Broadway offered a bright second career to Angela Lansbury, and she grabbed it.
The great star, who died peacefully in her sleep October 11 at 96 (as confirmed to Playbill by Ms. Lansbury's longtime publicist Merle Frimark), came to the U.S. from her native England during the Second World War. She was an immediate hit in films, earning Oscar nominations for her first two movie performances and then settling into a Hollywood career that lasted the better part of two decades. She was already in her late 30s when she made her Broadway debut, and in her 40s when she had her first Broadway smash with Mame.
Lansbury was born October 16, 1925, into a theatrical family on her mother’s side. One of her grandparents was a director of the Belfast Opera. Her mother, Moyna MacGill Lansbury, was an actor of minor repute who inculcated in her children a love of musical theatre. Moyna became a widow with four children in the depths of the Depression when Angela was just nine years old. In 1939 Angela was accepted into the Webber-Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art where she blossomed, playing her first Shakespearean role, Audrey, in As You Like It.
Her education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II and the Blitz. Moyna fled with her children to New York where Angela began taking classes at Feagin School for Drama and Radio. Legendary agent Audrey Wood spotted the 16-year-old Angela playing the title role in the 1941 school production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan, and began sending her out on professional auditions. Angela and her mother had only modest luck in New York, so, after earning her green card, Moyna moved them to Hollywood.
Angela made three films during her first two years in Hollywood, two of which earned her Oscar nominations: Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Spending a few minutes with The Harvey Girls (1946) provides a glimpse into Lansbury's fiery early performances.
But plum roles rarely came her way after that. For most of the next two decades she worked fairly steadily in Hollywood’s middle ground, though she did earn one more Oscar nomination, as the coldblooded mother who uses her own son in a plot to suborn the U.S. government in The Manchurian Candidate.
It was a film career successful by almost any standard, but it wasn't a star career. That came in 1963 in the form of a small blue envelope that she treasured for many years afterward. It was a letter from Broadway librettist Arthur Laurents, asking if she’d like to star in a new musical called Anyone Can Whistle, which he was writing with a young composer named Stephen Sondheim.
WATCH: 11 Videos of Angela Lansbury's Greatest Performances
Lansbury had appeared twice on Broadway in the years leading up to the offer: with Bert Lahr in George Feydeau’s sex farce Hotel Paradiso, and as a lusty mom in Shelagh Delaney’s drama A Taste of Honey. But Anyone Can Whistle represented a major new challenge, requiring her to sing and dance. Laurents and Sondheim had worked together as librettist and lyricist, respectively, on two of the great hits of the 1950s, West Side Story and Gypsy. Sondheim, who was on his way to the most distinguished theatre composing career of the late 20th century, had just enjoyed a hit writing both music and lyrics to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Anyone Can Whistle was the disquieting tale of a broken-down little town whose only solvent business is its insane asylum, but which seeks to change its fortunes by staging a phony miracle—a rock that spouts water—and cashing in on the resulting flocks of suckers. The story featured a viciously corrupt mayor (Lansbury), a sexually repressed asylum nurse (Lee Remick), and a fearless doctor (Harry Guardino) who tries to confront the mayor and win the heart of the nurse—until it is discovered that he is a mental patient who has been mistaken for a doctor.
"In an attempt to be meaningful it forgets to offer much entertainment," wrote Howard Taubman in The New York Times. Many also saw brilliance in Sondheim’s writing, and in Lansbury’s performance as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper. Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune, called her “a creature who can toss her head, her arms, and her shapely legs until the sparkle from her bracelets and the sparkle from her earrings seems one and the same sparkle."
The show might not have been the clear-cut starring role she sought, but she found that she managed to have some fun despite the grueling Philadelphia tryout and heartbreakingly brief nine-performance run. She liked working on the stage. The project also marked the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with Sondheim. As his star rose, so would hers.
There were plenty of reasons why making a musical based on Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame in the mid 1960s was a bad idea. Number one was the fact that the ticket-buying public was already familiar with the story from the 1956 stage adaptation and the 1958 film, both also called Auntie Mame. Number two was the fact that both of those versions had starred Rosalind Russell, who had become identified with the role of the devil-may-care 1920s flapper who finds herself suddenly having to care for her orphaned nephew, and incorporates the wide-eyed boy into her flamboyant lifestyle. Russell herself turned down the part in the musical, saying she had wrung everything out of it there was to wring.
Enter composer Jerry Herman, riding the wave of success that followed Hello, Dolly!. Carol Channing had been the star of that show, but she turned down the chance to play Mame, saying (through her husband) that the role was too similar to Dolly. Lansbury flew back to New York from her home in Malibu to audition. She shared the limelight with Lee Remick in Anyone Can Whistle, but she knew she would be the unquestioned comedic and romantic star of Mame. And while there were some initial questions about the strength of her singing voice and her box office drawing power, she landed the role and snapped her fingers in the face of her doubters by handling the toughest vocal challenges Herman could throw at her.
At age 41, Lansbury finally had a big starring role and a big hit. Lansbury won the Tony as Best Actress in a Musical.
When Jerry Herman offered Lansbury his next musical, she jumped on it. Dear World was based on Jean Giradoux’s whimsical play The Madwoman of Chaillot, written in Paris during its occupation by the Nazis. A group of Left Bank street people and eccentrics, led by the title character, decide to destroy all the evil people of the world by luring them into her cellar—including politicians, generals, and industrialists—and sending them down a bottomless pit she keeps there.
Perhaps inspired by the political activism of the 1960s, Herman and Mame librettists Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee also saw the story as a parable about the need to protect the environment. Lansbury got to sing another anthem of hope, “Tomorrow Morning,” and a beautiful ballad, “Kiss Her Now,” urging a young man not to let the love of his life get away. But whether the material wasn’t suitable or tastes were just changing, Dear World was not a success. Lansbury won her second Tony Award for the show, but it only ran a few months and closed at a loss.
Nevertheless, Lansbury had established an identity as a musical comedy star, which led to her starring in a semi-animated Disney feature film fantasy, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, written for her by the Mary Poppins composing team of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman.
In 1974 Lansbury appeared in a London revival of Gypsy, the first major production of the show since Ethel Merman's original. With Merman still alive would audiences accept her daring assault on her signature role?
Absolutely, as it turned out. Despite the failure of Anyone Can Whistle, Lansbury had remained friends with librettist Laurents and lyricist Sondheim. Now they were delighted to help her find her own way through the role considered the Hamlet of musical theatre roles for women. The production moved to Broadway where it won Lansbury her third Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical.
Lansbury had, by now, scaled the heights and could easy have rested on her laurels, accepting one glamorous, stylish leading role after another. Instead, in 1979, she accepted the most difficult role of her career: Nellie Lovett, the anti-glamorous cannibalistic baker of meat pies in Sondheim’s Grand Guignol masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Len Cariou (and later George Hearn) played the revenge-seeking 19th-century London barber who, deprived of his chance to kill the judge who ruined his life, turns his razor on the rest of mankind. The quandary of what to do with the bodies is solved by Mrs. Lovett, who turns the bodies into meat pies.
With Mrs. Lovett, Lansbury offered a characterization that was at once desperate and innocent, nauseating and adorable. Her hair twisted up into two little braids that looked a bit like horns, and wearing heavy makeup that made her look a bit like a clown and a bit like a cadaver, she used a piping Cockney accent that made everything she said, even the most horrifying things, sound sweet. Always a physical performer, she danced around the set like a little girl, full of excitement at her mischievous plan and how well it works.
Read: See Sweeney Todd’s Broadway Evolution in Rare Photos from Broadway Original
Fully cognizant of all her strongest suits, Sondheim wrote her a score full of wonderful songs that start with her triumphant entrance singing “The Worst Pies in London.” In Act II, her lullaby “Not While I’m Around” showed her trying to calm a dimwitted young man who suspects the worst. She’s warmhearted and motherly towards him, even knitting him a scarf, but she makes it clear to Sweeney that she’d just as soon cold-bloodedly send him to join all the other former customers. Mrs. Lovett eventually gets her comeuppance—and Lansbury got her fourth Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. Ms. Lansbury would tour with the musical following her Broadway run, immortalizing her take on the role in a filmed stage performance, captured during the tour's Los Angeles engagement and broadcast on The Entertainment Channel in 1982.
Looking back on her performance in 2002, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that Lansbury’s "creation of Mrs. Lovett was the high point in a career filled with pinnacles."
The short run of a 1983 Mame revival, a re-mount of the original production, helped push her into the third phase of her career: television. Murder, She Wrote followed a mystery writer named Jessica Fletcher who finds herself solving real-life murders. The show turned out to be one of the most successful of its era, running from 1984 to 1996 with more than 260 episodes. Lansbury was nominated for Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series 12 times, every year the series was eligible. She won four Golden Globe Awards for the role.
In the 1990s, Lansbury was in an enviable position. When she was on the West Coast, she was the beloved star of a hit TV series. When she was on the East Coast, she was part of Broadway’s revered royalty. Being accepted in both worlds led to assignments like hosting the Tony Awards and starring in Jerry Herman’s TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus.
Lansbury would find another of her most iconic career performances on screen in 1991, returning to Disney to voice the motherly tea pot and housekeeper Mrs. Potts in the animated masterpiece Beauty and the Beast. Howard Ashman, fresh off the soon-to-be Oscar-winning success of writing lyrics and serving as a producer on The Little Mermaid, envisioned Disney's take on the French fairy tale as a golden-age-style musical, recruiting a vocal cast almost entirely comprising stage stars, including Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, Paige O'Hara, Richard White, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, and others.
When it came time to record the film's songs, Disney assembled the cast to record together with the full orchestra, harkening back to the recording of golden age Broadway cast albums. Lansbury had expressed reservations at being assigned the film's title song, feeling she did not have the soaring vocals Alan Menken's melody required—Ashman assured her she was exactly what they envisioned when writing the number. On recording day, flight delays led to a late arrival for Lansbury. Though strongly encouraged to postpone recording her biggest song after a stressful travel day, Lansbury insisted, reportedly reaching near perfection on the first take, which is what was used for the final film. The song would go on to earn an Oscar as Best Original Song.
In the late 1990s, with Murder, She Wrote having finally run its course, Lansbury set her cap for Broadway once again. The project was a thematically dark musical called The Visit, based on the drama by Friedrich Durrenmatt, about a rich but embittered courtesan who returns to the small French village of her youth determined at last to get revenge on the man who set her on the path of sin. The score was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, songwriters of Cabaret and Chicago, full of the glittering menace that had made those shows such hits. A tryout tour was in the planning when Peter Shaw, Lansbury’s husband of nearly 50 years, fell ill. Lansbury postponed, and then withdrew from The Visit, saying she could not leave her husband’s side. He died January 29, 2003, by which time Chita Rivera had replaced her in the Chicago tryout. The show finally arrived on Broadway in 2015, with Rivera in the main role.
In October 2006 Broadway was startled by the announcement that Lansbury would be taking a stage encore the following spring in a new play by Terrence McNally, appearing opposite Marian Seldes. Titled Deuce, it was a portrait of two retired tennis pros, doubles partners and pioneers of the women’s tennis circuit, who look back on their lives and careers from the stands of a tournament where they are being honored for their contribution to the sport. Lansbury played the slightly more aggressive of the two, who blames herself for losing them a key tournament. She and Seldes received mainly glowing reviews, but the play itself was dismissed as thin soup. Lansbury earned a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Play, her first in that category. It was also the first time she lost a Tony Award.
She bounced back in 2009 playing the occult-dabbling Madam Arcati in a revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit that brought her another Tony Award nomination and her fifth win—her first for a non-musical role.
During that period she told Playbill that she would consider a return to Broadway musicals—but only if she could find a role that allowed her to sit down the whole time. It sounded like a joke, but she found exactly such a role with the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music, playing the role of Madame Armfeldt entirely in a wheelchair. She earned a 2010 Tony nomination (her seventh and final) for her performance, which included a moving rendition of Sondheim’s “Liaisons.”
Her final Broadway performance came in 2012 playing the Southern-accented political dragon Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge in a revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, timed to coincide with that year’s contentious presidential election campaign.
Accolades continued to roll in. In 2013 the Academy Awards bestowed its annual Governors Award on Lansbury. The following year she was created a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
In 2016 she announced that she would return to Broadway in a revival of Enid Bagnold's 1955 play The Chalk Garden, but later withdrew, saying she wanted to spend time with her family.
However, in February 2017, it was announced that Lansbury would take on the role of Balloon Lady in Mary Poppins Returns, a film sequel to the 1964 Disney hit musical film Mary Poppins. The sequel, shot in Great Britain, released in 2018 with Emily Blunt in the title role and Lin-Manuel Miranda starring as Jack, the spiritual successor to Dick Van Dyke's Bert.
Earlier this year, Lansbury was awarded a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, in recognition of her more than six–decade career, which includes five competitive Tony Award wins—it was Lansbury's record that Audra McDonald broke with her sixth win in 2014—and five times hosting or co-hosting Tony Awards ceremonies, still the current record. Though not present at the ceremony, Lansbury was honored with a montage of her most iconic performances introduced by her Sweeney Todd co-star Len Cariou and a performance of Mame's title song by The New York City Gay Men's Chorus.
Lansbury is survived by her; children Anthony, Deirdre, and David; grandchildren Peter, Katherine, and Ian; five great grandchildren; and brother, producer Edgar Lansbury. She was predeceased by husband Peter Shaw. A private family ceremony will be held at a date to be determined.
Look back at her career highlights below: