In preparation for Angela Lansbury’s receiving her lifetime special Tony Award tonight, I offer two stories in which she is featured. By happenstance Stephen Sondheim appears in them as well.
This first story was related over 20 years ago on the Sondheim mail list, and while I can’t confirm its veracity, it sounds like something Ms. Lansbury would do. I’m relating it from memory:
A young woman attended a Broadway play and when she got to her seat she was surprised and delighted to see she was sitting next to Angela Lansbury.
“Oh, Miss Lansbury,” she gushed, “I’ve admired you ever since I saw your performance in Sweeney Todd!”
Miss Lansbury thanked the young woman, and the two of them chatted about the theatre and other topics until the play began. Their conversation continued during the intermission, and Miss Lansbury turned out to be a gracious and voluble theatre companion.
When the final curtain came down, Miss Lansbury turned to her companion and said, “I’m having a late dinner with Stephen Sondheim after the show. I’m certain he would enjoy meeting you as much as I have. Would you like to join us?”
And so the young woman got to meet two of her theatre idols in one evening.
This second story comes directly from the first volume of Sondheim’s collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat. It’s in the section on Anyone Can Whistle, which starred Lee Remick played Fay and Lansbury played Cora Hoover Hooper:
After we had been in rehearsal for a week, Angela Lansbury, who was playing Cora, called me in a state of some agitation to ask if we could meet, which we immediately did. No sooner had she sat down than my worst fears were confirmed: She wanted to leave the show. Cora, she had discovered, was more a cartoon than a character, and she didn’t know how to play a cartoon. I murmured diplomatically that being the discerning and intelligent actress she was (and is), she surely must have recognized that fact when she agreed to play the part. The following is not a verbatim transcription of the conversation which followed, but it’s a respectable approximation.
All the characters, even the slightly more developed romantic leads, are exaggerations—the whole show is a cartoon.
But there’s no emotion for me to play.
Isn’t greediness an emotion?
A warm emotion, I mean. Couldn’t Cora have a song with genuine feeling?
But then she wouldn’t be a cartoon of venality and narcissism. What would make Cora sing such a song? What would be the reason for the song?
A very, very long pause followed. Then:
Besides, Fay has five songs and Cora has only four.
As good a reason to write a song as any, I say—hence, “A Parade in Town.”
And Angela was happy, or at least till we got to Philadelphia.
Here is Lansbury singing “A Parade in Town” from the original cast recording. In the show she plays the mayor of a town and in this number she’s discovering that Hapgood, who has become a rival for her job, seems to be more popular than she is. The song is literally about a parade in the musical, but it can also be taken as a metaphor for life—in which case the final line is devastating.
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