Vol. 16, No. 3 Spring 2010
"Together again - Lansbury and Sondheim offer rare champagne and a sumptuous feast"
by Michael Portantiere
News and Notes
More on Night Music
Bringing Mostel to life again
In the spring of 1964, Anyone Can Whistle opened on Broadway. During the months leading up to the first night, the production had generated interest for several reasons: (1) its story, about the sanity of "insane" people (and vice versa) was daring, to say the least; (2) the show featured a score by Stephen Sondheim, who had written lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy but had crafted both music and lyrics for just one previous Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; and (3) Angela Lansbury, who was respected for her supporting roles in several notable films but wasn't known for her singing or dancing and had never before starred in a Broadway musical, had been cast in one of the show's leading roles as the town's corrupt "mayoress." As it turned out, Whistle received largely negative reviews and closed after 12 previews and nine performances.
In the fall of 2009, it was announced that Lansbury would play the role of Madame Armfeldt in the first Broadway revival of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music. Over the course of the 45 years that have passed since the opening and swift closing of Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim has become recognized as a genius composer/lyricist for his brilliant work on Night Music and other shows such as Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. Lansbury continued her solid film career, conquered television in Murder, She Wrote and is now acknowledged and beloved as a major musical theatre star whose triumphs have included the title role in Jerry Herman's Mame, the Madwoman of Chaillot in Herman's Dear World, the indomitable Rose in a 1974 revival of Gypsy and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, a show many regard as Sondheim's masterpiece.
Lansbury has also sparkled in several special Sondheim events and concerts, such as the legendary Sondheim: A Musical Tribute evening at the Shubert Theatre in 1973 and The Ladies Who Sing Sondheim , a 2008 benefit at the Schoenfeld Theatre in which she rolled back the clock 30 years with a show-stopping performance of "The Worst Pies in London" from Sweeney Todd. On Oct. 17, 2009, the day after her 84th birthday and the day before rehearsals began for Night Music, she had a conversation with The Sondheim Review.
The Sondheim Review: The Sondheim/Lansbury collaboration has been a boon for the musical theatre. When did you first meet Stephen Sondheim? Was it in conjunction with Anyone Can Whistle?
Angela Lansbury: Yes, I met him in California when he and Arthur Laurents came to audition me for the role of Cora Hoover Hooper. I believe that was the first time we actually met though I had heard about him, of course.
TSR: What are your chief memories of Whistle?
AL: I was given the role on the basis of a not terribly good audition. I'd had no experience of singing in the Broadway mode, only on a microphone. So I had to learn very quickly the art of singing in the theatre, because all we had to enhance our voices were foot mikes and shotgun [mikes] in the wings. If you think about it, none of the leads in the show were professional Broadway singers, so [Sondheim and Laurents] took a tremendous leap of faith in hiring us. I remember that in the early phases of rehearsal, we were all feeling our way trying to learn the material, to understand the piece and to bring it off the page. The show only lasted for nine performances. However, about three million people say they saw it. Thank God we did a cast recording the day after we closed, and that became a real collector's item.
TSR: There have been some high-profile revivals of the show, including the 1995 staged concert version at Carnegie Hall, which you narrated. And the City Center Encores! series will present Whistle in April 2010. Do you feel that the show was underappreciated in its day, or is the truth that it doesn't really work despite some beautiful songs and other fine elements?
AL: I think you've said it very succinctly: It has some wonderful material, but it doesn't work as a whole. I know what Arthur was trying to say, but it was too much for people to swallow. They didn't want to hear it. But some of the songs became almost standards to people who love Stephen's music. "With So Little to Be Sure Of" was one of my husband's favorite songs, even though the show was a huge flop. Well, let's not say a huge flop; let's say it was ahead of its time.
TSR: I suppose it's emblematic of Whistle's troubled gestation that one of the best songs in the score, "There Won't Be Trumpets," was cut before the opening.
AL: Yes. It's a terribly difficult song to sing, but what it says is stunning.
TSR: You've said that you credit Anyone Can Whistle with your casting in Mame and therefore, to a large extent, with your entire musical theatre career.
AL: Oh, absolutely. Jerry Herman did see Whistle, and he cast me in Mame on his understanding of what he assumed I was capable of. If it wasn't for that show, I wouldn't be here doing A Little Night Music all these years later.
TSR: In light of your status today as a revered star of musical theatre, it's ironic that your singing voice was dubbed in some of your early films. Was that a big disappointment for you?
AL: Well, back then, I didn't have the right kind of voice for The Harvey Girls, for example. My voice was too high and thin for the part, and therefore they dubbed me rightly so, in that instance. But it's certainly my own voice in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Till the Clouds Roll By. The two times they dubbed me were in The Harvey Girls and another film I can't remember the title or who was in it, but I played a saloon singer. I had to sing a bunch of old 1930s songs in a low, boozy voice, so they dubbed me. I really didn't mind, because I didn't have a low, boozy voice in those days. Only later!
TSR: Your second Sondheim-Laurents role was nothing less than Rose in Gypsy.
AL: That was a real breakthrough for me. I started it, as you probably know, in the London production. We rehearsed in a drill hall in Clapham, which is now considered very "in," but in those days was not. I have to tell you, it was due to the encouragement and help of Stephen, Arthur and Jule Styne in London during the rehearsal period that I managed to work the role up to the point where everyone was pleased. I really had to learn a lot in a short space of time, because here I was doing something I had always said I wouldn't do, which was to follow in a role that had been created originally by Ethel Merman. I was very worried and trepidatious, as you can imagine. But they gave me every possible bit of encouragement, and Stephen particularly made it possible for me to come through.
TSR: Rose is considered one of the greatest female roles in the musical theatre canon, and one of the most difficult. But what would you say if I suggested that Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd is even more difficult, at least from a vocal standpoint?
AL: It's very difficult for most actresses. For me, it was as if I had landed in the perfect spot for my talent. Sweeney Todd was an extraordinary opportunity to bring to the stage my London humor, which I was born to one day eventually show, and my ability to do a funny Cockney character. To this day, many people say they enjoyed Sweeney Todd more than anything else I've ever done not just for me but for the entire production. And they absolutely adored Nellie Lovett.
TSR: It sounds as if Sondheim wrote the role specifically for your voice, and it has proven a challenge to some other performers who aren't able to effect such a good mix between chest voice and soprano singing.
AL: Yes, that's where my soprano really paid off for me. I never had voice training, but in my youth, I was a rather high soprano. When I started to sing in musical theatre, I was always called upon to use my middle register and I seldom used the upper although in Whistle, I did sing way up in my range sometimes, as in the song "I've Got You to Lean On." I developed that part of my voice further for Sweeney Todd, and I've noticed that while other singers have very successfully played Mrs. Lovett, it's not so easy for them to kind of mix and match the vocal registers.
TSR: I saw the show the night after the opening, and it was electric. I imagine the audience response changed considerably after those rave reviews.
AL: Oh, God, yes. It took a while for us to build our audience. I think the issue was the subject matter, and the fact that blood was tending to splatter on the people seated in the front row of the orchestra.
TSR: May I ask you to share your feelings about the film version of Sweeney Todd?
AL: Yes, you may. I simply missed the vocal end of it. I thought Johnny Depp managed to do very well, all things considered. But he certainly didn't have the vocal depth or range that George Hearn or Len Cariou had. Also, I admire Helena Bonham Carter enormously, but I felt her performance was terribly hampered in that she wasn't allowed to show any humor at all. I was sorry for her sake that she didn't get to fool around a bit and play it the way I understand she wanted to.
TSR: It's a joy to have your stage performance as Mrs. Lovett preserved in the video that was made of the touring production and is now available on DVD.
AL: Thank God for that! It's the only show of mine that was preserved in its entirety, except in the library at Lincoln Center although I have discovered that almost all of Gypsy is available in little pieces on YouTube.
TSR: There's something I'd love to ask you about, though I imagine there's not much to say because it didn't happen: I remember that, before Andrew Lloyd Webber did Sunset Boulevard, there were reports that Sondheim was going to musicalize that property for you.
AL: Yes. We talked about that the other night, he and I, and we regretted that we hadn't done it. But it wasn't to be. Then I almost did it with Lloyd Webber he and I discussed it with Hal Prince but it all fell apart, and I went on to other things. I don't really know what happened.
TSR: As you prepare to begin rehearsals for A Little Night Music, what are your thoughts on the piece and the role of Madame Armfeldt?
AL: I love the piece. The two greatest songs in it are "Send in the Clowns" and "Liaisons"; I get to sing one of them, and Catherine [Zeta-Jones] gets to sing the other. I'll admit that I don't usually enjoy playing terribly old women even though I am an old woman at 84, I don't feel it so it will be a challenge for me to build the character of a woman who's about to pass away, literally, at the end of the piece. My tendency is always to try to give characters a little more lift than they might ordinarily have at a given age.
TSR: You've been a professional actress for 65 years. In Night Music, Madame Armfeldt spends much of her time deploring her daughter's lifestyle as an actress. How do you feel about that?
AL: The thing about Desir้e is that she isn't a very good actress, obviously, because she's always touring. I'm not casting aspersions on people who tour; I've done it myself. But any actor who has to be on the road constantly is not going to be considered among the best. Madame Armfeldt managed to have a very successful life as a courtesan, and she's disappointed that her daughter hasn't done the same. Instead, Desir้e chose to mix with hoi polloi in the theatre, and I don't think Madame Armfeldt can forgive her for that.
TSR: Are there any Sondheim roles you didn't play that you would have liked to have a go at?
AL: There was some discussion of me playing the Alexis Smith role [Phyllis Rogers Stone] in Follies, but I think at that point I was in England, and I was doing quite a lot of huge movies, so it couldn't be arranged. I don't think there's any role in any of the other Sondheim shows that would have been right for me. I'm not that easy to cast, you know!
TSR: Can you speak a little about Sondheim's work process during rehearsals?
AL: He prefers to discuss the piece before you ever get into a rehearsal studio. He works with us in his house we listen to what we're going to be singing, he talks about what he had in mind and how he feels the songs should be delivered. Stephen wants to make everything as easy as possible, so he's very helpful in terms of adjusting keys and things of that sort. But once the rehearsals begin, he pretty much stays out of it. I don't remember him ever walking down to the stage and saying, "Let's do it this way." He would never usurp the director's authority in front of the cast. I do remember that we all worked very closely together on "A Little Priest" in Sweeney Todd. When Stephen was writing it, he and [book writer] Hugh Wheeler used to sit out in the audience and think up new, funny things for Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd to refer to in those little exchanges between the two of them. It was very much a give -and-take situation. Sometimes we had to paste the lyrics on the back side of the orchestra pit, because they were so new that we couldn't memorize them in time.
TSR: Do you have any closing thoughts about your near-half-century history with Sondheim?
AL: As I've said, I really do feel that Stephen and I have come full circle. He is a very dear friend and a most loving man. I'm enormously grateful that I'm back again with him, and to be able to do this role in A Little Night Music at this time in my life is a tremendous gift. |TSR|
MICHAEL PORTANTIERE has been a theatre journalist and photographer for more than 30 years.
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