Ginger Rogers as Mame

While watching this clip, I realized that Angela Lansbury never transferred any of her Tony award winning performances to London’s West End. She starred in the original London production of Gypsy in 1973, but that production transferred to Broadway the following year. Sheila Hancock would be the West End’s first Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. While Lansbury was appearing on Broadway in Dear World, an Oscar winning Hollywood legend was opening in Mame in the West End: Ginger Rogers. A few years earlier, Rogers had been a Broadway replacement in Hello, Dolly!

The production ran for a little over a year at the Drury Lane Theatre. Lawrence Kasha restaged Gene Saks’ direction while Onna White recreated her own choreography. No original London cast album was made (though there are rumors that one was recorded but never released, as singing was never Rogers’ strongest suit). The show was less rapturously received in London than it was on Broadway, with many of the critics agreeing that the evening hinged on Rogers’ personality and star quality (for better or for worse). Margaret Courtenay was Vera, Burt Kwouk (from The Pink Panther films) was Ito and Julia McKenzie was Gloria Upson. Ms. Rogers was supposed to star in a French version of the show, but that fell through. She later appeared in the role again in Houston (in the round, no less) in late 1971, about the same time she toured in Coco.

This is a performance of the show’s famed title song on the Royal Variety Performance. Ginger doesn’t sing or speak a single word, but dances up a storm. She brings glamour and beauty to the part, even if it’s not quite the real thing.(Special thanks to Steven C. Cates for bringing this clip to my attention).


Here’s a short newsreel covering the pre-production and opening night, with some color film of Ginger looking quite stunning in Robert MacIntosh’s fabulous costumes.


Elaine Stritch performs “It’s Today”

When Elaine Stritch performed her landmark one-woman show At Liberty, one of the funniest anecdotes involved her failed audition for The Golden Girls. It didn’t go well for her and the part ultimately went to the legendary Bea Arthur (who it seems was even in the character’s description in the pilot script), a contemporary of Stritch’s at the New School for Dramatic Research and whose solo one-woman show opened in the same season. Though the two are distinctive in their inimitable deadpan deliveries, it makes perfect sense that there are roles through their careers which they have shared. One of these roles is Vera in Mame. Arthur famously originated the part on Broadway opposite Angela Lansbury to Tony-winning effect. Stritch later went on a national tour as Vera opposite Janet Blair, whom she also apparently understudied. (She’s perfect for Vera, not so ideal for Mame – at least in the musical).

Stritch went to the London in 1972 for the West End premiere of Company and she ended up staying for a decade. During this time she met and married actor John Bay and took up residence at the Savoy, while also starring in her own hilarios Britcom Two’s Company with Donald Sinden about a brash American writer and her staid British butler. This is an appearance on the 1979 Royal Variety Performance performing an expectedly Stritch-like rendition of “It’s Today.” (I especially like how she splits from the chorus kids for her own one-woman kickline).


Need a Little Christmas Now

Pop singer Jane Morgan is no Angela Lansbury (who is?) but she sang the hell out of lead role in the original production of Mame.  If anything, this December 15, 1968 performance of “We Need a Little Christmas” on The Ed Sullivan Show let’s us see how the number looked onstage (choreography: Onna White). Two-time Tony-winner Helen Gallagher is Gooch (she would played Vera in this production- talk about versatility). I’m getting into the Christmas spirit and starting to live these lyrics once again. I’m looking forward to the holiday season and I hope you are as well.


Marilyn Maye: Then & Now

Ever since seeing Marilyn Maye sing a knock-out “I’m Still Here” at the NY Pops Sondheim Bash, I’ve been unable to get the performer out of my mind. I’d heard of Ms. Maye, but I had never seen her or for that matter even heard her perform before that day. Well, I was floored. The iconic anthem from Follies proved the biggest showstopper of the night, given a fabulous rendition by the singer with an interesting new arrangement by Tedd Firth.

Though Marilyn never performed on Broadway, she is forever linked with our musical theatre. Her career as a singer made her a headliner in the top supper clubs and cabarets of the 1950s and 60s. When the supper club market declined, she took on many of the great musical theatre roles like Dolly and Mame in touring and stock productions. She was also the first to record many Broadway songs for RCA – even before the original cast – such as “Cabaret.” She was also a constant presence on TV, particularly on The Tonight Show where sang 76 times.

Here is Marilyn Maye in 1967 appearing on The Hollywood Palace singing “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” and “Cabaret.”


Cut to March 2010. Here is Marilyn singing “It’s Today” from Mame to promote her cabaret act. A lyric may go the wayside here or there, but she’s still got a powerful instrument and a sharp connection with the music and material. It’s a joy to watch her sing. She still performs regularly at the Metropolitan Room and will be appearing at the venue December 5, 6, 7.


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:


Pure Joy

The other night, a good friend and I were having a conversation about No, No Nanette and he seemed both surprised and bemused that I was just over the moon espousing the show’s virtues. Though it was two and a half years ago that I saw the show at Encores!, my memories of the Broadway ready revival are vivid and fresh. (Why oh why didn’t this one transfer?!) When asked why I like it so much, the simplest answer I could give was that “It’s pure joy from start to finish.” I’ve been giving that statement a great deal of thought. It’s one of the most honest answers I’ve ever given, but one of the most unique. That’s not to say I don’t find myself regularly having a miserable time at a musical. Far from it. But there are so few shows or productions that give that fizzy champagne/good time feeling – and are able to sustain that feeling from the beginning to end. These are the musicals where I find myself smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the overture until long after I’ve left the theatre, and mostly because of the sheer happiness I feel as a result.

Nanette is definitely one of those shows. The 1971 revisal that is. I’ve heard the original 1925 show with its original arrangements and orchestrations and I honestly feel that they somehow did it better in ’71. The experience of getting the show up and running was a bit of a nightmare, but it produced a surprise smash at the 46th Street Theatre. Folks wanted nostalgia and this show offered a wonderful slice of period flavor, with a familiar score, a simple farcical plot and tap-happy showstoppers. Ralph Burns did the orchestrations, Buster Davis did the vocal arrangements and Luther Henderson provided incidental and dance music.

I knew I was in for a treat the moment the orchestra started playing the overture with strains of “I Want to Be Happy” and I was flooded with warmth from head to toe once the twin grand pianos started playing during “Tea for Two.” My happiness didn’t let up for a long time; I was humming “I Want to Be Happy” ad nauseam, listening to the superb 1971 cast recording. The score (music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) is filled with songs that are breezy, light and evoke another era altogether. Listening to the original cast album is just as much fun as seeing the show, from that delightful overture to the finale of “I Want to Be Happy” with the entire cast strumming ukuleles.

Another one is Mame, with one of the freshest, most wondrous original cast albums ever recorded. It gets off to a sock start with those first trilling strings and winds that soar up the octave as the brass belts out the title song. Its orchestrations by Phil Lang are pitch perfect, brassy, bold and exciting. It starts the ball rolling with one gem after another. The Mame score may not be anything revolutionary, but it was musical comedy writing at its finest. Easily my favorite Jerry Herman score and I’ve enjoyed them all. Angela Lansbury shimmers in her star turn – the trumpet blast that was added for the 1998 reissue makes her entrance in gold pajamas all the more vivid. The original show made a musical theatre star of Lansbury, who took the town by storm. Each performance sparkles: Lansbury, Bea Arthur, Jane Connell, Frankie Michaels, Jerry Lanning and Charles Braswell are all wonderful and blessedly definitive. The ensemble is stunning – big voices, lots of great arrangements and an energy that just flies out from the speakers.

Then there’s the title song, a master class of musical comedy unto itself – and the leading lady doesn’t even sing a word of it! It starts slow and builds and builds through several choruses. Then the ensemble breaks into a spirited gallop, by which point the leading lady is still silent but overjoyed and moved. Just when you think it can’t get better, Lang and Pippin bring the gallop back in for the first pullback which consists of a cakewalk across the stage (props to Onna White for the choreography). But it’s not done! It modulates up a half step for the final section, a full-out fortissimo to bring it to its requisite big finish. The banjo is only measures away from needing new strings, the trumpet is blasting a high solo while the trombones descend in the bass line. All through this, the drummer is steadily beating out a simple but insistent 4/4 downbeat. It’s enough to make you stand up and cheer in your living room.

The album, superbly produced by Goddard Lieberson, captures the high spirits of those first days when the show was getting ovations like you would not believe. (SarahB has relayed the story of the title song in Philadelphia bringing the show to such a halt, theatregoers were standing on their chairs). The orchestrations are beautifully balanced and there is that light touch of reverb that made those Columbia albums the best ever recorded. You’d think they’d just recorded it in a theatre, full costume and all. I even like “That How Young I Feel,” which is the one number from the score that most dismiss (though I do wish they had recorded its jitterbug dance break). Mame is an album I would bring to a desert island without having to think twice. I’ve never seen a stage production of the show that has equaled the album, but I’m still waiting for the Broadway revival with Donna Murphy.

These are the kind of things I turn to when I want a score that will make me feel happier. Joy at its simplest is a hard emotion to evoke without causing cavities or a diabetic coma. There are many, many shows that try to force that joy on the audience and those usually seem mechanical and fall flat. The joy I speak of isn’t something tangible. You can’t quite put the finger on it, but there is that quality that makes it stand out from the rest (not unlike star presence). It’s easier to charm, provoke or even get a laugh, than it is to evoke the feeling of pure, unadulterated happiness and elation. There are performances on other albums that give me joy, even if the score doesn’t, or a song here or there. But it’s incredibly hard for a show from first note to last to do it.

These are two of mine, but I know that there are others. What I’d like to know is: what scores bring you joy?

Donna Murphy for Mame

The Encores! production of Anyone Can Whistle has been closed for a mere two weeks and I can’t stop thinking about Donna Murphy’s triumphant turn as Mayoress Cora Hoover-Hooper. In the last line of my assessment of the production, I speculated as to whom we’d have to talk to in order to mount a major revival of Mame showcasing Murphy.

With her performance fresh on my mind, as well as the second Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles settling in with great notices, I’ve been thinking more and more about Murphy taking on the role of that great bohemian aunt. I’m not the only one who has thought so. The other night I was talking about this with die hard “Mame-ist” SarahB, who has come up with a grassroots campaign slogan “Murphy for Mame!”

And why not? After the last La Cage revival, the Nederlanders promised to revive both Mame and Hello, Dolly! successively. I’m sure the failure of that production had something to do with putting the kibbosh on their Herman project. Both shows have only been seen in their original productions, or in replications of their original productions and it’s time to pass along both treasures to a new generation of theatre kids who think Idina Menzel is the epitome of Broadway belting (saints preserve us!)

I went into further detail last September pondering who would be the right actress for the part. When you look at our leading ladies, it’s easier to find a Dolly or a Vera, but Mame requires an alchemical element to pull off successfully – that unspeakable star quality that Lansbury brought to NY in 1966. She’s funny, sexy, larger-than-life, the belle of the ball; the ideal aunt that we all wish we could have. But she’s also got an immense heart, a fiery liberal passion and is well, a borderline alcoholic in an idealized world where that’s just part of the fun. All of this is rolled into one strikingly costumed, timeless creation of sheer theatrical joy. The shoes are not easy to fill.

Murphy is fearless, versatile and brilliant. Yes, she missed performances of Wonderful Town. However those critics are quick to harp on her attendance record even after it turned out she was seriously sick and could have permanently damaged her voice. I say, cut the lady some slack and welcome her back. This is a woman who was able to bring the Mayoress Hoover Hooper, who’s more a cartoon than character, to genuine tears while singing “A Parade in Town.”

Like the role’s originator, Angela Lansbury, Murphy is mindbogglingly versatile and there is very little she can’t do. With the right director (maybe Nicholaw? we can decide that later), we’d have a production of Mame for the 21st century. I’m convinced there is – at this moment – no other musical theatre actress who could successfully pull off one of the most iconic leading lady roles in musical theatre.

‘Cause That’s How Young I Feel

Angela Lansbury, an icon of film, television and especially theatre, is celebrating her 84th birthday today. The actress is in the middle of a second coming on Broadway. After a 25 year absence, she returned to NY and live theatre with three shows opening in as many years, winning a record-tying fifth Tony Award for her crowdpleasing performance in last season’s Blithe Spirit.

Starting this winter she will be seen as the droll, disapproving Madame Armfeldt in the first Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta-Jones. This will mark Angela’s first appearance in a Broadway musical since the 1983 revival of Mame, and her fourteenth Broadway credit.

We are so very lucky to have this international treasure still creating magnificent work, with no signs of stopping or slowing down. In honor of her birthday, I think it’s appropriate that we should take a look at Angela, in the ’83 Mame, stopping the show with “That’s How Young I Feel.” Enjoy:

We Need a Little Mame

SarahB and I love Mame. Period. It’s got a sublime musical theatre score and a fun and funny book with immensely entertaining characters. The show hasn’t been seen in NY since a failed revival in 1983, so we often discuss the necessary ingredients to successfully revive this gem of a musical. The title role is such a difficult star turn, because Mame as a character is rather static – the most that changes in the character over the course of the musical play is her wardrobe (and how); however, Mame is the embodiment of an ideal – a philosophy that life is something to celebrated, experienced and most importantly lived. In order to effectively pull off the musical, you need to find a woman who’s at least in her late thirties. She needs to sing, dance, act – but she also needs to have the presence to execute Mame’s joie d’vivre, while remaining a funny, boozy, lovable, classy, heartfelt, eccentric, bohemian, patrician, progressive madcap. That’s no small order.

When the musical opened at the Winter Garden, a mere ten years after the overwhelming success of the original play the character of Mame was once again a unanimous audience favorite. Only this time she was supported by the stellar music and lyrics of Jerry Herman, and with a little more heart and less eroticism. Oh -and they gave Vera some of Mame’s more potent zingers (that’s what you do when you cast Bea Arthur). Angela Lansbury became the toast of Broadway, defying expectations and odds to come out the unlikely musical theatre star of the decade. Her Tony-winning, two year run in the original Broadway cast of Mame established her as the leading musical theatre diva of her generation, and held onto the title until 1983, when she turned her attentions to some little old TV show , and well, the rest is history.

The original production of Mame, while it didn’t run as long as Hello, Dolly!, followed the earlier show’s example by bringing in major stars to replace the lead. The part was so good, even Judy Garland auditioned for it (which would have been perfect, if not for the difficulties surrounding her drug and alcohol abuse). Janis Paige, Celeste Holm, Jane Morgan and Ann Miller all played the role in NY, while Angela took the show on tour. Ginger Rogers opened the London company. For as good as the ladies were considered in their roles, the part was still closely identified with Lansbury (the 1974 film need not apply).

So we were thinking that in order to bring Mame successfully into the 21st century, perhaps it was time to think outside of the box. Not update the show or make it “rock and roll” hour with Tilda Swinton. But just find something new to bring to the show to make it something audiences want to see. Broadway doesn’t manufacture stars the way it once did, so it’s likely that a big name star needs to be attached in order to make a successful commercial venture in NY. (Producers couldn’t even get the 2006 Kennedy Center production with Christine Baranski into town for a limited run). Sarah and I have someone in mind for the show, an unlikely choice but one that we think would work gangbusters, but we’re keeping a lid on that for right now.

So instead I’ll put it to you: who is our Mame?

Oh – and one more thing – I pulled down my copy of the published libretto to look at the text and reread the foreward by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (who not only wrote the musical, but the play upon which it was based) The co-authors touch on the relevancy of the character and what makes Mame Dennis Burnside so indelible. I thought I’d share:

“Although our love affair with Mame spans more than a decade, we approached her as the central figure of this musical as if we were meeting the lady for the first time.

To spark the musical Mame with a life of her own, we did our best to forget we had written the play Auntie Mame. And a very pleasant miracle happened. Usually the conversion of a straight play into a musical means bleeding off the believability when the trumpets start blowing, and the musical tends to be a cartoon of the play on which it was based. But the opposite seems to have happened here.

Many minds have shaped this remarkable lady: Patrick Dennis who created her in his best-selling novel, and now Jerry Herman, who has written a score which underscores the truth and warmth of the people who populate Three Beekman Place.

Mame herself seems to have plunged into the joyful work of making this musical. She is an almost unique figure in modern fiction: Mame refuses to be imaginary! She is not a fondly Remembered Mama or a Matchmaker going back to the gaslights of Fourteenth Street. Mame is more interested in torches along the Ganges and the lightning bugs of Peckerwood. She virtually pole-vaults out of the gaiety of the Twenties into lunar orbit, soaring high above depressions, war and worries, taking with her a wide-eyed little boy.

We always long for what we don’t have. This seems to be the Year of the Mole – a time of blindness and confusion, of fuzzy aims and fading faith. Our theater lately has been in a dark age, reflecting only shadows. Mame somehow lifts a flame in that blackness. She has optimism! Zest! Bounce! Even when she isn’t quite sure where she’s going. Mame knows, by God, she’ll get there!

All of us, even the most despondent and disillusioned, would like to be like Mame. Or we wish she would take us up by the hand, as she does Patrick, and convince us that our planet isn’t such a shabby place. We want to hear her sing “Open a New Window” in a decade when so many of us are pulling down the blinds and locking the shutters in pretended security. Mame is fun, but not mere escapist fare: she sings out a wish to run toward life, not away from it.

We have seen Mame’s indomitable spirit embodied in dozens of stars in dozens of countries. Her battles with Babcock and her romance with Beau have been eloquently expressed in the major languages of the earth. But no translation could be more fortunate than the musical language of Jerry Herman. And no one could lift the flame of Mame higher than Miss Angela Lansbury.

But the audience is always the thermometer of the theater. A blazing conception can sputter out like a match in an ice cube tray unless it sends its singular incandescence across the footlights. The flame of Mame actually comes from everyone who is warmed by her daring and set aglow by her impudent but loving laughter.”

-Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee, 1967, Random House