Whether playing amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, freewheeling Mame Dennis, nefarious Eleanor Iselin, witch-in-training Eglantine Price, or gentle teapot Mrs. Potts, Dame Angela Lansbury imbued every role of her career with fierce commitment, emotional authenticity, and high spirits. Five Tony Awards, three Drama Desks, an Olivier, six Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, three Oscar nominations, and a whopping eighteen Emmy nominations barely scratch the surface of this luminous artist who has just passed at the age of 96, just five days shy of her 97th birthday. While Lansbury sadly never recorded a solo album, her elegant and distinctive voice graced numerous cast albums and soundtracks which will continue to endure.
Angela Brigid Lansbury, born in London to actress Moyna McGill and politician Edgar Lansbury, moved to the United States in 1940, still a teenager. After training in New York City, she headed west to Hollywood, and within two years had earned a contract at MGM. Her earliest film roles, in Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), both netted Lansbury Academy Award nominations; the latter won her a Golden Globe. Further screen successes included National Velvet (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), The Court Jester (1956), Blue Hawaii (1961), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). But Lansbury found her own on the Broadway stage.
After appearing in the plays Hotel Paradiso (1957) and A Taste of Honey (1960), Lansbury accepted her first role in a musical: that of fiendish Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper in Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim's madcap satire Anyone Can Whistle (1964) opposite Lee Remick and Harry Guardino. Though the show ran a mere twelve previews and nine performances on Broadway, Columbia Records President Goddard Lieberson thought highly enough of Sondheim's score to preserve it for posterity. The original cast recording would be Lansbury's proper debut on records. It's impossible to forget the delicious zeal in which she delivered such brassy Sondheim showstoppers as "Me and My Town," "A Parade in Town," and "I've Got You to Lean On." Anyone Can Whistle launched Angela's lifelong association with Sondheim (and she would return to the show as narrator of a 1995 concert also released on Columbia), but her next Broadway role would be even more auspicious.
On May 24, 1966, Lansbury took the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre for the opening night of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and Jerry Herman's Mame. From the fizzy "It's Today" through the devastating "If He Walked Into My Life," Lansbury embodied Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame with role-of-a-lifetime power. Life-affirming ("Open a New Window"), joyful ("We Need a Little Christmas"), wickedly funny ("Bosom Buddies"), and ultimately moving ("If He Walked Into My Life"): her Tony Award-winning performance retained all of its power on the album produced once again by Goddard Lieberson. [The 1986 CD reissue has since been supplanted by a 1999 expanded edition with a number of Herman's demos.]
It was only natural that composer-lyricist Herman and librettists Lawrence and Lee would want Lansbury back for their next musical. While 1969's Dear World didn't scale the same heights as Mame, the adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot earned the star her second Tony Award and another opportunity for Lieberson and Columbia to preserve a stunning set of songs rendered as only Lansbury could. Her impassioned anthem "I Don't Want to Know" was even released by Columbia as a promotional single, backed with the stirring anthem celebrating what "One Person" could accomplish. The dark, biting, and convention-shattering 1971 musical Prettybelle by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne closed out of town in Boston but not before Lansbury delivered a magnificent, gutsy performance in the title role; you can hear for yourself on the belated 1982 studio cast recording of Styne and Merrill's one-of-a-kind, freewheeling, and rock-inflected (!) score from Original Cast Records (reissued on CD by Varese Sarabande).
Angela continued to make musical merriment with her starring role as Eglantine Price in Disney's fantasy musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks, gracing the Sherman Brothers' memorable melodies such as "The Age of Not Believing" and "The Beautiful Briny" with her characteristic warmth. Buena Vista Records released the soundtrack which was reissued on CD in 2002 with the addition of three bonus tracks.
Lansbury showed her remarkable range when Arthur Laurents directed her in the first full-scale revival of his 1959 classic Gypsy, written with lyricist Sondheim and composer Jule Styne. She ferociously reinvented the role of ultimate stage mother Madame Rose which had been originated by Ethel Merman. Lansbury's Rose was commanding, vulnerable, delusional, sensual, and passionate - sometimes all at once. She triumphed in the role in London, on tour, and on Broadway where a third Tony Award greeted her. RCA Victor captured the Original London Cast Recording in 1973; the 1974 U.S. release used a number of alternate takes. Though this version of the album was reissued on CD in 1990, the original London presentation has yet to appear in the format or digitally.
In 1977, Lansbury stepped into Broadway's The King and I while star Yul Brynner took a vacation; though bootlegs have circulated, her acclaimed performance as Anna Leonowens went unrecorded. Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler would give Lansbury her next career-defining, Tony-winning stage role: that of murderous and diabolical Mrs. Nellie Lovett in 1979's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Whether drolly singing of "The Worst Pies in London," joining Cariou for Broadway's most delightfully gruesome duet, "A Little Priest," or clumsily trying to seduce him in "By the Sea," Lansbury's Lovett was certifiably wacky - and more than a little scary. Her tour de force can be heard on RCA's double-album cast recording and seen in the film preserved of the show's tour, featuring George Hearn as Sweeney.
Following two short-lived Broadway appearances (the comedy A Little Family Business and a revival of Mame), Lansbury found her longest-running role as Jessica Fletcher in Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, and William Link's weekly mystery Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996). It was during the run of Murder, She Wrote that she accepted Disney's offer to portray Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Her rendition of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's beautiful, Oscar-winning title song, sung with gentility and effortless simplicity (and recorded in one take!), provided the heart of the film. The original soundtrack has been reissued numerous times on CD, most recently in a 2018 installment of Walt Disney Records' Legacy Collection. That edition restored the cut song "Human Again" featuring Lansbury and her co-stars Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers and also presented demos from Ashman and Menken. Lansbury would reprise Mrs. Potts for various Disney projects including the sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997) which too yielded a soundtrack album. Also in the seasonal spirit: the RCA soundtrack to 1996's TV-movie Mrs. Santa Claus which reunited the star with Jerry Herman for another round of buoyant, melodic showtunes.
Angela hardly slowed down following the end of Murder, She Wrote. She returned to Broadway after an almost 25-year absence in Terrence McNally's 2007 play Deuce and then in a 2009 revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit for which she won her fifth Tony Award as the loopy Madame Arcati. In director Trevor Nunn's 2009 revival of Sondheim and Wheeler's A Little Night Music, Lansbury gave her final musical performance on Broadway as former courtesan Madame Armfeldt; the cast album is available from PS Classics and Nonesuch.
More stage work beckoned including Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway, Blithe Spirit in London and around the U.S., and Driving Miss Daisy on tour. Among her final appearances in New York were one-night benefit readings of The Chalk Garden (2017) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2019). The Disney Legend - she was inducted in 1995 - added verisimilitude to 2018's Mary Poppins Returns in a touching cameo as The Balloon Lady, in which she performed Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's "Nowhere to Go But Up." Walt Disney Records released the soundtrack.
Though Lansbury never found time to enter a studio to record an album, highlights of her classic cast recordings (Anyone Can Whistle, Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd) are featured on Sony Masterworks' 2006 collection Legends of Broadway: Angela Lansbury. Other stray tracks are out there, too, awaiting a definitive collection. These include her songs from a 1981 studio recording of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and from her turn as Ruth in the 1983 film of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance (a soundtrack album was never released for the movie). She appears on a couple of tracks from Don Bluth's 1997 animated film Anastasia. Angela's stirring demo of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Love and Love Alone" from their musical The Visit has yet to see commercial release; the role of Claire Zachanassian was ultimately portrayed on Broadway by Chita Rivera. Angela also joined The Mormon Tabernacle Choir on "We Need a Little Christmas" for the group's 2006 album The Wonder of Christmas.
Though she will be forever remembered and beloved as Jessica Fletcher or Mrs. Potts or Auntie Mame, the totality of Angela Lansbury's body of work is most extraordinary. She was one of the last stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood (and in fact was the oldest-surviving Academy Award nominee) who remained active and vital until well into her 90s, incapable of giving a performance that wasn't truthful and resonant. As Jerry Herman put it...She came, she saw, she conquered, and absolutely nothing is the same. Her special fascination'll prove to be inspirational! We think you're just sensational...Angela! Farewell to a great lady of stage, screen, and music.