By Peter Filichia
Where’s that star with the bugle?
In heaven, if there is such a place.
This week, Angela Lansbury would have reached 97. The only way we can now wish her a happy birthday is posthumously.
For the last-named, there’s that extra-special bonus of the video made in 1982. By then, Len Cariou had left. We’re lucky that Angela Lansbury hadn’t.
All Broadway was surprised in 1963 when she was announced as one of the leads in the upcoming musical ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. Could she sing? Wasn’t she dubbed when she appeared in the 1946 film THE HARVEY GIRLS?
In fact, yes.
More to the point, by 1963, Lansbury was regarded as more of a film actress, where she’d made her mark playing difficult women. Not long before she was courted for WHISTLE, she’d been a difficult self-centered mother in BLUE HAWAII, followed by a more difficult and more self-centered mother in ALL FALL DOWN. Those were only warm-ups for her monster self-centered mother who had betrayed her son en route to becoming a genuine government traitor in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.
That one got her a third Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, a string that began with her playing what may have been the most supercilious maid in cinema history in GASLIGHT.
Those who’d read early scripts of WHISTLE could see why bookwriter-director Arthur Laurents and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted her for Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper. This woman had the temperament of a witch (with a capital B).
And Lansbury did have Broadway experience, including the play A TASTE OF HONEY where she portrayed … yes, a difficult and self-centered mother.
But could she sing?
Let’s jump ahead some decades and bring Gwen Verdon and Audra McDonald into the equation. They would win four Tonys for appearing in musicals, as Lansbury did (although hers were solely in the Best Actress category).
Notice, though, that they recorded solo albums.
Lansbury never did.
So, could she sing?
Once she took the stage in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, relatively few people would be able to give opinions, for the musical didn’t play very long (and hardly to full houses) in either the Philadelphia tryout or the run at the Majestic. Luckily, cast album guru Goddard Lieberson recorded the score. That it included “The Miracle Song” was an apt metaphor, for recording a nine-performance flop was indeed a miracle in itself, and an unprecedented one.
So, in the ensuing 58 years, we learned that Angela Lansbury could sing. True, it was a musical theater’s character voice that would never be confused with Barbra or Barbara. But her raspiness served her self-centered, non-mother career politician who thought only of “Me and My Town” (in that order).
There’d be no Best Actress in a Musical nomination for WHISTLE, and Lansbury may well have thought she’d never appear in another Broadway musical. Would she have ever believed that there would be a second recording of WHISTLE, thanks to a 1995 Carnegie Hall concert? Lansbury herself introduced it by first mentioning New York City’s ills and following it with, “I myself was the mayoress of such a town – for a very short term.”
Luckily, she was long-term on Broadway, with a jump-start from the next musical.
He had to lobby hard at pre-production meetings to convince his producers and director that she’d be terrific. All were wary, so to give Lansbury an edge, Herman taught her the music in advance. Just as she was about to audition for the brass, Herman snuck into the orchestra pit to accompany her, so she’d feel more comfortable.
As you know, Lansbury got the job, and we had another reason to love Jerry Herman.
Lansbury showed joy in “It’s Today,” staunch belief when advising Young Patrick (and us) to “Open a New Window,” and indomitability in the face of adversity when insisting that “We Need a Little Christmas.” As longtime Broadway observer Rick Thompson recently noted, who’d expect that Lansbury would introduce a Christmas classic to the world?
But could she handle a big ballad? Jerry Herman said time and again that “my first classy song was ‘If He Walked into My Life.’”
She sure could.
Gwen Verdon in four previous trips to the Tonys had never lost, and here she was, equally brilliant in SWEET CHARITY, facing Lansbury for the 1965-66 Best Actress in a Musical Tony. It would be Verdon’s first loss.
It would also be the last time that Lansbury would be required to audition for musicals. For any part she seemed suited, she was everyone’s first choice.
And her first choice after MAME would reunite her with Herman as well as bookwriters Lawrence and Lee and musical director Donald Pippin.
DEAR WORLD, the musical version of THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT, didn’t succeed, but Lansbury sure did. She endured a tumultuous tryout where two directors gave way to a third. In a time when a show that had played out of town would give one to maybe five previews before debuting on Broadway, DEAR WORLD gave 58 previews before it dared to open.
When it did, all were impressed by Lansbury’s so-called mad-but-not- so Madwoman Countess Aurelia. She elegantly delivered Herman’s “Each Tomorrow Morning,” fervent “I Don’t Want to Know” and plaintive “Kiss Her Now.” Only the sets and Lansbury were Tony-nominated, and only Lansbury won.
Aside from WHISTLE and a 1978 three-week replacement as Anna in THE KING AND I (where she was wondrous), Lansbury’s shortest musical theater run was PRETTYBELLE, the 1971 Jule Styne-Bob Merrill-Gower Champion musical that, despite those four super-powerful names, closed in Boston.
Prettybelle was the wife of a Southern sheriff who intently profiled blacks and Latinos. She was unaware of his bigotry until the truth came out after his death. Prettybelle was deeply appalled, so to atone for his sins – here’s where the story gets weird – she began sleeping with every black and Latino she could find and wound up in a mental institution.
Such a show would have been tough for Broadway, but even more so for conservative Boston, which had previously embraced Lansbury in MAME and DEAR WORLD. I attended the final performance and will never forget her in the show’s final moments. From my previous two trips, I knew Lansbury would end the show by singing the word “Prettybelle” three times. But on that fateful March 6th night, she sang “Prettybelle” twice and then slowly lifted her right arm in the air and let it fall to her side to show her sadness that this was the end.
Lansbury obviously believed in the show, and here’s what I believe: Lansbury would have won yet another Best Actress in a Musical Tony had it come to town.
We’ve seen many a GYPSY on Broadway, but Lansbury was the first Broadway pro to dare to take on the memory of Merman’s achievement. Rosalind Russell on film and Kay Medford on record had shown they hadn’t conquered the role; Lansbury’s cast album shows her having no problem storming through “Some People,” becoming tender in “Small World,” acting slyly seductive in “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” en route to a triumphant achievement in “Rose’s Turn.”
It was Lansbury’s turn, too – to get another Tony.
In my recently released THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICALS DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS, I ask the question “If
performers elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame were pictured in a costume, which would it be?”
For Lansbury, Mame, Aurelia and Rose would have to give way to Mrs. Lovett in SWEENEY TODD.
Here was her second madwoman. Those odd knobs of hair were situated atop a head that was much odder inside. As if “The Worst Pies in London” and its breakneck pace wasn’t arduous enough on stage, cast album producer Thomas Z. Shepard asked Lansbury to do it faster than she did it on stage. Indeed, she could do that, too.
What happens in SWEENEY is unspeakable and seemingly unsingable, but Lansbury leavened it with black comedy in “A Little Priest” and much lighter comedy in “By the Sea.” Her charm helped to ameliorate Sweeney’s one-track mind.
We’d also like to think that if Santa Claus ever choose a woman as his MRS. SANTA CLAUS (as Jerry Herman’s TV movie was called), he’d pick someone as inherently lovable as Lansbury.
A long 10 years have passed since Lansbury played Broadway. Her final appearance was in what was officially titled GORE VIDAL’S THE BEST MAN. Three days before it opened, she was diagnosed with a hairline fracture on her hip. Many a performer wouldn’t consider performing under those circumstances, and management would have easily understood if their 86-year-old actress decided to leave the production.
Lansbury went on, thanks to the help of a cane. Remember this, all you performers who call in sick these days for far less severe medical problems.
All this brings to mind a 1945 musical that Lansbury never did and may never have heard of: THE FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE. In it, Ira Gershwin wrote a song called “A Rhyme for Angela” where he pointed out that Lucy rhymed with juicy, Chloe with snowy and Olivia with trivia – but there was no rhyme for Angela.
And no peer for Angela Lansbury.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.