Now that she’s back on Broadway, it’s as if she never left. But it’s been a long three years since Angela Lansbury last kicked up her heels on an American stage.
The last time out, two-time Tony award winner Angela starred in the out-of-town tryouts of a musical called Prettybelle. She held out gallantly, but the material didn’t. Prettybelle folded unceremoniously before ever getting to Broadway. And Angela, rife with disappointment and plagued by family worries, packed it all in for a while. With her film executive husband Peter Shaw (they’ve been married since 1949), she headed for an extended stay at home in Ireland. “I left,” she says. “And I didn’t intend to come back.”
She didn’t either, until two young producers, Barry Brown and Fritz Holt, stomped into her life with big plans for a London revival of Gypsy, the 1959 musical which had starred the boisterously bold Ethel Merman as Mama Rose.
“The first time I read the play absolutely nothing appealed to me about Rose,” says Angela. “I found her to be quite a despicable person because she was so one dimensional. Consequently, I said ‘No thank you very much’ and I continued to say ‘no’ for a year.”
But eventually Angela read the script again. This time she was more disposed to consider it seriously – to be enticed by the challenge of making Rose a more sympathetic character. “My situation had changed. Some of my family worries had resolved themselves. I think I went through all the same problems with my children that countless other families had in the 60’s and 70’s. And we just… well, we made it . We were able to set things to rights, thank God.”
Gypsy has proved to be a whole new beginning for Angela Lansbury. With Mama Rose she seems finally on the brink of eclipsing the Mame mystique she created for herself in the 1966 smash Broadway musical that netted her her first Tony. “For years,” says Angela, “people thought I was like Mame. They expected me to look and act like her. It meant treading a very fine line and trying to be very gracious so as not to put them off. I guess we all create our own gods and goddesses because on some level or another we need them.”
Still and all the role gave her enormous pleasure. “It was the part I had been saving up for all those years. There I was at 36 years of age finally playing the woman I’d fantasized about in my youth.”
It was the Blitz in the 1940’s that was responsible for Angela evacuating England for the USA. Early on she gravitated quite naturally toward acting—with a little help from her mother, the celebrated Irish actress Moyna Macgill. (“She wasn’t anything like Rose, thank God. She was an intelligent woman who encouraged me, but didn’t push me.”)
As a child Angela was a great movie fan. “I loved those movie musicals with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. I always imagined myself in all those glamorous surroundings … sitting in gondolas in Venice and so on.”
At 17, Angela was cast in MGM’s classic psychological murder mystery Gaslight. Perhaps it wasn’t the kind of movie she had always dreamed of making, but her performance as the diabolical cockney maid brought her the first of three Oscar nominations. (She was also nominated for her performance in The Picture of Dorian Grey and for her role as the monstrous mother in The Manchurian Candidate.)
For a good many of her Hollywood years Angela was pegged as a “character actress.” “I started playing mothers at 20. I fought like crazy against it, but I soon figured out that mothers are often the best parts.” Angela believes that “the challenge of acting is to create a palatable human being. I’ve played some pretty despicable women, but I’ve always searched for the honest, underlying human element behind the words and actions of the characters I play. There are so many facets to people and characters. What I find interesting is trying to scratch around and find them and then to show them to an audience. Acting is really a gift and I treasure it because it’s so marvelous to uplift an audience.”
Unlike many actresses who start in the theatre and then wind up in films, Angela Lansbury worked in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the 1957 production of Hotel Paradiso that she debuted on Broadway. (She followed that by playing the mother in A Taste of Honey and in 1964 she became a musical comedy star in Arthur Laurents’ Anyone Can Whistle.)
“I made the change because I come from a stage family and I was enough of a snob to feel that I hadn’t really made it until I had tried the stage. Acting in movies wasn’t the real test for me. I had to win New York critics over.”
Angela didn’t find the transition from films to theatre too difficult—“I had to put on my track shoes and begin to learn about projection, and movement and how to enlarge a performance a bit.”
But for Angela Lansbury it has all been worth it. “You know,” she tells you quite seriously, “there were times in my life when I was emotionally upset and I thought I was going to give this all up. I told myself I’d just go and concentrate on being a real person and do real things. But that passes. You can’t turn your back on something, not if you have a destiny to fulfill.”