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Correction to This Article
A photo caption incorrectly described a photograph as showing Lansbury in the 1964 Broadway production of "Anyone Can Whistle." The photo was from the 1966 Broadway production of "Mame."

Angela Lansbury to receive Sondheim Award

From an Oscar nomination in her teens (for "Gaslight") to a long-running TV series ("Murder, She Wrote") to acclaim on Broadway, Angela Lansbury has seamlessly permeated the many layers of show business. Now, at 84, she's getting great reviews for her work in "A Little Night Music" on Broadway, and is set to receive the Stephen Sondheim Award on Monday in Washington.

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

NEW YORK -- To impress a young fellow named Sondheim, Angela Lansbury chose an old standard by Gershwin.

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She had been living in Los Angeles, making movies, when a note arrived out of the blue from the playwright Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim's collaborator on "Gypsy" and "West Side Story." They had written a new musical, and Laurents wanted to know whether she would audition for them.

By the early 1960s, Lansbury had established herself as a serious actress in Hollywood ("Gaslight," "State of the Union," "The Manchurian Candidate"), but a lot of the other jobs were in what she calls "so-so films." And although she'd always been able to carry a tune, she hadn't imagined herself a potential successor to the likes of Martin or Merman.

"I thought, 'God! I'd never entertained the idea of doing a musical.' But they came out, and I sang for them."

The song was "A Foggy Day (In London Town)." To paraphrase Ira Gershwin's lyrics, it was one of the luckiest days she had known. "Because on the basis of that," she says, "I went to Broadway."

And so a remarkable life in musicals was launched.

Lansbury is sitting in the homey living room of her little Manhattan pied-à-terre -- an apartment north of Times Square that's so not-grande-dame-ish its balcony looks out on a brick wall -- as she recalls the meeting that led to her being cast in Sondheim and Laurents's short-lived 1964 "Anyone Can Whistle." With her 85th birthday on the horizon, the actress is sharp, precise and endearingly maternal: She cheerily bops off to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water for a guest and looks a bit thwarted when he politely declines a cookie.

On this afternoon, she is reflecting on her long association with a composer-lyricist whose works became multiple milestones in her durable musical-theater life. Sondheim wrote the first notes she sang on a Broadway stage, brought her to a career pinnacle in the 1979 "Sweeney Todd" and has even served her in her dizzyingly active golden years. It would probably come as a shock to no one if her latest Sondheim assignment, as a cynical dowager recounting her amorous conquests in the current revival of "A Little Night Music," earned her yet another nomination at Tony time.

In the meantime, she is about to pick up another honor related to her career in musicals, an award named for Sondheim and given out by Signature Theatre at its annual gala, taking place Monday night in Washington. Lansbury will be in the rotunda of the Italian Embassy to accept it, alongside the accolade's namesake, who received the first Sondheim Award last year. Marin Mazzie, a star of Sondheim's "Passion," and Victor Garber (the original Anthony, the sailor, in "Sweeney Todd") will be among the performers singing tributes.

"It's huge, really," Lansbury says, of being first in line behind Sondheim for the recognition. "There are many others who are doing his work, who are so closely associated with him. For nothing else, that's meaningful. And, of course, there's the fact that I started off with him."

In the pantheon of originators of roles in musicals with Sondheim scores, Lansbury has a spot in the front ranks, alongside Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Len Cariou, Mandy Patinkin, Glynis Johns and Zero Mostel. In addition to playing Cora, the corrupt small-town mayor of "Anyone Can Whistle" -- which closed after nine performances and which, incidentally, was revived this weekend by Encores!, the musicals-in-concert series -- Lansbury won a Tony for her work as Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd's eminently practical partner in cuisine-inspired homicide. Lansbury's turn as Madame Armfeldt in the current revival of "Night Music," co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, has earned her across-the-board plaudits. And of course, she made a celebrated splash as Mama Rose in a 1974 revival of "Gypsy," for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne's music.

You wouldn't call her a chanteuse. And yet Lansbury has built one of the most impressive galleries of characters in the history of musicals; she originated the title role, too, in Jerry Herman's "Mame." Talking to her about her hits and her misses, you hear nothing about insecurity, no sense that the gear-shifting required to survive on Broadway took a toll. "I had a natural singing voice," she says, matter-of-factly. Transforming herself into a singing star "was just training. And figuring out how loud I had to be to be heard over the orchestra."


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