From ‘Mame’ to ‘Sweeney Todd,’ Angela Lansbury was a Broadway goddess


She was swell, she was great, she had all of Broadway on her plate.

Angela Lansbury, a titan of stage, film and television died Tuesday at 96

The denizens of Shubert Alley were overcome with grief and shock when they learned of the actress’ passing. Lansbury, a mainstay since 1944, had an eternal quality that suggested she’d never go away. And in quiet moments on the stages and in the hallways of the storied theaters surrounding Times Square, indeed she won’t.

“Dim Broadway’s lights?” said a theater agent. “Shut em’ down.”

Of course, because of the ubiquity of TV, Lansbury was best known as Jessica Fletcher on the TV series “Murder She Wrote.” She also had an illustrious résumé on the big screen in movies such as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” 

But it’s the indelible stamp she made on Broadway that changed an art form and New York.

The remarkably transformative British actress boasted an electrifying presence that was a rare storm of contradictions: maternal and brutal, hilarious and heartbroken, elegant and muddy. And what she achieved from 1966 to 1980, I reckon, is a breadth of supersize, totally opposite roles that no other star of her magnitude has matched in such a short amount of time since. 

Angela Lansbury in 1966's "Mame."
Angela Lansbury in 1966’s “Mame.”
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Angela Lansbury, the three-time Oscar winner with a storied stage and screen career has died. She was 96.
Lansbury starred in 2009’s “Deuce” on Broadway, alongside Marian Seldes.
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In 1966, there was “Mame” at the Winter Garden Theatre. She wasn’t the first choice for the part of Mame Dennis, a witty, fun-loving New Yorker who “made us feel alive again, and given us the drive again.” That was Mary Martin. But composer Jerry Herman said “Hello, Angie!” and pushed hard for Lansbury. (He also cast her in his short-lived “Dear World” in 1969.) She knew she needed the role and snagged her prize after three auditions. Watch her and co-star Bea Arthur sing “Bosom Buddies” at the Tony Awards

Then — don’t get up — immediately watch her scorching rendition of “Rose’s Turn” from 1974’s “Gypsy.” That finale song, an always frightening soliloquy sung by a ravenous stage mother who feels deep down that her children have robbed her of fame, was made beyond vicious and acidic by Lansbury. She traded Mame for a monster.

And back again! She went from loathing kids to teaching them to “whistle a happy tune” — for two weeks as Anna in 1977’s “The King and I” at the Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre.

Shall we dance … or shall we kill?

As the original, brilliant Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in 1979 at the Uris, she barked in a cockney accent, had a bizarre double-bun hairdo and garish makeup. She was a co-conspiring murderess, who threw around her elbows like machetes and baked corpses into pies.  

Later in life — not leaving Broadway behind — she mostly starred in plays, save for a genteel turn as Madame Armfeldt in the 2009 revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Angela Lansbury won a lifetime achievement award but her absence sparked concern among fans.
Lansbury won a lifetime achievement award at the 2022 Tony Awards.
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The word "Dame" was added to Angela Lansbury's London dressing room when she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2014.
Lansbury was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth in 2014.
Courtesy of Johnny Oleksinski

Lansbury appeared in Terrence McNally’s 2007 play “Deuce” alongside Marian Seldes as two retired tennis partners reminiscing about the past. Her final Broadway show was in Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” in 2012.

I saw her in 2009 in “Blithe Spirit” as the wacky mystic Madame Arcati. Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole starred in Noel Coward’s comedy, too, but it was Lansbury in a smaller part that rocked the stage.  

When the production arrived at London’s Gielgud Theatre in 2014, the actress got her Damehood from Queen Elizabeth during the run. That day, the theater’s owner Cameron Mackintosh added the word “Dame” to the gold nameplate on her dressing room. 

Oh so appropriately, Dame Angela Lansbury had dressing room No. 1 — just the spot for an incomparable talent that we will never see the likes of again.