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BWW Exclusive: ALL EYES ON ANGELA LANSBURY; Richard Jay-Alexander Talks to the Accomplished Star

ANGELA LANSBURY
(PHOTO: FRIEDMAN-ABELES)
© SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT
COURTESY OF SONY MUSIC ARCHIVES

The phone rings at about 10:34 am, I pick it up and say hello and on the other end is:

"Hello, is that Richard?"

"Yes"

"Hello, this is Angela Lansbury"

Of course I want to say, "No kidding!" but I don't because the "thrill" is there: the voice is as distinctive as the career. Unmistakable.

Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury. I saw her in Mame, my first Broadway show seen ON BROADWAY at The Winter Garden Theatre from the front row of the mezzanine in seats my dad bought from a scalper because he knew I wanted to see it so badly. I would never recover from the splashy front of The Winter Garden Theatre.

Ms. Lansbury will be honored on Monday, October 6th receiving the 2014 Rolex Dance Award at an evening titled: "NEW YORK, NEW YORK: A Helluva Town" presented by the Career Transition for Dancers as they celebrate their 29th Anniversary Jubilee. The show is at the New York City Center at 7pm and tickets can be purchased by contacting CITYTIX at 212 581-1212 or on the web at nycitycenter.org. The evening is followed by a dinner at The Grand Ballroom at The Hilton New York.

It would be crazy to try to cover this legendary performer's entire career and many of you know much about it, so I tried to ask things of particular interest.

And so the conversation begins. I asked her what most people call her and she tells me "Angie"... but somehow I just can't do it.

I break the ice by telling her that my assistant, Amy, went to school with her grandson, Ian; The Curtis School in Los Angeles and that Amy last saw him when they were both, coincidentally, at a performance of her Blithe Spirit on Broadway in 2009.

So the first order of business was to find out where Ian is... for Amy. Angela asks,

"What's her name?"

"Amy Shaughnessy"

"Well tell Amy, he's living in New York and has his own apartment in Brooklyn and a great job. It's wonderful to have him and some of my other grandchildren here in New York" (...where Lansbury now makes her home).

There's so much I want to ask, but I start with the topic of her being honored and the fact that her "career transitions" were really from film to Broadway to film and television and back to Broadway... again and again and again, (as well as the West End and everything in between).

We talked about dance, in particular, and she said that "...she was very lucky that choreographers were always very kind to [her] and worked [her] particular skills and movements into numbers." She didn't "train" particularly in dance as say someone like Julie Andrews, because her focus was acting. She wanted to be an actress. A good actress.

I asked her when she first went to Hollywood and made astonishing films like Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate among others.... could she have ever imagined herself starring on Broadway in a musical?! She said:

"No, absolutely not...but I did take advantage of being a part of the MGM studio system and would find myself sitting in and watching people like Gene Kelly work. I was always doing something".

She absorbed as much as she could and clearly it paid off... As she says, she's "trained a little" but seemed to always have some kind of innate sense of rhythm that served her quite well.

She told me that just the other evening she had spent time with Stephen Sondheim just chatting, having a wonderful time. Of course, Stephen wrote the first musical she ever appeared in Anyone Can Whistle... Her husband at the time, Peter Shaw, thought it was a good idea, but it did not turn out to be the greatest experience and closed quickly... Stephen, however, continued to believe in her.

Angela Lansbury has had an extraordinary career and received just about every award and recognition one can receive, but what impressed me most in speaking with her was how directly and succinctly she speaks and communicates without an ounce of P.C. ("political correctness").

That is not to be interpreted as her being mean or cruel or careless with her words, quite the opposite. She's very matter-of-fact... and it's extremely refreshing. Often you will speak to people and the type of things they are saying are things that they want to read that they've said and that's always a little boring to listen to.

Through her years in films and through all her television success, for us, the greatest pleasure can still be found in seeing her on a stage, live. Be it musical or non-musical... but, of course, Mame changed everything. Everything.

The way she sang... the way she moved... the way she dressed... and with a killer cast that included, Beatrice Arthur and Jane Connell... Mame turned her into a musical icon, something she never could have imagined.

Jerry Herman is the hero of this story. Not only did he write the glorious score and lyrics but, he personally taught her the music and played the piano for her... literally "under the stage." That sent her on a meteoric path in all sorts of directions which would also send her back to films in things like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or television's Mrs. Santa Claus and the animated Disney classic Beauty and the Beast as Mrs. Potts.

She may be a "Dame", but to us she is Broadway royalty.

We jumped all over the map and I asked how it was she came to consider her first musical, Anyone Can Whistle. The way Angie always chose what jobs to take were always character driven. She was always interested in her character, no matter who else might be around her. One can easily see that when you imagine her as Mama Jean Bello in Harlow (not what she described as a pot-boiler) or cavorting with Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile (which she describes as the two of them being quite outré) or making meat pies with the delicious Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd.

Character. Character. Character. And this truth became clearer and clearer to me as we continued to speak.

At this point I asked whether or not she had been pursued by recording companies to make a solo album as a singer as this was the de rigueur of the period. Just about everyone had albums. Her answer was no, although at one point she was thinking about it and tried to put together a list of songs, but it just didn't seem to gel. Once again, it became clear, that when she did sing in musicals, it was the character that got her through the melody and lyrics.

I happened to be fortunate enough to catch her in a three week vacation/replacement stint in a Broadway Revival of The King and I which was at the Uris Theatre. She was standing in for Constance Towers and played opposite Michael Kermoyan (as Towers and Yul Brynner took their vacations at the same time). I will never forget it. I asked how something like this could possibly happen or why she would want to do it (meaning all the work and preparations for 24 performances) and she very clearly and without hesitation stated:

"It's a wonderful part, Anna Leonowens and I remember thinking to myself Gertrude Lawrence played this part. I think I can play this part. I want to play this part."

Again character driven and challenging. She also mentioned how, "... amazing it was to have Richard Rodgers right there in the theatre" as he was still alive at that time.

Her most recent stage appearances have been the revival of A Little Night Music, directed by Trevor Nunn and the recent Driving Miss Daisy which toured Australia with James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines and a London revival of Blithe Spirit, which will tour selected cities in North America.

I asked about getting to a certain age and physicality and how you face 8 shows a week. Without batting an eyelash she replied, "It suits me," and she meant it and I heard it and it was a thing of beauty. For she is 88 years old and still has more she wants to do.

I got into the topic of Bucket Lists, both personal and professional, she said she doubted there might be a musical "in the stars" but over the next two years she would love to do the play The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold.

On the personal Bucket List, she would love to travel to places she's just never had the time to visit ... those places included India, China, Yellowstone, Japan and spending a bit more time in Ireland, where she has a house.

This is a remarkably intelligent woman who is insanely talented in a non "show-off-y" way. I want to talk about Gypsy because nowadays many singing actresses have approached the role or done it regionally or on Broadway. But, when Angela Lansbury was offered the first major revival in history as Momma Rose... she turned it down for about a year. I was very surprised to hear this and didn't know it, but I did know one of the producers Barry Brown, whom she has great affection for and his partner Fritz Holt, who is no longer with us. The idea of stepping into this iconic musical with the memory and ghost of Ethel Merman not far behind was daunting and one of the main reasons for not immediately accepting the idea was the 'expectations'. This is something that any actor can understand, however Arthur Laurents wanted an actress; Jule Styne overcame any doubts and Stephen Sondheim's never-ending belief in her ability convinced her to do it. She knew that she could play this character and with the support of the creators she did it to great triumph in both the West End, opening May 29th 1973 and on Broadway, opening September 23rd, 1974.

There's a remarkable original cast recording available and if you haven't heard it, I suggest adding it to your collection immediately. Click here to buy.

This brings us to the topic of YouTube. I asked her if she ever goes "trolling around" YouTube and looks at any of her work and, of course, her answer, like any of the great stars, is "No, not really." (Of course not, they're too busy working!) But not too long ago she started realizing just how much is out there and people began to show it to her. Such as Michael Feinstein, who opened her eyes to some of the things that are available thanks to fans, historians, and others who post from their private collections. It's a 'field day' out there now and luckily, for us, there are some gems.

Here are a few:

(Go to the 27 second mark for footage as Michael Feinstein and Angela Lansbury watch footage from Mame and Gypsy). Each of the three seasons of "Michael Feinstein's American Songbook" exists on DVD (Seasons 1 and 2 are also on Blu-ray) and can be purchased through PBS Home Video or on Amazon and all of the DVD sets include each of the three episodes plus a bonus disc of archival material and Feinstein performances. BroadwayWorld readers would likely enjoy Michael's lengthy discussion with Stephen Sondheim, in the same episode; Christine Ebersole's stunning performance of "The Music That Makes Me Dance"; and in the 2nd episode titled Let's Dance, Liza Minnelli talks about her recollections of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Cyd Charisse. (Great archival footage in this episode as well.)

I asked Angela if she was surprised that Bedknobs and Broomsticks hadn't been made into a Broadway musical yet, she said, "Not really..." she felt it would be hard to "catch the magic" onstage, but these days you never know, so I'm gonna throw it out there and let's see what happens...

I also asked if she has any sort of regime, physically or diet wise, that she adheres to in order to stay in performing shape... she said, "not really" nor does she read as much as she wishes she did, but she enjoys watching television and cooking and we talked about just how much good stuff there is to watch, (...as I'm sure she's not watching any " Real Housewives").

I wanted to bring up the subject of Broadway stars and film versions of the shows they starred in on Broadway. A glaring example is that the entire world met Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl: she's one of the few artists who got to repeat her role on the big screen, and there are a few others.

But Jill Haworth did not get to do Cabaret; Carol Channing did not get to do Hello Dolly; Julie Andrews did not get to do My Fair Lady and Mary Martin certainly did not get to do The Sound of Music on film.

The logic back then was that film stars were film stars and Broadway stars were Broadway stars, but in the case of Angela Lansbury and Mame... she was a movie star and I wondered if she was actually considered or what actually happened. In a moment of arresting honesty she told me "It was crushing." There were no other words for it. For whatever reason Warner Bros. and whoever was "in charge of decision making" didn't see her in the role (which is crazy, right?!). She also never saw the film and Bea told her a bit about it , but Angela just wished the people had seen her as Mame, and we left it at that. But I could hear the silence and it broke my heart because Mame will forever be my special Broadway experience and I, too, wish the world could have seen her as Mame.

I was beginning to wrap it up and asked her if she knew Polly Bergen. She said, "Yes! What a talented singer she was..." She mentioned that she saw her at the Coconut Club. I was delighted and said, "I did that act at the Coconut Club!" ...I thought she meant when we were invited back by Merv Griffin after Polly's triumph at Feinstein's after a 35 year absence...

"How is that possible?" she asked...

And then we realized she was talking about when Polly Bergen originally performed at the Coconut Club in the '50s, not the show I directed in 2001. She concludes, "what a wonderful talent she was..."

*Editor's Note: Polly Bergen passed away on September 20th, 2014. For her obituary, click here.

One of my last questions was whether or not she had been in touch with Frankie Michaels over the years (the original Young Patrick in Broadway's Mame) ...

"Yes, I actually saw him about 12 years ago"

"What was that like?"

"Well, it was rather strange, seeing a middle aged man..."

As we close our conversation I asked if I could do a Rorschach test with her, by just throwing out names and getting her immediate visceral reaction. Again, I must tell you, there was no hesitation and for me this was joyous. Can you tell I love this woman? Ok, here it goes...

Jane Connell - "A comedic gem"

Jerry Herman- "A unique and original composer"

Harold Prince- " An exciting person to work with"

Trevor Nunn- "Challenging"

Bea Arthur- "Absolute dream friend"

And with that, Ladies and Gentlemen, I will leave you with the great Angela Lansbury. If you've never seen her live you should seriously think about attending this event...

Here's the information: Career Transition For Dancers, founded in 1985, enables dancers to define their career possibilities and develop skills necessary to excel in post-performance professions. With of­fices in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and a mobile National Outreach Project, Career Transition For Dancers has provided more than 6,200 dancers with over 61,000 hours-equivalent to approximately $5.2 million-of career counseling and program services, and has awarded millions of dollars in educational scholarships and entrepreneurial grants. The organization has helped thousands of dancers throughout the US take their first steps towards discovering reward­ing post-performance careers. The Caroline & Theodore Newhouse Center for Dancers is located at 165 W 46 Street, Suite 701 (at Broadway - the Actors' Equity Building) NYC 10036.

The phone number is 212 764-0172 and

For a great introduction
to her career on CD, click here.

the fax is 212 764-0343. In Los Angeles 5757 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 455, LA 90036; 323 549-6660 and fax 323 549-6810. In Chicago at Hubbard Street Dance Center 1147 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60607; 312 666-0234 and fax 312 455-8240. To learn more about the organization and interact with the various services it provides online, please visit www.career­transition.org.

And Angie, thank you for one of the best half-hours I've ever spent on the phone.

You are the real deal and I tip my proverbial top hat to you.


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