October 14, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

In yesterday's column, Angela Lansbury's whirlwind of activity in the 1970s was explored. Not only did she perform on Broadway and the West End, as well as work in films and television in Hollywood, but she also had to deal with incidents in her private life that nearly cost the life of one of her three children due to drug abuse. She and her husband, Peter Shaw, took the family to live in Ireland for a few years where they gained the strength necessary to reconnect with some semblance of normality (successfully, it should be noted). It was in London where she first gave us her Rose in Gypsy and where she starred in Edward Albee's All Over with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition, she found the time to take on the role of Gertrude to Albert Finney's Hamlet at the Royal National Theatre in 1975 (she didn't like playing her), as well as a three-week stint on Broadway in The King and I.

Three weeks, you ask? This was a rare and unique situation of vacation casting due to Yul Brynner's contract guaranteeing that time off during what proved a year-and-a-half's run. It was his greatest role, one for which he won the Tony and the Oscar, although conceived originally as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, a great star in her day. Brynner received below-the-title billing, subsequently winning the Tony as Featured Actor in a Musical (correctly, his Oscar for the film version was for Best Actor). Now an undisputed box office draw, the posters for this 1977 revival featured Brynner's head as big as the one Dorothy and her friends encounter when first encountering the Wizard of Oz. His Anna, Constance Towers, got nice billing but make no mistake about it: the show was all Brynner.

If the producers had gone with the standby, Michael Kermoyan, to play the King in Brynner's absence, the box office would have plummeted. So, in a bold move, they managed to coerce Angela Lansbury, who had never played the part before, to step in and elevate her to star billing (Kermoyan got Towers placement on the poster and in the program). In college at the time, I made it my mission to see the show brought back to its earliest intent, especially to see what Lansbury would do with it over the course of just two dozen performances.

Poster for the three-week run of "The King and I" with Angela Lansbury as "I" (1978).

It was not a disappointment. I can remember her "Shall I Tell You What I Think of Him" like it was yesterday (and this was forty-four years ago). Lansbury easily shined in Anna's regal aspect, projected the warmth and the strength and, of course, the comedy chops to make her a fully three-dimensional being. It was a revelation (and Kermoyan made a fine King as well, but hardly dominated the proceedings).

Little could I have imagined less than a year later that she would end the decade with her greatest triumph. In the same six-year span she played in classics like Gypsy and The King and I, she would return to the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin) to portray Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd.

As Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of the worst pies in London, with Len Cariou in "Sweeney Todd" (1979).

What more can be said about this musical or about what Lansbury brought to it? Her comic inventiveness had never been put on such display, nor her ability to plumb the depths of despair that turned her Nellie Lovett into such a brilliant creation. And this was by no means a slam dunk, for during previews, both she and her Sweeney, Len Cariou, worried whether the audience understood what they and the show's creators were attempting to achieve with this bloody Grand Guignol.

Due to Eugene Lee's mammoth set (made from parts of actual nineteenth­ century foundries shipped from Rhode Island), Sweeney could not play out of town. Forced to preview under the scrutinous eye of every Sondheim fan eager in anticipation of the next show from he and director Harold Prince after their creative heights of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures — all in the last nine. years — the stakes couldn't have been higher. In a 1980 NPR interview, Lansbury spoke of the full genesis of the character: "Mrs. Lovett really is a combination of a tremendous amount of experience that I've chalked up over all the years that I've been acting, from the time of Gaslight all the way up. Really, Nancy in Gaslight was the embryo of Mrs. Lovett if you stop and think about it. So, the work that I did then at the age of seventeen added to all the roles that came after. With every role you play, you add a bit more color to that coat that you wear as a character actress; that coat of experience, those moments you can draw on. Memory, instinct, consciousness of how a person looks and acts, all of these funny little bits and pieces that we put together to create a character to create a whole character... it's like a fantastic stew."

I saw Lansbury and Cariou play Sweeney Todd on four separate occasions, each one better than the next. I would buy an Orchestra seat on Wednesday matinees for $18 (full price), the best $72 I've ever spent, the cost of which couldn't buy you a single half-price ticket to a current Broadway musical. At the 1979 Tonys, Sweeney won eight, more than any show Lansbury had ever been involved with. This made it her fourth Leading Actress in a Musical award, unmatched to this day (believe it or not, of Audra McDonald's six Tonys, she only has one in this category).

In case anyone doesn't believe me, $18 bucks. And can you imagine how good that special Actors' Fund Performance was?

When the production went on tour, Lansbury went with it, only Len Cariou opted out, replaced by the second Broadway Sweeney, George Hearn (also magnificent). The decision to video the production during the final week of its tour in Los Angeles allowed for Lansbury to show the world what she achieved as Mrs. Lovett. Happily, forty years later, it is readily available for streaming (you can currently rent it for 99 cents at Amazon — talk about a bargain!) Naturally, Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy Award, and if it seems unfathomable that she didn't win, there was a reason for it. In an odd decision, this was a year where the Emmys chose not to distinguish between male and female performances in the category of Outstanding Individual Performance In A Variety Or Music Program, leaving George Hearn to take home the Emmy (after all, the show is called Sweeney Todd).

With George Hearn as Sweeney.

After Sweeney, the next time Lansbury returned to Broadway in a musical was a 1983 revival of Mame. I consider myself fortunate to have seen it, in that I missed it when she created the role in 1966 (I was only nine and not yet buying my own theatre tickets). At fifty-eight, she was in fantastic shape and staggeringly good, even if it was in a very cheap production that looked awful. I didn't care, but audiences did. They stayed away in droves. Funnily enough, had this revival come in a year or two later, while Lansbury was on hiatus from Murder, She Wrote, the smash hit CBS series she rode for twelve seasons, this Mame would have been a sellout, opening up as it did her talents to the millions who'd never seen her onstage.

Lansbury might not have portrayed Jessica Fletcher if the first choice for whom it had been developed, All in Family's Jean Stapleton, hadn't turned it down. After a forty-year career, it made Lansbury a household name. The series was rarely out of the top twenty and averaged 25 million viewers per week in its prime (it was also a massive hit in syndication).

As Jessica Fletcher at the keyboard in "Murder, She Wrote" (1984).

And if all this fame and fortune weren't enough to secure Lansbury's place in the hearts of millions, she was cast as Mrs. Potts in one of the greatest Disney animated films of all time (and sang the title song) in "Beauty and the Beast." At first reticent, Lansbury didn't think she had the right sound for it. In a recent Facebook post since her passing, David Friedman, the conductor/music arranger for the film, writes about flying across the country to personally entice her and this is part of his recollection:

"I looked at her and said, 'So what’s the problem?' She said, 'I can’t sing these songs.' I said, 'Why don’t you sing them for me, and let’s see what’s going on.'

She sang 'Beauty and the Beast,' and I said, 'That’s great! I could give you a few technical pointers, but you’re fine.' She said, 'Oh darling, I have no technique. I don’t know what I’m doing as a singer.' I looked at her and said, 'OK, what’s bothering you?' She said, 'These are pop songs, I can’t sing them.'

I said, 'Ah. Alright. Would you do me a favor, forget about the sound, forget about the style, and just be Mrs. Potts singing to Chip.'

What came out was extraordinarily beautiful. Real, touching, and connected. Very close to what she ended up doing in the film.

I said, 'That’s it!' She said, 'You’ll let me do that?' I said, 'That’s what we want you to do!' With that, she said, 'OK. I’m in!'

I realized, in that moment, that Angela was such a connected actress that she could not sing a song unless she knew who she was, where she was and to whom she was singing. And once she had that, she was home free and brilliant."

Mrs. Potts, voiced by Lansbury, the castle's head housekeeper in "Beauty and the Beast" (1991).

When Beauty and the Beast was released in 1991, Lansbury was sixty-five. It is remarkable that she kept active as an actress for more than the next twenty years. A fun part, at the request of Emma Thompson, in Nanny McPhee (2005), two episodes of Law & Order in that same year, one of which earned her last Emmy nomination (#18) and television films like Jerry Herman's musical Mrs. Santa Claus and as Aunt March in Little Women for the BBC. And in the theatre, she did four Broadway shows in the 21st century: Terrence McNally's Deuce (2007) opposite Marian Seldes, a 2009 revival of A Little Night Music, and Gore Vidal's The Best Man, her final Broadway appearance in 2012. For 2009's Blithe Spirit, her Madame Arcati won her a fifth Tony as Featured Actress in a Play (richly deserved). And at the age of eighty-eight, she toured Australia with James Earl Jones in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy. Preserved on video it's not available for streaming, but can be purchased at the PBS website.

And in 2013, in their infinite wisdom, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon her a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. She asked former TCM host, the late Robert Osborne, to present it to her, as she said he's the person most knowledgable of all her film career encompassed. In return, he said, "when it comes to the art of acting, survival, and dedication to one's craft, no one deserves this golden boy more than you."

Lansbury with her 2013 Honorary Oscar.

In 2015, closing in on age ninety, Lansbury agreed to play London's West End in Blithe Spirit, winning the Olivier, the West End's equivalent to the Tony, for her performance. Here's her speech that night. Just listen to that ovation.

“It’s the life and thank God I’m still in it.”

Weren't we all?

In closing, I must admit to a guilty pleasure. I felt somewhat alone in my affection for 2018's Mary Poppins Returns. Perhaps it's my deep love for the original Mary Poppins that led me to simply adore the sequel that starred Emily Blunt and featured at the very, very end of the film, Lansbury as the Balloon Lady. She sings in a voice so much like Mrs. Lovett that the memories flow and I find myself emotional every time I watch it, which is often. The one-two punch of both she and Dick Van Dyke, for whom I share similar love and affection, makes my digital copy of the film a go-to whenever I need a lift. I watch its final fifteen minutes it at least once every few weeks.

Farewell, Dame Angela. There will never be another career like yours. For all the joy you brought by way of your enormous gifts and generosity of spirit, we will remain forever in your debt.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."