HOW ANGELA BECAME MAME
January 12, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In the history of Hollywood, many stories have become legend about the search for someone to play an iconic role. Never more so than when David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind, announced a worldwide search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara. After all, there was high interest in the outcome. The book had been a sensation and anyone who had read it was willing to offer a suggestion of who should play it. Selznick, a hard-nosed promoter, knew what he had on his hands and milked the publicity out of it for all it was worth. In hindsight, he landed on the perfect Scarlett in the then-unknown Vivien Leigh, after putting everyone through hell who had screen tested and been hyped right up until the last minute.
I bring this up because this sort of thing doesn’t happen nearly as often in the theatre. If something like a long search is conducted for a leading role, it’s done relatively discreetly. Yes, we know that Ethel Merman turned down the title role in Hello, Dolly! (the first songs Jeremy Herman wrote were actually designed for Merman’s voice), and it was by no means a fait accompli that Carol Channing was chosen instead. In spite of having been in the 1955 musical revue Lend Me an Ear, choreographed by Dolly’s director, Gower Champion, Channing still had to prove her worth and audition. Of course, when an actor is put through the ringer by way of a rigorous casting, everything falls by the wayside once the accolades role in. And after such a triumph, it later proves difficult to ever imagine anybody else playing it.
Another of those great roles in a musical (also composed by Jerry Herman) is the title role in Mame. Once Angela Lansbury opened in the original production, no one else has ever brought it back to Broadway (except for Lansbury herself in a brief stint in 1983, in a revival that was cut short after just 41 performances due to poor box office). But back in 1966, Lansbury was pushed to the forefront of leading women for musicals (making the cover of LIFE Magazine as well) and Mame would lead to the first of her five Tony Awards. But she was nobody’s first choice for the role except for one person: Jerry Herman. The story of how it all fell into place is a fascinating one, which I’ve pieced together from various sources for the purposes of this column.
Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, first found success as a novel published in 1954. In 1957, it was made into a Broadway play adapted by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee (Inherit the Wind) and starred Rosalind Russell. A sensation in the part, she received a Tony Award nomination as well as a 1958 Academy Award nomination for the film version. Russell was the first one offered to do the musical but turned it down stating “Who wants to eat yesterday’s stew?” Then Mary Martin was seriously considered, as the musical’s original director Josh Logan, having directed her in the original production of South Pacific, adored her. When she turned it down, the list expanded to just about everyone who was anyone, but one thing was clear: Logan did NOT want Angela Lansbury. “He just didn’t think I was up to it,” the actress recalled years later in a television interview with Robert Osborne.
Lansbury’s Hollywood career had kicked off with lightning speed back in 1944. Contracted by MGM at age nineteen, her first assignment was to play the maid in Gaslight, which resulted in the first of her three Academy Award nominations. But nearly twenty years of supporting roles left her still prizing a decent leading lady role. With that in mind, Lansbury began making forays onto the Broadway stage, beginning in 1959 with such plays as the Feydeau farce Hotel Paradiso (opposite Bert Lahr), and a year later in the British drama A Taste of Honey, by Shelagh Delaney. When she finally landing that elusive lead in a Broadway musical, one she hoped would put her over the top, it was Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle in 1964, which disappointingly closed after nine performances. Very few got to see it, but luckily one who did was Jerry Herman.
Herman had a sneaking suspicion this was his Mame — and Angela Lansbury felt exactly the same. Sadly, the first audition she flew in for from her California home didn’t make much of an impression on Josh Logan. “No one wanted her,” Herman explained years later in a television interview. “One of our producers said, ‘That’s the lady who plays everybody’s mother.’”
Josh Logan eventually left the project and auditions continued even without a director. That’s when Jerry Herman took it upon himself to ask Lansbury to return to New York one more time with the proviso that he would personally coach her. Detailed in Martin Gottfried’s 1999 biography Balancing Act: The Authorized Biography of Angela Lansbury, Herman thought “she was very raw,” but instinct told him that “she had a real instrument.” Her [Lansbury’s] efforts with the California voice coach had not been in vain. She’d added two or three notes to the top and bottom of her range. “With some work,’ Herman thought, “she’ll be able to sing everything I’ve written for the character.”
So, a plan was hatched. Herman told Lansbury “these producers have only heard me singing the songs (“It’s Today” and “If He Walked into My Life”), which is not very exciting. But if you step out on the stage and sing these two songs, they won’t know what to do with themselves.” And to further her chances, on the day of the audition on stage at the Palace Theatre, Herman snuck away and found his way into the orchestra pit. According to Gottfried: “As planned, Angela stepped out of the wings, dropped her mink coat to the floor, and strode to center stage. At the piano in the orchestra pit, Herman began to set up the song with a flourish. Then Angela sang out:
Light the candles, Get the ice out, Roll the rug up, It’s today!
‘End of story,’ Jerry says.”
Except that it wasn’t. Later a new director, Gene Saks, was engaged, meaning it was time for Lansbury to once more travel 3,000 miles across the country and audition again. Adamant she shouldn’t have to, her family helped her make the decision to go. Ever so humbly, she returned.
Yet, according to Gottfried’s account, this didn’t end the indecision of who would be Mame: “When she was finished, Jerry Herman caught her eye and pleaded and begged for patience. She flashed Carr, Fryer, Bowab [the producers] and Saks her best bullshit smile. She was furious.” — Lansbury had had enough: “Look, she said, “this has been going on for a long time. Right. But this is it. I am going back to California and unless you tell me” — she paused, struggling to contain herself — ‘I mean, let’s face it, I have’ — her voice nearly broke — ‘prostrated myself. Now — yes or no — that’s the end of it. I want an answer. I must know before I leave New York because I’m not coming back again.”
Believe it or not, there was still one more obstacle to overcome. Gene Saks happened to be married to one of the actresses on the list (and who hoped to get the part): Beatrice Arthur. Having just scored a success as Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, Arthur was on the cusp of her own personal stardom. In breaking the news to his wife, he gave her a hell of a consolation prize, telling her “You have got to play Vera.” For that performance, Beatrice Arthur would win her one and only Tony Award, and shortly thereafter, become a huge television star as Maude and later, as Dorothy on The Golden Girls.
Finally, as reported by Gottfried, “Saks called Carr with the decision and then the producer walked out of the office and over to the Plaza, where he went up to Angela’s room and told her, ‘We are offering you Mame.’ And so, after twenty-three years as a professional actress, having performed in thirty-six movies, twenty-six television plays, and three Broadway productions, at the age of thirty-nine Angela Lansbury finally had a leading role.”
In a Times Talk conducted in 2010, Lansbury told interviewer Anthony Tommasini of her experience as Mame that “it was a couple of golden years for me… I was kind of the Golden Girl of Broadway for god sakes, and that’s a really heady business. I’d never experienced anything like that, and I really took it to town, I really did.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.