When Angela Lansbury returned to the West End last spring, for the first time in almost 40 years, to reprise her Tony Award–winning role as Madame Arcati in Nöel Coward's Blithe Spirit, she was stunned by the nightly audience response.
"I was treated like a rock star," she says. "People came from all over Europe and the Far East to see the woman they knew from 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' and 'Murder, She Wrote.' Can you imagine? I think they reacted as they did because I was a great deal older than when they first saw me, but there I was. Their reaction blew me away."
It may not be polite to contradict a legend, but it's a safe bet that audiences were acknowledging a lot more than one film and one long-running television series. They were more likely showing their appreciation for her ongoing, brilliant career of 70-plus years, which includes such memorable shows as Mame, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd, as well as the films 'Gaslight' and 'The Manchurian Candidate.'
They were likely also thrilled by her star turn as Madame Arcati, a role she calls "the culmination at the end of a career." The five-time Tony winner had so much fun with the character that she's returning to the part of the eccentric medium one last time on a four-city North American tour that begins performances at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles Dec. 9.
"One has to assume there aren't going to be that many more roles," says Lansbury, who turned 89 Oct. 16. "And this is the best comedy role that I ever got to play. Comedy is really my forte. It's where I feel I can give the audience a big bang for their buck. And it's something so desperately needed in today's world."
Coward created Madame Arcati for Margaret Rutherford, who also played the role in the movie. But Lansbury, dressed in the late Martin Pakledinaz's colorful clothes, at once practical and bohemian — "His input into the creation of this character was extraordinary and I shall be forever grateful to him" — sporting an odd, old-fashioned, Titian-colored hairdo inspired by her childhood nanny, and prancing about the stage as she attempts to connect to the spirit world, makes the part her own.
"Madame Arcati is a terribly earnest woman who believes in what she's doing and is capable of conjuring up spirits," Lansbury says. "But her way of doing it is enchanting at moments and maddening at others. The key to the character for me is a line about how she was seen on a knoll dressed in Indian robes. That also has a great deal to do with the movement that I have incorporated into the role. I'm not dancing around, as so many people have said. I'm moving around. I did it in rehearsal one day, and that was the beginning. It's different at every performance; I never quite know what I'm going to do."
Lansbury's schedule these past five years would be the envy of actresses decades younger. In addition to Blithe Spirit, she appeared on Broadway in A Little Night Music and The Best Man, and took a six-month "magical mystery tour" of Australia with James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy.
"I still enjoy touring, and I wanted to do Arcati one more time because she's a singularly special character in my career," Lansbury says. "But... I can't see going on the road again." That doesn't mean she plans to stop working. "It just makes sense for me to fill my time doing something that I love to do."