This is about Angie, Eth, Gyp and Rose, wholly unrelated except for that fashionably evasive word "linkage."
Angie's grandfather might, conceivably, have become prime minister of England. His resignation from Ramsey MacDonald's cabinet came when he declared that Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia could lead to global war. Like his granddaughter, George Lansbury was often right but ahead of his time.
Eth's German-Scottish family lived on Long Island, where her father was a bookkeeper named Edward Zimmerman. She was supposed to become a secretary and, such being her grasp of realities, she might by now control all the automobile power brakes made in America.
Rose burst upon the public in The New Yorker. That she was real, not a ficional creature who had kindled the fancy of editor Harold Ross, was attested by the credit line at the end of each installment, Louise Havoc, or, "Gypsy Rose Lee."
"Gyp," as she called herself and welcomed others to do, was a child of vaudeville who, upon its demise and her own flowering, had been eased into stripping on the burlesque circuit.
Gyp stripped with flair, not taking it all off but getting to her G-string intellectually. The chichi of the '20s and '30s adored her pithy, learned, self-educated witticism. About her Larry Hart wrote a lasting lyric in "Pal Joey" titled "Zip."
The linkage between these aggressively disparate women was supplied by a playwright named Arthur Laurents.
Laurents was inspired by The New Yorker pieces and subsequent memoir, "Gypsie," to write the book for a musical. The perfect composer turned out to be Jule Styne, who had recently saluted the Mack Sennett movies with "High Button Shoes" and remains the archtype of all Broadway sound composers. The lyricist was a young protege of Oscar hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim, who must have known what he was talking about when he wrote "Everything's Coming Up Roses" for "Gypsie."
The show they staged in 1959 was "Gypsie." Ethel merman proved the perfect Mama Rose and it became the most applauded of her 30 years of Broadway roles.
"Gypsy" keeps rolling along, opening a week's run, with two matinees, on Monday night at Wolf Trap.
Now Angie is playing Eth's part and Eth is in the news because she's written "Merman - an Autobiography" (with George Eells), which is amusing because this is Eth's second autobiography, though uncharacteristically, she doesn't say so.
All of which goes to show that if you hit it big, you, too, can write two autobiographies and you, too, as Beatrice Lillie used to sing, staring down her cleavage, can "have two of everything."
Angie, who is with us this week, is Angela Lansbury. She's proud enough of her grandfather George, the Labour party leader who resigned from MacDonald's National Government in 1936, but she's as proud of Mom. Mom was a wonderful character actress named Moyna Macgill, seen here in "The Boy Friend," who had married a member of Parliament named Edgar, son of George.
Relishing hearty Moyna, I think of how many marriages there have been between theater and politics and how, in Moyna's case, her children took after her. Two of her sons entered the theater, Edgar, now a New York producer, and playwright William Bruce Lansbury. Rather naturally they gravitated to America because Moyna's uncle was Robert Mantell, a leading Shakespearean actor on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 20th century.
Moyna's daughter Angela first drifted into the ken of many when, in an early '40s movie, she sang "Poor Little Yellow Bird." She was a teen-ager playing a suspiciously sexy housemaid in a movie called "Gaslight" (and here "Angel Street"), which was about how Charles Boyer was driving his rich wife, Ingrid Bergman, batty by dimming the illumination.
Angie went far and fast in Hollywood, always playing second leads in such hits as "National Velvet," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "The Harvey Girls," "Till the Clouds Roll By," "State of the Union" and "The Three Musketeers." She won Oscar nominations for "Dorian Gray" as Sibyl Vane and "The Manchurian Candidate" in which she was a villian of limitless political ambitions.
All this while Angie was bringing up a family. She married a longtime MGM producer, a handsome devil named Peter Shaw, still her husband. Between pictures Angela was not taking it easy. She was taking singing lessons, I learned on a trip to Malibu in 1959.
Those singing lessons turned out handily. The Lansbury Broadway bow came with "Hotel Paradiso," which tried out here with such other farceurs as Bert Lahr, James Coco, Sondra Lee, Vern Pearce, John Emery and Carleton Carpenter. Though Feydeau later would make his American mark, "Hotel Paradiso" was ahead of its time. For her next, Lansbury went into "A Taste of Honey." Her vocal coaching paid off for "Anyone Can Whistle," a political satire also ahead of its time but which very well might make it today if anyone has a few hundred thousand bucks to stage Sondheim's undervalued score.
Lansbury's smashing success came in "Mame," her casting for the Jerry Herman musical surprising almost everyone. The reason for this was that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who had adapted the musical's book from their "Auntie Mame," knew about Lanbury's singing lessons and insisted that partner Herman hear her sing his score. The same trip adapted "Dear World" from "The Madwoman of Chaillot" for Lansbury and though it failed, she again won a Tony as she had for "Mame."
Now comes the feisty adventures of Lansbury. Having become a musical comedy queen on Broadway and in London with "Gypsy," she acted Gertrude to Albert Finney's Hamlet for the inaugural of England's National Theater. That's a trip few could make, let alone risk.
And, when the producers of "The King and I" revival needed a star replacement for Yul Brenner, what star would volunteer to learn, for a mere three-week run, the female lead of the Victorian governess? Lansbury did that this spring and if vehicles ever are lacking, she always can go back to "I" of "The King and." Most actresses would hesitate to follow Mrs. Siddons and Gertrude Lawrence. Not Lansbury.
Not that there is a lack of parts. Coming up this fall is Harold Prince's new musical, "Sweeney Todd," Sondheim's musicalization of a once-popular melodrama, "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
In brief, from her bloodstream flows Lansbury's versatility and zest to act what's around to be acted. Just so it's a meaty role, Lansbury will have to go. And in Wolf Trap's cast as Electra, in the trio of strippers who sing "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," take note of Deirdre Shaw, daughter of Angela and Peter, granddaughter of Moyna, great-granddaughter of politican George. What a marvelous bunch of show-offs they are!
yet, how can you tell? There's nothing whatever in Ethel Merman's background to suggest that she'd become the Broadway century's most lasting musical star. Starting with the Gershwins' "Girl Crazy," Merman, her brash personality, her brassy sound and perfect diction have introduced more popular show tunes than anyone. Irving Berlin said, "You'd better not write a bad lyric for Merman because people will hear it in the second balcony." Cole Porter's "You're the Top," "Anything Goes" and "I Get a Kick Out of You" were written for The Merman and if you've heard "Rose's Turn," Jule Styne's chilling "Gypsy" soliloquey, you heard The Merm at a peak.
The new autobiography is heartily superior to "Who Could Ask for Anything More" of 23 years back. A lot has happened to her since, including "Gypsy," personal sorrows and that marriage to Ernie Borgnine, to which she here devotes a whole chapter, one blank page.
This kind of ruthless honesty is typical of The Merm, a combination of Innocent and Tough. She will write exactly, in spades, what she thinks. She will surprise you by being an Episcopalian whose voice, quite unintentionally, used to shake the dry, tiled rafters of Park Avenue's St. Bartholomew's Church every Sunday morning after a night at the Stork following two Saturday performances.
Her book shows how calmly organized she is, letting one believe what once she replied when asked about stage fright. "Why should I be nervous?" she said. "I know my lines. The people who bought tickets, they ought to be nervous."
Rarely has there been a more honest autobiography about life as a star nor, for that matter, a greater proof of loss to executives who seek The Perfect Secretary. By last week all The Merm's friends knew her New York address and phone number. The main thing she doesn't tell us how, without a second of training, she achieves that perfect diction for those great lyrics.
As for more about Gyp, Mama Rose - and Baby Louise Havoc, too - you'll learn at Wolf Trap after, striding down the aisle, Angie screams: "Sing out, Louise - sing out."