Thirty-one years ago, I myself was the mayoress of such a town – for a very short term.”
Ah, but what had happened to Lansbury in the interim? Starring roles in Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd – each of which won her Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. Not just nominated for all four, but winning all four. To turn that Anyone Can Whistle lyric on its ear, “Everyone loved her.”
And take it from someone who went four times to a Lansbury-starring musical that had closed in Boston in 1971: Prettybelle provided her with a role that would have won her yet another Best Actress in a Musical Tony – and, yes, I know it was the same season in which Alexis Smith won for Follies.
Smith was astounding.
I repeat: Lansbury would have won.
The star was recently in town as National Chairperson for “The Career Transition for Dancers’ 29th Anniversary Jubilee,” the Rolex-sponsored event which helps dancers facing retirement to forge new careers. I got a chance to chat with her on the phone and had her reminisce about her Tony-winning musical achievements.
Her statement about Anyone Can Whistle — “At the time, doing a musical was dithering around in my head” — may surprise some, for Lansbury had made her name in dramas. She’d been the maid who didn’t fear her mistress in Gaslight, her first film – which got her an Oscar-nomination, mind you, and which set the tone for many years to come in casting her as the tough cookie. Around the time Sondheim and Laurents began thinking of her for their new musical, Lansbury was Elvis Presley’s mother-from-hell in Blue Hawaii and a mother from all nine circles of Dante Allegheri’s hell in The Manchurian Candidate.
“But I’d done MGM musicals,” she reminded me: “The Harvey Girls and Till the Clouds Roll By. When Stephen and Arthur sent me a letter saying that they wanted me, I never questioned how they thought of me for the part. Although it was a bolt out of the blue, it was terribly exciting. It came at the right time, for the studios were throwing me into any old movie.”
Well, I wouldn’t quite say that. Only sixteen days before Whistle opened, Lansbury was seen in the charming The World of Henry Orient, which itself would become a musical in three years’ time. Once again, however, she played an insensitive mother. So would she really be right for a woman who had to play warm and motherly, although her character was officially an aunt?
“I had to strenuously audition for Mame,” she said. “Three auditions, and each time I had to travel from Los Angeles to New York to do one. Each time it was for a different director they were considering. Thank God they finally decided on Gene Saks, who had been an actor himself, and wanted a woman who could act.”
Lansbury, of course, could; in case anyone had forgotten that she’d received her second Oscar nomination for The Picture of Dorian Gray – after all, that had been nineteen years earlier – they might have remembered her third for The Manchurian Candidate that she’d received only three years earlier.
Ah, but what about her voice? “Jerry Herman was all for me and coached me,” she said, “Not only that, he agreed to accompany me so that I’d feel more confident. No one knew he was doing it because he went under the stage and into the pit to play for me.”
Herman obviously was a big Lansbury fan before AND after Mame, for her certainly wrote with her in mind as The Madwoman of Chaillot for Dear World. Of course she had to age herself considerably and look as if the ravages of time had been particularly ravaging. “I did my own make-up, as I’ve always done,” she said. “I loved playing this fascinating old bird. And playing ‘no kid’ meant I didn’t have to throw my legs around all night as I did as Mame.”
Gypsy, Lansbury said, was probably the toughest role of all the stage characters she’s tackled. “You have to be more than a singer for that one,” she sniffed. Lansbury also admitted to having less trepidation performing it in London, where the production had originated in 1973, than on Broadway a year later. “After all,” she said, “London hadn’t seen Ethel Merman do it, but Broadway had — and this was the first time it would be revived there, although certainly not the last.”
Sweeney Todd: “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it, considering that the title suggested it was the man’s show,” she admitted. “I was thinking ‘Sweeney Todd and Who Else?’ Then Steve played ‘The Worst Pies in London’ for me at his Turtle Bay home. What was funny is that he’d be playing the piano and then suddenly he’d take one hand off the keyboard to show me all the hand movements I’d have to do. I thought it was so funny that I had to say yes even if they didn’t change the title for me.”
On October 16, Lansbury will turn eighty-nine. “I can’t dance anymore,” she admitted before brightening with, “but I can move across the stage and hope to do yet another musical.”
“Old stars like me have an audience,” she said, not worried if she sounded immodest, for she’s simply aware that she has the credentials to back up that statement. “We can bring them into the theater.”
And we can bring Angela Lansbury into our homes with some stirring recorded performances. If you’re still into CDs and don’t cotton to switching from one disc to another, Masterworks Broadway has made it easy for you. Angela Lansbury: Legends of Broadway offers sixteen selections from the above-named shows.
But it doesn’t start with the Anyone Can Whistle song that proclaims “Everyone hates me.” Instead, we have “A Parade in Town” – a song, in fact, that Lansbury herself inspired. As Sondheim himself has stated in his Finishing the Hat, she flatly told him “Lee Remick has five songs and I have four.” That sent the composer-lyricist to work – and resulted in another wonderful song. It’s just another thing for which we must be thankful to Angela Lansbury.