We lost the legend Angela Lansbury this week at the age of 96. Today, on what would have been her 97th birthday, I'm reflecting on her incredible impact.
As sad as it is, it’s been wonderful seeing everyone post their photos and encounters with her. What a legacy! Hers is a legacy not only of work, but of character. Ann Hampton Callaway's post expressed that Angela was her role model, teaching her the lesson to take her work, but not herself, too seriously. I love that!
My friend Zak Resnick posted the most endearing story of his time in the presence of Angela. He was doing a benefit with her and shyly asked if she would take a photo with him. She replied, “My dear, why do you think I’m here?”
I was a huge Angela Lansbury fan. Check this out:
My first encounter was back in the day. My sister, Beth, bought my tickets to see Sweeney Todd for my Bar Mitzvah. I was obsessed!
I never thought I’d get a chance to work with Angela, but it happened, magically. Here’s my Angela encounter.
You may recall that in November 2007 there was a major strike on Broadway. As a matter of fact, I just saw someone Tweet about how innocent we were back then when we were so devastated that Broadway stopped for 19 whole days. Sigh. Remember when we thought that was a long time? For various reasons, however, there were some shows that were able to perform during the strike. For instance, I was doing The Ritz at the time, and even though Roundabout shows are considered Broadway shows, the Roundabout is considered a regional theater. Well, I think. I still don’t really understand it. In any case, we weren’t on strike. Additionally, because the producers of How The Grinch Stole Christmas weren’t part of the Broadway League, The Grinch was able to run. Go figure!
One afternoon during the strike, I was walking my dog when I got a call from Jeffrey Seller telling me that when the strike ended, which he thought it would relatively soon, there was gonna be a big celebration. He asked for some song suggestions that represented Broadway plus one for Christmas. We talked about "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "We Need A Little Christmas." I then begged him not to do one of those events where everyone stands onstage and sings in unison because that felt very 1980s Tony Awards to me. I also suggested getting some stars who really represented Broadway like Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury to participate. He said that Bernadette was a great idea, but Angela probably couldn't happen because she lived in Los Angeles. A few days later, Jeffrey called back to tell me that Bernadette said yes. Thrilling!
During our conversation, I remembered that Angela had just seen The Ritz and was, therefore, not in Los Angeles. She was right here in good ol' NYC! I told Jeffrey to call and ask if she was still in town and able to join the celebration. He called Angela and she said yes! Once we had Angela on board, Jeffrey asked me if I would conduct the orchestra. Of course, I said yes, then immediately asked how many strings would be in the pit. We soon found out we'd be at the Marriott Marquis, which they didn't use any strings in their pit. I was certified NHI: Not Having It. I said that we had to have strings. Luckily, he totally agreed. Phew! I would have hated for me to have to go on strike during the end-of-the-strike celebration.
The first amazing thing that happened was I got to have a private rehearsal with the grande dame herself, Angela Lansbury. Amazingly, she didn't have any handlers with her. No assistants, just her! My now-husband then-boyfriend, James, was a huge fan of Angela so he begged me to come to rehearsal. She was so kind to both of us. When we started to sing the song through, she told me she thought “We Need A Little Christmas” should be one step down. We tried it, but after singing the whole thing, she said that we should go through it again in the original key. She sounded great! It was like hearing the record I listened to obsessively, but in a private concert! I couldn't believe she was singing it right next to me. I asked Angela if she ever thought of doing a cabaret act, singing and telling stories from her incredible life in the theatre. I mean, can you imagine the stories she has? Angela told me that she is only comfortable singing as a character, not as herself. Ugh. Thinking about that now is so sad. She sounded amazing. Why couldn’t she have been in one more original musical?
Back to the Broadway’s Back! concert! This all came together at the last minute as in late Thursday afternoon for a Friday afternoon show. The incredible people in The Producing Office literally worked until three in the morning getting all their ducks in a row. I showed up at the Marquis Theater Friday for the 10 AM run-thru, and there were a ton of Broadway actors on the Drowsy Chaperone set. I was in the pit with my delicious fully-strung orchestra. Avenue Q’s co-lyricist and composer Bobby Lopez had written some fun new lyrics to "There's No Business Like Show Business," so I spent some time teaching everyone the changes. Of course, these were Broadway pros, so everyone learned it super quick. We ran both songs and suddenly, it was places!
Bob Martin hosted the show as the character Man in Chair from Drowsy Chaperone and it was so amazing to see him in that role again. I love that show and him so much! Man in Chair talked about how hard the strike was on him. "I mean, how many times can a single middle-aged man see How The Grinch Stole Christmas? Once. Once is the answer. And even then, the ushers keep a pretty close eye on you."
Then he moved toward the refrigerator and asked the audience, "Can I offer you a soda? Or as they say in Canada, 'Can I offer you a soda?’ There's actually not much difference between us and our pacifist neighbors to the North. Well, I guess the pacifism."
The fridge opened, and Bernadette Peters walked out looking like she was in her early thirties. Has she aged since Mack And Mabel? This is a rhetorical question as the answer is obviously no.
Bernadette sang the beginning of "Show Business," sounding amazing. That was no surprise, as even her 10 AM sound check had been divine. Then, Bernadette opened up the fridge and actors leapt out, representing (almost) every Broadway show in full costume. It was so thrilling!
By the way, Bernadette brought her own conductor, Marvin Laird, to conduct her very beginning solo section of "Show Business." I asked Marvin how long he'd been working with her. Turns out, he met her on Gypsy, but not the one she did in 2003. This was the one in the early 1960s. Bernadette had been the Agnes understudy. Now that is a long working relationship! Brava to both of them.
Marvin wrote the hilarious musical Ruthless, which gave Britney Spears her Equity card. Britney was original child star Laura Bell Bundy's understudy. He also wrote for Siegfried and Roy in Vegas. Marvin told me that the first time he went over to their house, the two men were swimming in a pool with a bunch of tigers. I thought this meant that the tigers were roaming around the pool area, but he clarified that the tigers were swimming in the pool with them!
Okay, back to the show! All the cast members from the various shows sang "Show Business," and then Martin heard a knock. Bob Saget, also dressed as Man in Chair, appeared, having been playing the role on Broadway at the time. Saget said that he heard music coming from the apartment and wanted to borrow Bob Martin's Gypsy record.
Martin, irritated, and told him, "You just can't go to somebody's apartment and ask for their recording of Gypsy without specifying which one! Merman? Tyne Daly? Angela Lansbury? I also have a bootleg of Linda Lavin."
Saget asked for Angela's, and Martin got the album out of his bookshelf. The catch was the album he was holding was obviously not Gypsy. The event was put together so fast that no one had thought to put the real record on the set! Quick on his feet, Martin ad-libbed, "I keep it in a Dean Martin Album cover." Brava!
Then another knock and in walked Angela Lansbury. She got an immediate standing ovation, which, so deserved. Angela then led everyone singing "We Need a Little Christmas," and I couldn't believe the seat I had. I mean, it wasn't a seat in the audience per se, but when you're conducting a show, you're so close to the actors onstage it's like being in a special front row. It was thrilling. I'm so glad that it's been preserved on video online. Watch!