How unfortunate that a musical has already been titled A Class Act (about the life of the late A Chorus Line lyricist Edward Kleban) because there would seem to be no better name for a production about the life of Angela Lansbury, that spectacularly kind, humorous and versatile singing actress who is once again gracing the Broadway stage.
Lansbury, who has made her eagerly awaited Broadway return in Terrence McNally's Deuce at the Music Box Theatre, said earlier this week that the experience has "been one wonderful moment after another. I mean, it's been incredible — quite unexpectedly dramatic and glamorous and filled with the most wonderful, positive help from the audience and from everybody. It's been amazing."
When asked whether she felt it important to come back to the stage in a new work versus a revival, Lansbury says, "I think it was very important that I did come back in an original work. I didn't want to just come back doing something that somebody else had done before. I wasn't looking for this. I wasn't looking to come back to Broadway. I want to make that clear — I truly, truly was not. It was an amazing coincidence, whereas we had begun talking about doing Deuce Off-Broadway, and we ended up on Broadway because of the unimagined excitement. I didn't realize the excitement and the interest there would be in me coming back to Broadway. So that's what really drove the whole mission into the Music Box. Of course, the great producership of Scott Rudin and Stuart Thompson and that crowd. They took it and ran with it, and the Shuberts, bless them, Gerry [Schoenfeld] came up with the Music Box. It was unexpected, it really was."
The celebrated actress, who endeared herself to theatre fans around the world with Tony-winning performances in Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd, was directed this time around by Michael Blakemore, who scored two Tonys in 2000 for his direction of Copenhagen and Kiss Me, Kate. Blakemore, Lansbury says, "knows exactly what he wants. He wants every word exactly as he hears it in his head, and he works hard to achieve that. He let us alone a great deal of the time, and I found [that] working with him was an absolute joy. He's a hard taskmaster. He doesn't accept what he considers to be second best."
And second-best would never be a phrase associated with Lansbury or her co-star, another beloved actress, Tony winner Marian Seldes, who Lansbury says, "is a beautiful actress and a lovely, lovely woman. I love being with her — she's a great friend, and we go together like ham and cheese. It works like gangbusters, and it's a joy to be onstage with her. She doesn't deviate in her performance, and neither do I, so we can depend on each other to give what's required in the give-and-take of these two roles." Those roles are Leona Mullen (Lansbury) and Midge Barker (Seldes), two very different women who were formerly a championship-winning doubles tennis team. Years later, when the duo reunite at a championship tennis match, it is a chance for these now older women to reflect on their lives, their profession and their friendship, and Lansbury and Seldes bring their characters to full, exciting and often moving life. In fact, the New York Times called Lansbury "vitally and indelibly present," while Variety added, "[She] can floor us with an eye roll or a subtle double-take, turning mildly clever lines into acerbic zingers with apparent nonchalance."
Lansbury describes the feisty Leona as a self-made woman: "She comes from a working class background, [and] she pulled herself up by her bootstraps. She is coarse in many respects, compared to her partner, and has taken on airs and graces that went with her marriages and her success as a tennis player. . . . I think that makes her very interesting because instead of showing one simple side, you see that she is driven by many emotional engines that make her very fascinating as an individual to play, and I believe that this is what Terrence intended in his creation of Leona." Leona describes the struggles of aging in a particularly passionate soliloquy, and Lansbury says she can identify with her character's thoughts: "I certainly can because I think we have a lot to say about ageism and the fact that, as we grow older, as our audience grows older, and as Angela and Marian — as we grow older — we have to accept the fact that we fade into a kind of a no-man's land of almost invisibility, if we allow it to happen. Some women are unable to cope with this. I think Leona was unable to cope with it. Marian's character Midge does. She's not daunted at all. She's perfectly happy in Blue Harbor, Maine, whereas Leona has fought it every inch of the way and still is. And, that's why she's sitting out there in her scarlet suit and her makeup and her hair and everything. She's never going to allow herself to be invisible. She can avoid it, although she hasn't been able to avoid it, as we know.
"Young people don't always look at older people," Lansbury adds. "A lot of truth is in here. Terrence really hit the nail right on the head, and it's tough."
The evening this writer attended Deuce, Lansbury and Seldes received a thunderous, lengthy applause at the show's conclusion, which is reportedly a nightly occurrence. "[That is] heady stuff," Lansbury says. "It's something that we relish. I mean, any actor is thrilled when an audience responds in that way. We feel that we've entertained them, that they've loved the material, that they've loved the acting in the show, and that we've done our job. What more can you ask? I mean, we talk about applause, applause, applause… There you get it, and when it comes, it's most uplifting." And, how does she unwind after a performance? "I simply turn off," Lansbury says matter-of-factly. "With me, it's very simple. I simply put the light out in the dressing room and I go home. Or I go out and have a bite to eat with friends. There's no coming down as far as I'm concerned. Turn the switch, and I'm off."
To perform eight shows a week, Lansbury says an actor must lead a "dedicated life. You dedicate yourself, your health, your rest, everything towards being able to be up and at it and give a good performance that night or that matinee. It's grueling, no question about it. It takes it out of you." Comparing her current Broadway run with her previous Main Stem engagements, the three-time Academy Award nominee laughs, "Well, I don't stay out all night anymore! I never did before, but at least I used to kick up my heels, as we all did — and as the youngsters still do. They're down there on Ninth Avenue at all these little spots and having fun and meeting each other. I still go to Joe Allen's, and I'll have a light supper. Not every night though — it depends."
Lansbury also notes that this is her first time on Broadway since the death of her husband, Peter Shaw, in 2003. "I don't know how to say this," she explains, "but I miss my husband desperately now in the theatre because we had a life together and we shared it and it was fun. . . . I don't mean to give the idea that I'm not enjoying it. I am. I love it when I'm onstage. It's absolutely great, and the rest of the time is spent reacquainting myself with friends. I love being with the theatre crowd. Actors are wonderful — producers, press agents, everybody down the line are marvelous to be with, but it's a sometime thing. The final analysis is you go home to your own little house."
Although she has already won four Tony Awards, Lansbury is still thrilled by her current nomination, her first for Best Leading Actress in a Play. "It's a beautiful thing to be nominated for a Tony Award under any circumstances," she says. "It's always surprising and makes you feel very, very good just to be nominated. I don't have any illusions about winning, but it's lovely to be nominated." Lansbury recalls her first Tony win for her star-making turn in the title role of Jerry Herman's Mame: "It was a very low-key affair. It was at a hotel. I think it was at the Plaza Hotel, and if I'm not mistaken, Ginger Rogers gave me the award. We just were at tables. There was no theatre, there was no stage, no presentation — it was just done at a table." Her following three Tony wins were all televised, and she says those "were very exciting. They were at big theatres, always at the biggest theatre available."
Devoted Tony Awards watchers also know that Lansbury was one of the finest and most glamorous Tony hosts when she took charge of three consecutive Tony Awards telecasts in the late eighties. "It was lovely to come back to Broadway under those auspices," Lansbury says about her Tony hosting gig. "It couldn't have been better. I was unable to go near Broadway as a performer in those years because of the television show ['Murder She Wrote'], but at least I came back once a year, three years running, and kind of revitalized my theatrical chops for a few hours." Who could forget the year Lansbury opened the telecast in a bright red dress, belting out an exciting "Everything's Coming Up Roses"?
And, what's been the nicest part of her current Broadway experience? "Simply reacquainting myself with the Broadway audience — that live, vital, wonderful, living, breathing, talking, laughing crowd that is out there in that audience. That is a thrilling thing, let me tell you. For any actor or actress, that's it."
OK, so the A Class Act title has already been taken. How about The Class Act?
[Deuce plays the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.]
Recent Jacques Brel star Gay Marshall will return to the Zipper Factory June 19 and 26 at 8 PM with her wonderful solo concert that mixes humorous monologues with powerful interpretations of songs by an eclectic mix of composers. Mark Hartman will be Marshall's musical director and accompanist, and she will also be joined onstage by Michael Croiter on drums and Steve Gilewski on bass. Concertgoers can expect to hear Marshall's terrific renditions of "How Lucky Can You Get," "Baltimore Oriole," "L'Accordeoniste," "Padam," "Another Song About Paris," "Brother You Got Me Wrong," "My Childhood" and "The Dove." The Zipper Factory is located in Manhattan at 336 West 37th Street. For tickets call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.zippertheater.com. Christine Pedi, who can currently be heard (but not seen) in the Broadway bow of Talk Radio (she lends her voice to several of the radio callers), will go it solo at the Metropolitan Room this summer. On June 25 and July 1 and 2, Pedi will present her acclaimed cabaret act Great Dames, which features "songs about and made famous by the great ladies of the stage, screen and beyond." Matthew Ward will be the musical director for the 7 PM concerts. The Metropolitan Room is located in Manhattan at 34 West 22nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. There is a $20 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. Call (212) 206-0440. Visit christinepedi.com for more information.
Laura Bell Bundy, a 2007 Tony nominee for her performance as Elle Woods in the new Broadway musical Legally Blonde, will play three evenings at Birdland. Bundy will offer her cabaret act Mondays, July 23 and 30 and Aug. 20 at the famed jazz club. Show time is 7 PM. The evenings will celebrate the release of the actress' debut country recording, "Longing for a Place Already Gone." There is a $25 cover and a $10 food-drink minimum. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. For reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.
A mix of theatre actors, directors, writers and designers have come together to form a new theatre company with a mission to "promote mercy, beauty, and truth through performance and service." The new company, titled Unbounded Theater, is a "member-based company dedicated to compassionate action, authentic storytelling, collaboration, diversity, and play." The group hopes to produce theatre and serve the community at large through theatre outreach and by partnering with relief organizations. The 14-member company comprises April Nickell (managing artistic director), Anika Larsen (associate artistic director), composer Nils Olaf Dolven, sound designer Mike Farfalla, actors John Harrison, Amanda Hunt, Joshua Henry, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Telly Leung, Nicole Lewis, Kelly McCreary and Eileen Rivera, lighting designer Stuart Nelson and costume designer Andrea Varga. Unbounded Theater's first fundraising event, "Songs From Serenade," will be held June 18 and will feature tunes from Rachel Sheinkin and Nils Olaf Dolven's new musical, Serenade. That musical will be the company's first mainstage production in the fall. The June fundraiser will be held at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) at 5 and 8 PM. There is a $25 minimum donation; for reservations e-mail [email protected] For more information about Unbounded Theater, visit www.unboundedtheater.org.
And, finally, one last Angela Lansbury item. Hallmark has just purchased all 264 episodes of the murder mystery series "Murder, She Wrote." Might we see the actress step back into the shoes of crime solver Jessica Fletcher? "I'm always hoping that we'll find a terrifically good crackerjack script and do another two-hour movie," Lansbury answers.
Well, that's all for now. Happy Tony-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]