Everything’s Coming Up Angie: Celebrating the Broadway Musicals of Angela Lansbury
Angela Lansbury is a treasure of the American Theatre. Though she was born in London, she has enjoyed a long and auspicious career on American soil, first as an actress in the old Hollywood movies system in films such as Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Harvey Girls, and also as a television star for 12 seasons of Murder, She Wrote. It is, however, for the Broadway stage that Lansbury has been her most daring and sparkling. Today, we celebrate the Broadway musicals that starred Angela Lansbury.
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Though she made her Broadway debut in 1957 in the farce Hotel Paradiso and followed that up in the play A Taste of Honey in 1960, Lansbury’s first musical theatre role would be playing the corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in the flop musical Anyone Can Whistle. With a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, Lansbury played a deliciously devious local politician who concocts a crazy scheme to solve her town’s financial woes. In Anyone Can Whistle, she introduced such songs as the sardonic “Me and My Town,” the robust “Miracle Song,” the playful “I’ve Got You to Lean On” and the dramatically arrogant “A Parade in Town.” Starring with Lee Remick and Harry Guardino, Lansbury’s first Broadway musical outing would be short-lived. Anyone Can Whistle lasted for only 9 performances.
If her Broadway musical debut was less than a triumph, Lansbury’s next outing would prove to be a sensation. Starring in the Jerry Herman/Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee musical Mame, based on the popular play Auntie Mame (itself based on Patrick Dennis’s popular novel), Lansbury would win her first Tony Award for playing the partying, progressive and adventurous title character who inherits her young nephew and takes him on a journey of exploration and free-thinking. Herman’s score was brilliant match for Lansbury’s brassy delivery, the actress delivering such songs as “It’s Today,” “Open a New Window,” “We Need a Little Christmas” and “If He Walked Into My Life” with an unparalleled sincerity and verve. A highlight of the show was Lansbury’s pairing with Beatrice Arthur in the caustic barb-trade “Bosom Buddies”.
Dear World (1969)
Lansbury had done well by Herman, Lawrence and Lee with Mame, so it was a no-brainer that the party would team again, this time for the musical version of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. The result was Dear World, demonstrating a more intimate and reflective side to Jerry Herman and offering Lansbury a chance to play another colorful character. In Dear World, she portrayed Countess Aurelia who schemes with her friends to keep businessmen from drilling for oil in their Parisian neighborhood. Lansbury won her second Tony Award for the part, even though the show only lasted a lackluster 132 performances. Yet, Dear World has an enchanting score and Lansbury certainly brought a haunting subtext to such numbers as “Each Tomorrow Morning”, “And I Was Beautiful” and the title song.
Prettybelle (1971 – Closed Out of Town)
It never made it to Broadway because it was plagued with all kinds of out-of-town troubles, but Prettybelle may well have been the most intriguing premise for a musical. Jule Styne and Bob Merrill set out to adapt Jean Arnold’s Prettybelle: A Lively Tale of the Rape and Resurrection for the musical stage. In it, Lansbury would star as Prettybelle Sweet who is writing her memoirs from inside an insane asylum. Once married to a bigoted sheriff in the rural south, Prettybelle goes to great lengths to make amends for the atrocities that her late spouse committed. The show refused to work and it closed in Boston before ever coming to Broadway. Still, there is much to appreciate about the score, which was preserved over a decade later with Lansbury reprising her role.
Broadway has seen many productions of Gypsy, with Ethel Merman originating the role of Mama Rose, and Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone starring in celebrated revivals of the piece. Angela Lansbury also tackled the role of obsessed stage mother to the tune of a third Tony Award. Lansbury had already played the role to great acclaim in 1973 in London’s West End, so it was no surprise that the production crossed the pond. Before opening on Broadway in 1974, Lansbury toured North America for 24-weeks with Gypsy, then the production opened at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre for a limited engagement of 120 performances. Lansbury is cited by many critics as the best-acted Rose. From the cast recording we are able to glean a bit of her calculated performance, a brewing storm inching toward a hurricane of ferocity.
The King and I (1977)
In 1976, Yul Brynner returned to Broadway in his iconic role as the Siamese leader in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, starring opposite the Anna Leonowens of Constance Towers. When Towers parted the production for a short respite, Lansbury stepped into the role of the prim school teacher from Great Britain who is brought to the King’s court to teach his children and wives. Lansbury was only there for a few weeks, April 11 to April 30 of 1978, but how wonderful it must have been to see her in the part, singing such classics as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
Arguably, Lansbury’s finest role was Mrs. Nellie Lovett in the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Harold Prince. Playing a cockney piemaker in Victorian London who is obsessed with a murderous barber, Lansbury was simultaneously hilarious and chilling as his willing accomplice, coming up with the idea of hiding his victim’s bodies in the wares she sold to her clientele. An indelible performance, one that will never be matched (though a few have come close), Lansbury won her fourth Tony Award playing opposite the Tony-winning Sweeney of Len Cariou. One need but witness her haunting rendition of “Not While I’m Around” or her devilish half of “A Little Priest” in the filmed stage production (where she stars opposite George Hearn) to realize the many layers Lansbury brough to the character.
Mame had been such an enormous hit for Lansbury the first time out, it seemed likely the magic would occur the second time around when she reprised her role in a 1983 revival. Somehow, the production failed to resonate with audiences, lasting for only 41 performances. A hanful of performers from the original cast returned for this production, including Jane Connell who played dowdy nanny Agnes Gooch, Sab Shimono who played the butler Ito, and Willard Waterman who played the straight-laced Mr. Babcock.
A Little Night Music (2009)
Madame Armfeldt in the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical A Little Night Musicis a terrific role for an aging actress. Hermione Gingold had played the part of the sage courtesan who recounts her “Liaisons” in the original 1973 production. Who better than to settle into her wheelchair and exude superiority and dry humor than Angela Lansbury for the 2009 revival? With Tony winner Catherine Zeta-Jones playing her daughter in the production, Lansbury received a Tony nomination for her work in the show. To date, A Little Night Music marks Lansbury’s last musical role on Broadway.
*It is also important to point out that Lansbury appeared in many non-musical plays on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her turn as Madam Arcati in the 2009 revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. She was also nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Play for the 2007 Terrence McNally play Deuce.