Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Thoroughly Modern Mame



The upcoming revival of A Little Night Music is one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the new Broadway season. Angela Lansbury will be playing the aging courtesan Madame Armfeldt, and warbling one of Stephen Sondheim's lesser-known gems, "Liaisons." Our Angela will surely be nominated for a Tony for her upcoming role, and should she win, she will break the tie she currently has with Julie Harris, as the performer with the most awards (they both have five, though Harris also has a sixth, non-competitive Lifetime Achievement Tony...it's only a matter of time before Lansbury gets one of those, too).

They ought to give this gal a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys, come to think of it. Lansbury is the Susan Lucci of the Primetime Emmys, having been nominated a whopping 18 times, and losing every one (that's an actual record). Most of those noms were for her long-running role in Murder, She Wrote, though she has received several further nods for guest shots, and two for hosting the Tony Awards.

We think of Angela Lansbury, at least on stage, as a musical star (four of her five Tonys were for musical roles), but back in the early 60s, nobody remembered she could sing. She had already received three Oscar nominations for film work (including one for her screen debut in Gaslight) when she was tagged to star in Stephen Sondheim's 1964 musical, Anyone Can Whistle. Though the show flopped, it launched Lansbury's musical theatre career.

I've been privileged to see two of Angie's Tony-winning performances. As a teenager in London, I was blown away by her work as Mama Rose in Gypsy, a performance which obliterated any residue left by Ethel Merman's iconic creation of the role. Six years later, she brought another of her Tony-winning performances, in Sweeney Todd, to Los Angeles, where I was in the audience during the videotaping of the show (once that videotape was broadcast on TV, she received another Emmy nomination, which of course, she lost).

But I wish I had seen her in what was probably her most triumphant (and was certainly her most commercially successful) stage role, Mame. Posterity was robbed of her performance when the film role went to Lucille Ball, to disastrous effect, and there are only a few, very grainy bootlegs out there of Lansbury singing some of the show's catchy tunes. For this week's Dance Party, I've chosen a clip which embodies much of what Angela must have brought to the role of Mame Dennis. It's not from the show, it's a performance she gave of an Oscar-nominated song on the 1968 Academy Awards. But Lansbury looks and sounds like Mame in this clip; she's sassy and sophisticated, and get a look at those gams! In honor of her 84th birthday, which is today, please enjoy: