The excitement of the 1995 Tony Awards is still fresh in my mind, so I suppose it is natural to be thinking about great performances. I recently ran into Angela Lansbury for the first time in 14 years, and in the great performance department there is not a particle of doubt in my mind that the greatest performance I have ever seen in 34 years of theatre-going was given by her on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1977. We were doing "Gypsy,: in stock, on Cape Cod--yes, summer stock! It was a memorable summer for many reasons, but mostly because it was the summer Angela and my friend Lee Emmerich met.
I met and was befriended by Lee shortly after I came to New York City from Wyoming in the 1960's. This happy meeting went far to ease the culture shock and improve the quality of my life. He was from Wisconsin and had been a pilot in World War II after which he eventually came to New York. He worked in radio, television, advertising, and by the time I met him, he was a partner in a company that produced television commercials and industrial shows. He had a wonderful wife, Suzie, and five terrific children.
I met Angela in 1972 while working for Music Fair Enterprises, perhaps the last of the big summer stock circuits. I was producing the shows for them, and she had been signed to do "Mame" in its five 2,000-seat theatres-in-the-round. We worked together again in 1975 when she came back to Music Fairs to do "Gypsy." Then in 1976 when I went on my own, my first independent production was a tour of "Mame" again with Angela. It played the major proscenium stock theatres across the country in places such as Dallas, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Miami.
The following summer we once again joined forces to do "Gypsy." We had two weeks left to go on the road and were scheduled to open on Monday, August 29 in Hyannis. It was a bittersweet time for me. The tour had been very successful-- how could it not be? In 1975 Angela had won a third Tony Award, under very difficult circumstances, for her extraordinary performance as "Rose" in the show. I was in the theatre in New York opening night and was very anxious. I knew Angela had been horrifically ill all afternoon and was being treated by her doctor. At show time, despite everything, she went on, and she was amazing. The next day in The New York Times, Clive Barnes characterized her performance as lightning having struck onstage at the Winter Garden Theatre.
The week on the Cape was very important to me because Lee and Suzie Emmerich were also there. Lee had cancer, which was the very bitter part of the summer. By then we knew it was hopeless and, indeed, he had given up any treatment. We had been friends for nearly 15 years, and our relationship had long been more like family. He often referred to me as his fifth son, and I spent most of my holidays and free weekends with them at their home near Warwick, NY. Suzie had found the place while Lee was on a business trip, and they agreed over the phone to buy it. The house sat on 35 acres. Lee soon cleared trails in the woods where we could walk and cross-country ski. He planted grapes in a sunny field and had three ponds dug at the foot of a hill where we could swim in summer and ice skate in winter. Another field was cleared for volleyball, and later a swimming pool was put in near the house. Best of all, it was a home full of love and laughter, and I loved being a part of it. All that was about to change, so the time we had left together was dear.
One of Lee's other sons, Kurt, had worked for me for five summers during college and was head tech on Gypsy that season. He had worked on shows with Angela before, and she was very fond of him. In all those years, however, Lee had never seen a show I had produced or one on which Kurt had worked, so we were excited that he was coming to the opening in Hyannis. Moreover, it promised to be an exciting opening because the Boston papers were scheduled to review it, and critics do tend to get actors' attention.
In theatre-in-the-round, unfortunately, actors will have their backs to some of the audience at all times. I had arranged for what I hoped were the best seats in the house--fourth row on the aisle in the section where I thought Angela could best be seen in all the big numbers. Sadly, that afternoon Lee got sick and was not able to attend the opening, but promised to try to make it the next night. Kurt and I were disappointed because everyone in the theatre knows second nights can be a bit of a letdown. All the energy and drive that goes into getting the show open sometimes take a toll on the second night's performance. Happily, the next night he was feeling better, so off we all trekked to the theatre.
After I got Lee and Suzie seated, I went backstage where at about a quarter-to-eight Kurt, who with his crew had finished presetting the sets and props, walked up to me and began talking about how he wished his father had been there the night before. It had been a great performance, and the Boston papers had raved about it.
Suddenly a thought occurred to me. I suggested that he go around to the cast, tell them about his father and explain why he hadn't made it to the opening. I said to tell them his father had never seen a show he had worked on and to ask them if they could please not get the second-night blah's. I told him he didn't have to worry about Angela, because she never let up and, if he talked to the rest of the cast, maybe he could get them to give a little extra as well.
It was nearly curtain time, but he set off like a shot for the dressing rooms just as Angela came up beside me. She had heard Kurt exclaim something about the good idea, and she asked what was up. I told her¬ and she talked about how sad it would be for Kurt when his father died. As the overture began to play, she asked me where Lee was sitting. We went up to the tent and peeked through the curtain at the top of the aisle down which she was to make her entrance, and I pointed him out. He could not be missed because even then, at 58 and dying of cancer, he was still something of a nordic god: tall, tan, well built, his blond hair bleached almost white by the summer sun. Just as it was time for her to go on, Angela turned to me and said, "tell Kurt, this one's on me," and down the aisle she went, "Madame Rose," hat pin at the ready to settle "Uncle Jocko's" hash, do battle with the "Balloon Girl" and help her daughters win the talent contest.
Even now, 18 summers later, tears well a bit as I remember that performance. The whole company loved Kurt and really pumped it out that night, but most of all, there was Angela. I've seen "Gypsy," start to finish at least 50 times. To me it is the great American musical and Madame Rose the greatest musical role imaginable for an actress. However, of all the times I saw her do it (and she was magnificent every time including opening and closing nights in New York), there was never a performance like the one she gave in that funny old tent on Cape Cod, Tuesday, August 30, 1977. Without robbing anyone else in the audience of a single moment of the greatness, that night Angela Lansbury found Lee Emmerich at every special moment in the show; during every magic musical number; during every anguished moment of Madame Rose's broken heart or devastated spirit; at every turn when, over and over, Rose bounds back out of the ashes of her dreams. She found him and she played the entire show to this dear, dying man and she blew him out of the theatre. When it was over, the whole house knew they had seen something extraordinary. They sprang to their feet screaming and cheering as Angela bowed deeply and magnificently, first to Lee then to Suzie and then to them all. It was breath-taking--there is no other word.
Afterwards, we all went for supper, but the emotional impact of the performance had knocked us all for a loop, especially Lee, and everyone was somewhat subdued. I just sat there down the table a bit watching Lee watching Angela watching him. She had given him, and Kurt, and Suzie whom she knew was soon to be his widow, an incredible gift. She knew it, and I knew it. The performance had been so towering that admiration and gratitude were almost inexpressible. While thank you's and other nice things were said, mostly there was simply an ineffable sense of joy and regard and togetherness that caused a lightness of being, which muted the evening and made conversation almost unnecessary. After a little time, Lee and Angela said good-bye to one another. I could see they knew something wonderful had happened between them that night. They also knew they would never see each other again so their good-bye was deeply felt and slightly awkward, more a good night than good-bye.
Lee died a little less than two months later, and a lot of light went out of a lot of people's lives. Over the years I have remembered much of my wonderful friendship with him, but this memory has always been brightest and still brings tears.
So, if there is an extra Tony around, another one for Angela Lansbury, if you please.