Angela Lansbury, one of the most beloved and respected performers in show business, passed away October 11. The stage and screen star may have been known around the world as Murder, She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher and the voice of Beauty and the Beast's Mrs. Potts, but to theatre lovers she was, simply, musical theatre royalty. Not only did the multi-talented actor win five performance Tony Awards (plus a sixth Lifetime Achievement Tony), but her wins were for roles that spanned an astounding emotional range: the free-spirited, unconventional Auntie Mame in Jerry Herman's Mame; the Madwoman of Chaillot, Countess Aurelia in Jerry Herman's short-lived Dear World; the stage mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose in the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents classic Gypsy; the meat-pie-making Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's bloody Sweeney Todd; and clairvoyant Madame Arcati in the 2009 revival of the Noël Coward comedy Blithe Spirit.
I first spoke with Lansbury in fall 2006, when she was scheduled to present another Mrs. Lovett, Patti LuPone, with the John Houseman Award at the Acting Company's Masquerade bash. Lansbury was also preparing to take part in a second Acting Company benefit, a reading of This Is on Me, An Evening of Dorothy Parker featuring fellow Tony winners Boyd Gaines and Harriet Harris. Lansbury, who was in Los Angeles at the time, was then unable to disclose the details about her Broadway return (in Terrence McNally's Deuce opposite Marian Seldes), but it was evident that she was thrilled that the plans were in the works. That conversation, which originally ran in November 2006, follows:
You recently relocated to Manhattan?
Angela Lansbury: Relocated in the sense that I bought a small condo there, and I'm planning to spend much, much more time in New York City.
What precipitated that decision?
AL: Actually, I decided that I'm really very happy there, and I only came to California to do Murder, She Wrote. The family all followed me out here, but meantime they've all grown up, and they've all gone off their various ways, so there's nothing that holds me here on a constant basis anymore. So, home for me is New York City.
Do you feel New York is more your home than California?
AL: Yes, I lived for many years in New York doing big musicals, and it was home. I have a lot of good old friends, and I love the community of the theatre.
You're going to present Patti LuPone with the John Houseman Award at the Acting Company's upcoming event. I wonder what is was like seeing LuPone and Michael Cerveris in the revival of Sweeney Todd.
AL: Well, it was kind of a hot flash. [Laughs.] It was a hot production. I found it really quite stunning because it was so different than our production. But I was interested and enormously entertained by the way in which it was done, and I couldn't say that I did not enjoy it because I did. You can't compare the two, really, there's no comparison. The subject matter lends itself to many styles, and this was one way of doing it. From the point of view of the performances, they were all different. Patti made me laugh, and I thought she had a wonderful take on it, and Michael, of course, was extraordinary, and every single member of the cast had something to do—not one thing, but numerous things because they were doubling up, and everybody was playing numerous parts. From that point of view, it kept my interest going all the way. I couldn't wait to see how they were going to handle this or that. As I say, I was totally entertained.
What do you think of [director] John Doyle's actor-musician concept, which he's again using in the Company revival?
AL: Well, it's a good cheap way to do great material. You have to face that. It is, and I understand that that was the root reason for his doing the show that way in the first place back in England. He wanted to do a production, and he couldn't afford to employ a huge orchestra, and therefore he decided it could be done this way. And I guess, with Steve [Sondheim]'s permission, he did. And Stephen has always said [Sweeney Todd] could have been done as a chamber opera. And, it could. There are numerous ways it can be done, and this is just one of them. We did it one way—one huge way, with lots of stuff—and this is another way to go.
What are your memories of the original production?
AL: I have wonderful memories of it, of course. The early days, the days when the audience was shocked out of its seats, when people were walking out. Truthfully, when we first opened, we didn't know whether we had a run. I remember the producers were very unsure, and it was only when we got recognized by the Tony group that we started to take off big, and suddenly we were the show in town. But Sweeney Todd struggled, and it took them years to make back their investment.
It's ironic that now it's pretty much seen as Sondheim's masterpiece.
AL: Well, I think it is. It was not only his masterpiece, but a masterpiece for a lot of people, including yours truly. I don't mean a masterpiece, but it was a good master work on my part at that time in my life. And, also, for Len Cariou and George Hearn. I'm with George a lot, and George and I have on occasion—and so have Len and I—we do "Little Priest" as a sort of party turn. [Laughs.]
What's it like when you revisit that song?
AL: It's lovely because it's such a wonderful audience rouser. It's so damned funny and ridiculous and cleverly worked out by Stephen and the great book writer Hugh Wheeler. Hugh and Steve used to sit out in the back of the house, and during rehearsals, they'd throw a new twist to us, a new lyric. They'd say, "Try so and so." It made for certainly a very varied selection along the way.
It's interesting that you've won two of your Tonys for Jerry Herman musicals—Mame and Dear World—and two for Sondheim works—Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, for which he wrote the lyrics. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what it's like being in a Jerry Herman musical versus a Stephen Sondheim musical.
AL: Well, they are totally different. You just have to go into it with a different mindset as a performer. ... Let's face it, I was just breaking through vocally when I did Mame, then did Dear World, then started using more voice, more soprano, more mix. It was a period of growing and building a much more usable voice for a number of things. And, Jerry's a very astute and wonderful composer and lyricist. He also does both, and he's pretty incredible, and he's not been recognized half enough for the beauty and sensitivity of his lyrics. Mack and Mabel has some of the great songs of show business. ... He's never received a Kennedy Center Honor, and he should have. I can't understand it, and I simply cannot believe that he could be overlooked. [Mr. Herman subsequently received that honor in 2010.]
Anyway, so I started with Mame. Actually, I started with Anyone Can Whistle, [which brings me] back to Stephen. At that time, he was very young, and I was very young, and we were all screeching and yelling and carrying on in that show, and I almost finished myself as a singer. I rested for a year and started quietly to learn how to sing properly, and then I did Mame, and that worked well, and for two years I did Mame. And, then I did Dear World, very fast on the heels of [Mame]. And then, as I say, that required a different kind of vocal presentation. ... The next thing I did was Gypsy.
Which is a killer...
AL: Which is a killer, but it was not a killer for me. I found that I could handle this. I was amazed that I did, and I never actually lost my voice from singing. I only lost it maybe from a terrible flu or cold. But singing—I found I had that power, so that was terrific. So, then along comes Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd represented a bit of all of the things that I had learned, studied, worked on along the way. ... I was called upon to use every ounce of my vocal range. It used a bit of everything, but I knew that it was all about acting the role. You were constantly singing and acting; that's why people liken Sweeney Todd to opera because, in a sense, it is. Although we are actors primarily and singers second—as against opera singers, who are singers first and actors second—it was an opportunity to bring [a modern opera] to Broadway. ... It was an incredible combination of everything that I'd known and learned, and I'll never cease to be grateful to have had that chance. And it's the only thing that I have in the musical theatre that's on tape.
How do you think your vocal breakthrough came? Did you study with teachers?
AL: No, I didn't. I simply adapted what I had and kept strengthening and building and using it. I worked nonstop from 1962—except, as I say, I nearly broke my voice doing Anyone Can Whistle—but '65 was the opening of Mame, and from that time on I never stopped singing. ... I think I always had [the voice], it just hadn't been developed because I didn't have occasion to put it to the test. It's only by putting a voice to the test that you can tell whether it's there. [Laughs.]
It seems Rose in Gypsy is the one role that serious musical theatre actresses want to play. Why do think that is, and what was your experience like playing that part?
AL: Well, I always saw it as an acting-singing role...the quantity that's inherent in the lyrics drives the music, drives the voice. It's terribly important that you hear what the actor or actress is singing—in Gypsy it's vital. You are singing a scene. And when you're doing "Rose's Turn," you're telling the story of this woman, the horrific kind of loss of the opportunity to make something of her life. She never made it. She never got the applause. She never arrived at the point that her daughter has. She never got the ovations. And that's why that moment at the end where she is acknowledging an unseen audience and there is total silence [is so important]. To her that is the moment where she is accepted and given the ovation that she has been living for all her life. So that is one of the great, great moments in musical theatre. ... That moment—of the unseen audience, the silent audience—was nonexistent in the original production with Ethel Merman.
That was something you added.
AL: No, that was something that really was arrived at by—well, Arthur Laurents wanted that, but he couldn't do it to his satisfaction until we did it in London.
I remember reading a quote where you once said that Stephen Sondheim was planning to write a musical version of Sunset Boulevard for you, which was years before the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
AL: Yes, it was about 1980. I remember meeting with Stephen and Hal [Prince], and we were going to do Sunset Boulevard. And then Stephen was out, and Lloyd Webber was in, and I went to see him in London with my husband, and we talked about Sunset Boulevard, and then it wasn't done for years. I went off and did something else, and then I never did it.
On November 5th you're going to be part of the Dorothy Parker benefit for the Acting Company. How did you get involved in that event?
AL: We originally did it out here [in California] last year. It went very well, and Harriet Harris and I and Lisa Banes and Lynn Collins are going to do it in New York with Boyd Gaines this time. Boyd is going to be the male in the piece, and we're simply going to read some of [Dorothy Parker's] best-known and some of her not-so-well-known writings. They're a lovely mixed bag of gems. I think her writings are very rare and wonderful of that particular era, the 1930s and '40s. I had the luck of meeting her out here in Los Angeles when she was writing motion-picture scripts.
What was she like?
Lansbury: She was always kind of in a corner smoking and drinking a martini. [Laughs.] She was certainly accessible, and one could talk to her. I was too young to be able to strike up a conversation with her. If it had been today, I wouldn't have hesitated. But as a young 17, 18-year-old girl, I didn't have the courage to get into a conversation with her.
This past March you also performed Oscar and the Pink Lady at the Geffen. What was that production like?
AL: It was simply a reading. I was very leery of the material. I found it so emotionally packed that I could hardly do it. I said, "Look, I'd like to just read it. Let me try reading it." The Geffen let me do that, and I did two performances. At the end of it I said, "This is just not for me."
I don't know too much about the show.
AL: The premise is what they call a candy-stripe lady, but this particular lady wore pink, and she went around the wards of youngsters, children who had cancer. And this is about a little boy Oscar, a most riveting little character, who she befriends because she knows he's going to die, so she helps him to die. It absolutely rung me out. I thought, "I can't do this eight performances a week." But it had been done enormously effectively in Europe. . .
If you found the right vehicle, would you be interested in returning to Broadway?
AL: Oh, definitely.
Do you think you'd rather do a musical or a play?
AL: I'd love to do both, but at the moment I think I'm more likely to do a straight play.
Why is that?
AL: I don't know. I just have a strong feeling. I can't say anything more. I'd love to say more, but I can't.
Do you get to see much theatre in New York?
AL: When I'm in New York, that's all I do! [Laughs.]
Anything that's impressed you lately?
AL: Of the straight plays, I would have said Doubt. I'm a little behind because I haven't been in New York recently. The last thing I saw was The History Boys with its original cast, which was quite wonderful and thoroughly enjoyed. And I saw Drowsy Chaperone. It's delightful.
Do you have a favorite Broadway role that you've played?
AL: I loved Mame, and I loved Mrs. Lovett. Nellie and Mame are my faves, and of course I love Rose, too.
Last question. When people hear the name Angela Lansbury, what would you like them to think?
AL: I'd like them to think "consummate performer," and that really just came into my head. I am a performer, and I never want to be thought of only as a star or as a celebrity. I just want to be a meaningful, entertaining performer.