Descriptors like “Broadway royalty” tend to get tossed around all too freely. But there’s no disputing the claim to that title of Angela Lansbury, who died Tuesday, just five days before her 97th birthday. She was a grande dame of the theater of a kind that has largely gone the way of the dinosaur. It’s tempting to imagine a reverent hush passing over New York’s most hallowed stages tonight, along with those of London, as they welcome another fabulous ghost.
Lansbury was a class act, the rare public figure whose elegant sophistication was matched by her approachability. When she wasn’t on the actual stage, performing tirelessly in plays and musicals through her eighth decade, I saw her many times at the theater as a regular attendee.
Usually dressed in a chic pantsuit with unflashy gold jewelry, her patrician posture — and perhaps a pair of sensible heels — made her seem taller, more imposing than her 5’8” stature. She was invariably gracious with audience members professing their fandom, but her grandmotherly warmth also made it clear that a respectful distance was in order.
I met Lansbury only once, when I was Chief Theater Critic at Variety, at the publication’s 100th anniversary party in Los Angeles in 2005. She arrived with a companion and appeared to have gone unnoticed, so I took it upon myself to greet her.
I knew from a Page 6 item that week in The New York Post that Lansbury had attended the radically stripped-down Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Victorian slasher musical Sweeney Todd, which starred Patti LuPone honking on a tuba in the role of Mrs. Lovett.
That uncommonly juicy part, a Fleet Street pie-shop proprietress who finds a novel way of disposing of the bodies dispatched by the “demon barber” hungry for revenge, was one Lansbury had originated in 1979. It earned her the fourth of five Tony Awards in competitive categories, followed by a sixth for lifetime achievement in 2022.
Lansbury was effusive in her praise for the revival, explaining how it was closer to Sondheim’s original Grand Guignol concept than the industrial epic it became in Harold Prince’s premiere production. We talked about her history with the show, co-starring first with Len Cariou and then with George Hearn on tour, which was taped for television broadcast during the Los Angeles engagement, the video recording becoming a vital resource for admirers of great musical theater.
I put my foot in all the shared Sweeney Todd love, however, when I noted that LuPone’s interpretation of Mrs. Lovett was quite different from Lansbury’s. “Yes, quite different,” came the clipped response, her smile turning to ice and pretty much ending the conversation. I had been schooled by Angela Lansbury!
That capacity for turning conviviality to chilliness in an instant informed some of Lansbury’s greatest performances, perhaps most of all the manipulative matriarch of a prominent Washington political family in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 neo-noir, The Manchurian Candidate. Her characterization proved so indelible that Meryl Streep’s take on the role in the 2004 Jonathan Demme remake paled by comparison.
The Frankenheimer Cold War classic earned Lansbury her third best supporting actress Oscar nomination, sadly none of which yielded a win. The first was for her screen debut in George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight, playing Nancy, the saucy maid whose attitude further unsettles the paranoid mistress of the house, played by Ingrid Bergman. The second was as the heartbroken tavern singer cast aside by the caddish aristocrat of the title in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Despite her promising start in movies, Hollywood seldom knew what to do with Lansbury’s distinctive talent. She only really began to re-emerge as a beloved presence in the 1970s, first as an apprentice witch who opens up a world of magic to the children placed in her care during wartime in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Perhaps it was the campy sight of Lansbury riding a broom in a battle helmet with a sword held aloft that landed her such larger-than-life roles as self-dramatizing romance novelist Salome Otterbourne in the all-star 1978 Agatha Christie adaptation, Death on the Nile.
A subsequent brush with Christie, playing the writer’s famous sleuth Miss Marple in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d, was less successful. But it no doubt helped plant the seed for Lansbury’s casting a few years later in the role that for many remains her most iconic, as Jessica Fletcher, the mystery writer and amateur detective kept busy with an inordinate number of homicides in the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine, in CBS’ Murder, She Wrote.
That popular Sunday night staple ran for 12 seasons, spawning spinoff telemovies and even a Magnum, P.I. crossover episode. The show earned Lansbury a record 12 Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actress in a drama series, again with no win, neither for Murder, She Wrote nor the six other times she was nominated. Maybe the TV Academy is overdue to cough up a career honor, as the Oscars did in 2014.
Lansbury’s widest exposure was from her screen work, including one of her most cherished characters, the voice of Mrs. Potts, the castle cook-turned-teapot in Disney’s 1991 instant animated classic, Beauty and the Beast. Her recording of the movie’s title song is almost scientifically impossible to hear without getting teary-eyed. She continued her Disney association with one of her final film roles, a touching cameo as the Balloon Lady in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns.
But for anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed Lansbury’s work on stage, that’s where she’ll be most fondly remembered. Her career on Broadway spanned more than half a century, including such musical warhorses as Mame and Gypsy. She even managed to snag a Tony out of the clamorous Jerry Herman flop Dear World and won another as the dotty clairvoyant Madame Arcati in the Noël Coward farce Blithe Spirit.
Her Broadway work in plays included Tony Richardson’s original 1961 production of the British kitchen-sink drama, A Taste of Honey, and her final role was in the starry ensemble of Gore Vidal’s election satire, The Best Man, appearing with John Larroquette, Eric McCormack, James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen and Michael McKean. The outspoken opinions of Lansbury’s character on what the women of America like and don’t like in their presidents and first ladies was a scene-stealing masterclass in acerbic delivery.
The 2007 comedy Deuce might not be remembered among the prolific Terrence McNally’s major works. But any play that casts Lansbury and another great lady of the stage, Marian Seldes, as former tennis pros and causes an entire audience to gasp in shock as Jessica Fletcher tosses off “the C word” can’t be all bad.
Given how fresh the loss of Sondheim remains, it’s inevitable that Lansbury’s long association with the composer resonates sharply. They first worked together in 1964’s short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, with Lansbury starring opposite Lee Remick in a show that closed after just 12 performances and has rarely been produced since.
That stage musical debut might have been inauspicious for some, but Lansbury turned it into a thriving career path, going on to nail one of her signature roles (and the first of her Tonys), in Mame, just two years later. She worked again with Sondheim (and won another Tony) on the 1974 Gypsy revival and then triumphed in 1979 in Sweeney Todd.
Mrs. Lovett might be an eccentric reprobate, willing to peddle pies made of human flesh to get through hard times and help out the man she loves, but the desperate yearning Lansbury injected into the character made her a tragic figure of haunting vulnerability beneath the hilariously coarse exterior.
It wasn’t Lansbury’s final Broadway role, but I’ll choose to think of the 2009 revival of Sondheim and Wheeler’s A Little Night Music as her swan song. As the mother of celebrated beauty Desiree Armfeldt, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lansbury spent much of the show in a wheelchair, a glorious relic of old-world European hauteur, observing the amorous follies of everyone around her and missing nothing.
Madame Armfeldt has just one solo number, “Liaisons,” but what a magnificent song it is. A remembrance of things past — champagne and jewels, sumptuous feasts and glamorous gowns, trysts with counts and kings — it was performed by Lansbury with equal parts sorrow and humor, pride and rueful wisdom. She confronted the looming specter of her mortality with a defiant twinkle in her eye, raising her glass in a toast, “To death!” I’d like to think that’s how she made her exit, spirited away by the many splendors of memory.