Angela Lansbury: Queen of the Tony Awards

One of the most anticipated honors to be handed out Sunday at the 75th annual Tony Awards is Angela Lansbury’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The big question is: Why did it take so long?

Now 96, the beloved Lansbury has won five competitive Tony and was nominated for two more. She’s also one of the leading interpreters of the work of composers Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman. Her Broadway career is best described with the lyric from Herman’s 1966 musical “Mame: “You came, you saw, your conquered and absolutely nothing is the same…we think you’re just sensational!”

In fact, she’s been sensational since making her film debut at 18 in 1944’s “Gaslight,” received her first of three Oscar nominations — she earned an Honorary Oscar in 2013 — and starred for 12 seasons as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on ‘Murder, She Wrote.” And she brought her musical talents to movie and TV movies starring in Disney’s 1971 “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” 1991’s animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” in which she played the enchanted teapot Mrs. Potts, and the 1996 Herman TV musical “Mrs. Santa Claus.”

In my 1996 L.A. Times interview with Herman, he noted that he loved Lansbury and loved “working with her because I know I am going to get 120%…she is such a fine actress and such an emotional singer and such an intelligent singer. We know we’re going to bring out the best in each other.

Here’s a look at her Broadway appearances:

“Hotel Paradiso” (1957)
Lansbury made her Broadway debut opposite Bert Lahr of “The Wizard of Oz” fame in what is described as a “mad French bedroom frolic” where “an assortment of refined people stealing through the halls and rooms of a cheap hotel comically intent on assignations.” Directed by Peter Glenville, who also helmed the 1966 film version, “Hotel Paradiso” lasted 15 weeks with Lansbury earning good notices.  She later said that her “whole career would have fizzled out” if she hadn’t done the play.

“A Taste of Honey” (1961)
Penned by then 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney, “A Taste of Honey” was an example of England’s “Kitchen Sink”-style drama of John Osborne and director Tony Richardson. In fact, Richardson and George Devine directed the 1960 Broadway production in which Lansbury played the boorish abusive mother of a young woman (Tony Award-winner Joan Plowright). The play ran for nearly a year.

“Anyone Can Whistle” (1964)
Lansbury’s collaboration with Sondheim began with this 1964 flop which ran for nine performances after 12 previews. Arthur Laurents wrote the book to this overripe satire starring Lansbury as the corrupt mayor of an economically depressed town who creates a fake miracle to attract tourists.

“Mame” (1966)
Lansbury’s first Jerry Herman musical.  And what can one say? It was kismet. This musical version of the 1956 Lawrence and Lee comedy “Auntie Mame” that starred Rosalind Russell in her Tony-nominated as the irrepressible Mame was a smasheroo when it opened in 1966, running 1,508 performances. And Lansbury won her first Tony. She performed ten musical numbers including “Open a New Window,” “We Need a Little Christmas” and “If He Walked into My Life.” The New York Times was smitten:  “In the marathon role, she has wit, poise, warmth…The visceral test,  I suppose, is whether one is jealous of little Patrick growing up with an aunt like that. I was green.” She returned to the role for a limited Broadway engagement in 1983.

“Dear World” (1969)
Three years after “Mame,” Lansbury and Herman returned to the Great White Way in this musical version of an Giradoux’ “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” The reviewers weren’t mad about the musical. The New York Times sniffed:” For most of the time it stubbornly refuses to get off the ground, except when it is gracefully flounced up airborne by a delicate kick from the adorable Miss Lansbury, who not only can make magic out of nothing but has to.” Despite Lansbury winning her second Tony, the production ran just 132 performances.

“Gypsy” (1974)
Lansbury returned to Broadway in an electrifying performance as Mama Rose in the acclaimed revival of the Jule Styne/Sondheim 1959 musical. Though she may not have had the powerful voice of Ethel Merman who originated Mama Rose, Lansbury certainly packed a wallop winning her third Tony in less than a decade and a Drama Desk Award. The limited engagement ran 120 performances.

“Sweeney Todd” (1979)
After appearing for two weeks filling in for Constance Towers in the revival of “The King and I” with Yul Brynner in 1978, Lansbury reunited with Sondheim in this brilliantly, dark and delicious Grand Guignol of a musical for which she received her fourth Tony and another Drama Desk Award as the devious baker Mrs. Lovett. It was a performance for the ages-when she reprised her role in Los Angeles in 1981, it was taped for early cable. So, if you want to see how extraordinary she was in the role, you have to check it out. The show ran 557 performances.

“A Little Family Business” (1982)
The less said about this dismal comedy the better. The production, which also featured her son Anthony Shaw, ran just 13 performances. And I took a hike at the intermission when it previewed in Los Angeles.

“Deuce” (2007)
Lansbury teamed up with lauded playwright Terrence McNally earning yet another Tony nomination for this production which ran 121 performances. “Deuce” was her first Broadway show since the 1983 revival of “Mame.” The comedy revolved around two former tennis players who reunite at the U.S.  Open. Most reviews were negative. CurtainUp proclaimed: Lansbury and Marian Seldes are incapable of giving anything but master class performances, but, alas, Terrence McNally has written them in a wilted bouquet of a play that validates the old poker expression ‘Deuce’ always loses.”

“Blithe Spirit” (2009)
Lansbury received her fifth Tony for her wild and wacky performance as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati in the hit revival of Noel Coward’s classic comedy which ran 145 performances. Mildred Natwick played the role in the original 1941 Broadway production. The New York Times declared that Madame Arcati was her juiciest role in years, adding that “even when she’s off her lines, she’s on top of the character, and she demonstrates how an expert can turn surface silliness into something of real substance. ‘Amateur,’ Madame Arcati says, drawing herself into regal rigidity, ‘is a word I cannot tolerate.’ That is certainly not an epithet that anyone would dare attach to Ms. Lansbury. In 2014 at the age of 89, Lansbury reprised the role for the Los Angeles production at the Ahmanson.

“A Little Night Music” (2009)
Lansbury returned to the Sondheim fold in the acclaimed revival of the 1973 multi-Tony award-winning musical earning another Tony nomination for her performance as the aging grand Madame Armfeldt and brought down the house performing one of Sondheim’s most haunting songs, “Liaisons.”

“The Best Man” (2012)
Lansbury made her last Broadway appearance in the all-star revival of Gore Vidal’s acclaimed 1960 political drama about two rivals vying for their party’s nomination for president. Lansbury played the colorful Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the head of the women’s division of the party. The New York Daily News wrote that she was great “in her irresistible tart and smart turn…. Don’t let Sue’s ruffles fool you, she’s a shrewd operator.”

“The Chalk Garden”
In early June 2016, it was announced Lansbury would return to Broadway in Enid Bagnold’s 1955 drama. Three months later, she nixed the plans saying the play was  bit too much for her to handle at the time. “I’m feeling g fine, my health is good, but nevertheless I have moments where I realize that I’m not the person I was maybe five years ago or 10 years ago. That’s the truth of the matter.”

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