On the Town: May Edition

When I was a senior in high school, I had the great pleasure of playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill in our spring production of My Fair Lady. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the school’s performing arts center. It was a thrilling experience for the principal cast; an experience we still recall with each other fondly. It seemed to us that no expense was spared to make the production as thrilling as possible, including fully realized sets, costumes and the presence of the entire licensed orchestration in the pit (including harp!). Much was made of this weekend in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Walter Panas High School’s performing arts center, and I have to say it was a special experience to see these kids take on this American classic with such brio.

Kudos to Jim Filippelli, who has been directing shows at the school since 1978, and without whom the Panas Players wouldn’t be what it is today. At intermission, the normally unflappable Mr. Filippelli was stunned by the senior class’ announcement that they were going to petition the Lakeland School Board to put his name on the school’s performing arts center. I can’t think of a greater honor for the man who made that building a reality, and for the man who makes sure that these kids put on two musical productions each year and insists that any student who wants to be involved is involved.

SarahB was officially endorsed by The Best Man and part of her responsibilities included seeing the show currently in revival at the Schoenfeld Theatre. I was quite fortunate enough to attend with her, and see Gore Vidal’s staggering play in this volatile election year. The most amazing thing about the play, and something I’ve heard from many people, is how relevant this text – written in 1960 – is today. James Earl Jones seems to be having the time of his life as the old school ailing former President, Angela Lansbury gives a master class in how to steal a scene with nothing but a bottle of Coke and a newspaper. Candice Bergen offers a fascinating portrait of a candidate’s wife who is uncomfortable with the entire process (and gets one of the best lines), while Kerry Butler  plays a Southern tart who’ll do anything to help her husband get elected. Angela Lansbury proves once again she’s one of our treasures with the rather small role as party dowager (and manages to steal a scene with nothing but a bottle of Coke and newspaper). Leave it to Gore Vidal to have a conclusion that is simultaneously inspiring and cynical. (Also, sending my best wishes to the always-excellent Michael McKean for a speedy recovery).

I find I’ve been listening to one new score more than any others. One Man, Two Guvnors. I loved the play when I saw it in April but didn’t expect to fall for the music. The skiffle band which plays a set before and during the show consists of entirely new songs, all of which were written by Grant Olding (who also functions as the lead singer in the UK production, and is featured on the original cast album of the score. It’s tuneful, entertaining with some clever lyrics. Mr. Olding is a Tony-nominee for Best Score Written for the Theatre. The general consensus is that Newsies will win because it’s an Alan Menken Disney hit and a musical. However, with apologies to Mr. Menken and Mr. Feldman, I think Mr. Olding takes the cake this season.

Picked up Maureen Stapleton’s biography at the Strand and devoured it. A Hell of a Life was published in 1995 and offers the Tony, Oscar and Emmy winning star’s usual candor and straight talk. She’s ferociously funny, salty and compelling. Her observations of the Actors Studio are fascinating, including the scene she did with Marilyn Monroe in the mid-50s. When she won her Oscar she famously quipped in her thank yous, “…and to everyone I ever met in my life.”  When she won her second Tony for The Gingerbread Lady, she was asked how it felt to win her reply was, “What the hell, it’s better than getting hit with a wet fish.” Those are just some of the choice one-liners that appear throughout. Pulling no punches, Stapleton (who died in 2006)  openly talks about her successes and failures with equal abandon. When not filling us in on fun anecdotes from her storied stage and screen career, she is also not afraid to talk of her alcoholism, failed marriages and the insecurities and problems that plagued her life. A hell of a life, indeed.

Angela Lansbury sings “Liaisons”

My friends and regular readers are aware of the cool reception I gave Trevor Nunn’s revival of A Little Night Music that played the Walter Kerr last year. I don’t want to rehash all that again as the production is now closed and we can look forward to a better and brighter future as a result, but the highlight of that production to me was Angela Lansbury’s Tony nominated performance as Madame Armfeldt, a performance that I think was the only Tony-worthy aspect of the entire production (and her across the board rave notices seem to match my sentiments). Her character, Madame Armfeldt, has only one song in the show, “Liaisons,” but it is one of the most memorable of the entire score and one of my personal favorite Sondheim songs.

Ms. Lansbury made a special appearance in London at this weekend’s Olivier Awards to help present Stephen Sondheim with a special lifetime achievement award. Having seen this little news item on Twitter, I made it a point to tune in. The awards ceremony, which until this year had been an industry banquet, made significant changes and was televised for the first time in years (while simultaneously airing on BBC Radio 2, which is how I was able to chime in). There were some kinks in the format, as the early half of the evening relied far too heavily on colorless color commentators interviewing winners in lieu of focusing on the stage, but the performances were all quite interesting to hear, as were the incredibly brief but pitch-perfect acceptance speeches.

The award for Sondheim was saved until the very end of the evening, following the presentations of Best Musical and Best Play. Adrian Lester started the tribute by reprising “Being Alive” from his Olivier Award winning performance of Bobby in the Donmar Company of 1996. Cameron Mackintosh spoke at length about Sondheim’s work as well as their personal relationship before the impresario introduced Lansbury, who received a thunderous standing ovation on her entrance.

It seemed for a few moments that Lansbury was only there to present Sondheim with the award, but following his acceptance speech she delivered a staggering performance of “Liaisons.” Enjoy:


Our Best Girl

“Light the candles!
Get the ice out!
Roll the rug up!
It’s today!”

It’s not quite the first of the year but it is somebody’s birthday and, boy is there history in it! The one and only Angela Lansbury turns 85 today. The five-time Tony winner, whose 66 year career runs the gamut from film to Broadway to television (and back again), is one of our true international treasures. Thanks to the mammoth success of Murder She Wrote, somewhere in the world at this very minute, Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher is hard at work solving a murder. But that doesn’t begin to define the well-rounded and unprecedented career that Lansbury has experienced.

Like her peers Betty White and Cloris Leachman, Ms. Lansbury has proven that it’s never too late for anything, which is especially evident in her three Broadway outings in the last three years. Lansbury is immediately recognizable and one-of-a-kind: those large, warm eyes and that sparkling crystal-clear speaking and singing voice, which is unlike any other voice we’ve ever heard. The career has maintained its longevity due to Lansbury’s immense range and versatility, with success in comedy, drama, and musical theatre.

While I often spend much of my time espousing her showstopper of a Broadway career, my personal favorite of her performances is Mrs. Iselin from The Manchurian Candidate, which is the greatest role she ever had on film. The first time I watched, I was staggered. Lansbury (who spent many years before Broadway playing a lot of mothers) was captivating in the way she created the character and her acting reflects a gritty realism and honesty that allows her to walk away with the film. Whenever her character is on screen, you cannot stop watching her. She’s the most interesting, fascinating and unsettling character and it’s a mesmerizing experience. The performance is riveting and one which in hindsight should have won the Academy Award. (She took home the Golden Globe, but lost the Oscar to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker. I’ll give you a moment to think about that). Here’s a quick sample:


It’s a mindblowing performance (and if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll be staggered by what she does next in that scene) and I hope that there’s another memorable film role left for her to play. I’ve been there for Lansbury’s final performances in Blithe Spirit and A Little Night Music, and there’s been an unspoken but nostalgic and warm vibe from many that “this could be the final Broadway bow.” However, I don’t think that’s the case. I’m looking forward to see what she picks for the fourth show in her late-career renaissance on Broadway.

Now to celebrate is Ms. Lansbury herself, leading the revival cast of Mame in a song that’s just pure joy: “It’s Today”:


Showstopper: “Mame”

I’ve seen other video of Angela Lansbury in the short-lived revival of Mame, but nothing with such clarity. It’s stunning to see this so clearly and with close-ups on the legend as she reacts through the number. Onna White supplied the choreography. This was apparently filmed on July 24, 1983, the revival’s opening night. I was 17 days old, happily oblivious to the joy happening onstage at the Gershwin Theatre! The title song is a thrilling moment. Mame has just won over the stubborn old South family of her beloved Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside by an unexpected display of horsemanship and being the first to ever bring a live fox back from a fox hunt. What follows is one of the great showstoppers in all musical theatre: the show’s title song. It starts out low-key with a striking banjo accompaniment as the company sings her praises. At first, Lansbury has her back to the audience – breaking one of the cardinal rules of stage acting – with thrilling results. As the number builds and builds, she becomes incorporated into the song as the ensemble pays her a spirited tribute. The leading lady does not sing one word of the song, but it is a celebration of her and everything that she represents to the characters onstage and the people in the audience. It’s simple, euphoric and it never failed to rouse the audience. Enjoy:


Revisiting “A Little Night Music”

I didn’t have plans to revisit the revival of A Little Night Music before Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ departures, but much to my surprise I won a contest on BroadwaySpace for a pair of tickets to their final matinee on June 20. I’ve done a lot of final performances, from Bernadette’s Gypsy to The Norman Conquests, so it’s something with which I’m familiar. There is a huge fan base, the cheers are a little louder and longer and the general feeling in the theatre is that of good will. I met up with SarahB and Byrne at Sosa Borella before the show where we dubbed it “Angie Day – Summer Edition” and drank a toast to the star and her day. We headed down to the Walter Kerr, where we met up with fellow ITBA blogger (and Prettybelle enthusiast) Donald from Me2ism. We also had the opportunity to meet our delightful Twitter friend and fellow theatre fan Shari Zeck, who had flown in to see Ms. Lansbury.

Full disclosure: it was a pleasure to be in attendance on this particular performance and in spite of quibbles found myself enjoying the production more the second time, managing to focus on the text and action and mostly forgetting the bland sets, costumes and anemic orchestrations. Getting those quibbles out of the way: Trevor Nunn’s direction is hamfisted, lacking in nuance and full of far too much indicating. Act 1 and Act 2 feel like they were directed by two entirely different people, the former feels like a Lutheran penance, while things pick up considerably in the latter. Erin Davie is still humorless and ineffectual as Charlotte while Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent is still circling the airports of the world.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, fresh off a now notorious Tony performance, is much better than you’d remember based on that telecast but she also never, in my estimation, reached greatness in the part. There are moments when it seems that she’s playing the character of Desiree Armfeldt as the world’s greatest lush, with the idiosyncratic mannerisms of someone secretly taking a nip when no one is looking. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by it (those pregnant pauses – Trevor, how could you?); however, she really shone in the final scene, earning applause when Fredrik and Desiree finally connect (myself included). I think Night Music has one of the most flawless endings in musical theatre history, up there with She Loves Me. Now, mind you I mention these criticisms about her performance, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy her this time. At this point, I can only fault the director for the things that didn’t work.

Now onto the good: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and especially Ramona Mallory have grown in their parts, with more nuance and understanding. Aaron Lazar and Alexander Hanson are still excellent as ever. The Liebeslieders are in excellent voice, and make an impression in spite of the walkography thrust upon them. (What a shame they don’t get to sing the full overture, a glorious piece of music). Keaton Whittaker is still a welcome presence as Fredrika.

And then there’s Angela Lansbury. Lansbury has been the toast of Broadway for so many years and has rightfully earned the status of legend, from Hotel Paradiso onward (to say nothing of her five Tony Awards). I’ve been so fortunate to see her in Deuce and Blithe Spirit, each time amazed that she was returning to Broadway. With her stage renaissance, I had hoped she would play the role of Madame Armfeldt and I am so glad this production made that pipe dream a reality. Out of the three productions, this one outshone the other two. On this last performance, Ms. Lansbury gave the greatest performance I’ve seen from her. On her entrance, which is timed with the applause button for the overture, the ovation grew and grew and lasted what I think must have been between 45 seconds and a full minute. Adulation from everyone in the house; the mere sight of Lansbury in the wheelchair made my heart leap. Her final rendition of “Liaisons” was the most devastating I’ve ever heard in my life, with all respect to Hermione Gingold, Regina Resnik, etc. In the final section of the song, there was unexpected emotion from Ms. Lansbury, as tears came to her eyes. A testament to her unrelenting brilliance: it came from a personal place for her last show, but was also an exceptionally valid acting choice . “Send in the Clowns” got the ovation; but it was “Liaisons” that was the pinnacle of this afternoon’s performance.

At the curtain call, there was a huge ovation as Zeta-Jones and Lansbury stepped forward. It took a couple minutes for Catherine to get the audience to quiet down, finally getting the audience to shut up and sit down. In a moment of pure class, the star dedicated virtually the entire speech to Angela. It was unexpected, honest and a beautiful tribute as those in the house and onstage hopelessly fought back tears. Zeta-Jones got down her knees and bowed down to Angela, who in turn gave a sophisticated curtsy to her co-star. It was a beautiful moment, chock full of emotion. Suffice it to say, I think it was in the back everyone’s minds that this could potentially be the last time Ms. Lansbury, the Queen of Broadway, appears on stage. But the first thing I said to SarahB was “So what do you think Angie will appear in next season?”

Random Thoughts on the Tony Awards

Last night I was very fortunate to be watching the Tony Awards at SarahB‘s annual Tony party (which I lovingly call “Lady Iris’ Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza”). We were in a different suite this year, but the company was the same. While it rained on the NY, up inside 1820, the moon was the full, the gin was in the bathtub and a glorious time was had by all. There was a Twitter corner for those who wished to tweet during the ceremony, but we all had such a marvelous time with one another that no one left the couch!

The greatest acceptance speech of the night belonged to Marian Seldes. The beloved actress was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award which was presented on the pre-show telecast on NY1. There had been some conjecture wondering how long Ms. Seldes’ speech would run. However, she trumped all by merely walking to the microphone, taking several glances at the house and merely put her hand to her cheek in astonishment as she walked offstage. I think it will go down as one of the greatest Tony moments ever (and is that now officially the shortest acceptance speech on record…)

I’ve seen some speculation on web boards and twitter that Ms. Seldes’ speech was either disingenuous or indicative of failing health. But the truth of the matter that it is neither. Marian is an animal of the theatre, one who has a unique quality of eccentricity about her. But this eccentricity is pure sincerity. I don’t know that there is another person alive or dead who genuinely loves theatre like Marian Seldes, who recently sat through a three hour performance of A Little Night Music, backstage visit and dinner with a smashed shoulder (which would require surgery). She is wholly dedicated to her profession, and I for one say “Brava!”

Last July, the Tony Management Committee released a statement to the press to inform the world that members of the press were to lose their voting privileges in the awards. There was a huge backlash at the time because of the hypocritical statement that removing the press would make the awards more balanced and fair. Bullshit. It was a choice that removed the most impartial members (approx. 100 folks, accounting for 1/8 of the voters). The results of last night’s awards were indicative of that choice.

Producers were given far more influence in the voting results, which were reflective of the trends of this weary, underwhelming theatre season where the great financial successes were star driven limited engagements. Stars were given preference; not necessarily saying that their performances weren’t meritorious, but it seemed more like a plea on the producers’ part to entice other stars to come to Broadway. While I welcome any and all to give it a try onstage… I am weary at the unhealthy trend this could set as more and more producers look to shy away from artistic risks and pander to middling tastes.

There weren’t as many sound gaffes as last year, but that didn’t help much when it came to Tony performances. Once again they felt rushed and were at extremes. There was no balanced excerpt. Green Day was given two songs while Christiane Noll was given the bridge of “Back to Before.” Nominated revival, and the best reviewed show of the season Finian’s Rainbow wasn’t even represented in song. The television direction once again proved entirely incongruous, giving the audience very little feel for the shows in contention. Matthew Morrison needs to do another musical, but I’m not sold that Lea Michelle is ready for a revival of Funny Girl.

The trouble remains the need for CBS to draw ratings (which it always fails to do) so they limit the performance time for shows and make it impossible to get a sense of the shows currently playing. Also with the show being held in Radio City Music Hall, a cavernous barn fit only for a revival of Jumbo, much intimacy is lost. Radio City Music Hall is not Broadway, nor will it ever be. It’s unlikely to change unless the awards are given the boot from network television (and the way it’s going, it would probably be better off on PBS), but I wish the tradition of going to a different Broadway house each year would return.

Then there is the legend of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While I am not a big fan of the stage revival currently playing the Walter Kerr, I did think that the star could have been exceptional Desiree Armfeldt with a more nuanced director, such as Bartlett Sher. The performance of “Send in the Clowns” ranks as one of the worst renditions of the song I have ever seen/heard, whether it was the choice to remove Alexander Hanson (who should have been nominated for his exceptional Fredrik Egerman) from the moment so she would have someone to play to or nerves, or projecting to the house at Radio City Music Hall. It heightened what was problematic about her performance to me – the need to oversell, oversing and the overall lack of nuance and balance in her performance. Even folks I know who liked the performance found themselves screaming at the pregnant pauses, jerky head movements and crazy eyes. What seemed mediocre at the Kerr was downright terrifying in HD closeup. Barbara Cook introduced the number, but truth be told I think she should have been the one singing the Sondheim classic last night.

The Best Musical Tony should be renamed “Best Vehicle for Marketing on Tour.” It was a weak year for original musicals, very few properties were represented and there were only two eligible nominees for score (with Fences and Enron filling out the rest). Memphis won because it was the most wholly original and traditional musical in the bunch, a diluted and derivative hybrid of Dreamgirls and Hairspray. (I’d have voted for Fela!, one of the great experiences of the year).

Sean Hayes was an exceptional host. Funny, affable, self-deprecating. He was genuinely funny and his one liners and shtick worked very well. His quips as well as his numerous costume bits were very amusing and as the night progressed further and further into tedium, I looked forward to seeing what the Promises, Promises star would come up with next. Also, props on the classical piano skills – I was sort of hoping that he and David Hyde Pierce would engage in a round of dueling pianos.

Angela Lansbury did not break the record for most acting Tony wins last night, but she was still the epitome of class and grace as she was announced the first ever Honorary Chairman of the American Theatre Wing, an announcement which brought the entire crowd at Radio City Music Hall to its feet.

Oh – and one more thing. NY Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was on hand to present the Best Musical performance of Memphis. In his introduction he was touted as a theatre aficionado, to which I said, “That doesn’t look like me.” It was unexpected, but I think it’s nice to see someone from the world of sports taking an interest in Broadway.

How Donna Murphy Got Cora Hoover Hooper

Playbill’s Andrew Gans talks to Donna Murphy on her relationship with Sondheim and her upcoming role as the Mayoress in Encores! Anyone Can Whistle. The following is an excerpt on how she got the part:

‘Murphy is now getting ready to tackle her latest Sondheim role, Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper in the upcoming Encores! production of the short-lived Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle, which co-stars Tony winner Sutton Foster and Tony nominee Raul Esparza. It was another multiple Tony winner, however, who Murphy says helped get her the gig: Angela Lansbury, who starred in the original production of Whistle.

“This year [the Drama League was] lucky enough to be honoring [Lansbury], and I was asked by Michael Mayer to learn and sing [Anyone Can Whistle’s] ‘Me and My Town.’ I’d only heard that song once before, and I thought, ‘Oh, what a great song!,’ and I said, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ . . . I had such a good time, and that night [Lansbury] came up to me afterwards and kind of took me by the shoulders and she said, ‘Have they called you?’ And I said, ‘Who?’ And she said, ‘Encores! Have they called you?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Why aren’t you doing it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I haven’t been asked.’ She said, ‘I’m calling them! I’m calling them!’ And, it was incredibly flattering, but it was also one of those situations where I [didn’t] know what’s going on [with the casting]. It certainly was on my radar that they were doing this show because any time that there’s a Sondheim show happening, my ears prick up and I’m like, ‘Is there something in it for me?,'” she laughs.’

Does this mean Angie is entitled to ten percent…?

Are you old Mrs. Lovett?

Casting is a funny thing. For every role on screen or stage we see there have been numerous, oftentimes hundreds of choices. You often hear about so-and-so being in the running for a part, or a big star turning down a role that will go onto win an Oscar with some else, etc. The most notable being the search for Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 adaptation of Gone with the Wind.

There’s so much going in the business that makes casting a curious environment: timing, money, talent, etc. For example, take Mary Martin. She had her due on stage in One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, Kiss Me Kate, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, but now consider if she had also starred in Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, Fanny, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl and Mame. All those were roles she was originally considered for, and for one reason or another she turned them down or wasn’t available.

Two of my all-time favorite musical theatre leading ladies, Angela Lansbury and Patricia Routledge, are linked to one another through their performances in NYSF’s The Pirates of Penzance (Pat played Central Park in 1980, Angie did the film version in 1983 – both are preserved on video). But here is something you’ve probably never heard before, regarding the original production of Sweeney Todd (taken from Balancing Act: The Authorized Biography of Angela Lansbury by Martin Gottfriend, which is out of print but worth seeking out):

“Despite Sondheim’s preference for Angela, Patricia Routledge remained Harold Prince’s actress of choice to co star with Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd. The director even arranged for Cariou and Routledge to confer by telephone, while he was in Vienna making the movie version of A Little Night Music. In fact, that was the one reason why Sweeney Todd wasn’t being produced in 1976.

Routledge, a splendid actress and a good singer, was not entirely sold on the show, and in fact, had the creeps just thinking about it. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she told Cariou on the phone. “I was raised on that story. I’m not kidding you, it’s scary having anything to do with it. For us that ‘penny dreadful’ is like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When we were kids, it was always something to be afraid of. Even my parents would say to me, ‘You’d better be careful or we’ll get Sweeney Todd after you.'”

The rest is, as they say, history. I’ve heard the Routledge was offered the opportunity to star in the London production but politely declined (Sheila Hancock did the honors). That said, wouldn’t it be fun to get both Lansbury and Routledge in a vehicle together? They are both solid actresses (and singers) and barring some similarities have very unique personalities that I think would mesh well. The most obvious seems a revival/remake of Arsenic and Old Lace?