Actors are often slaves to authors, or at any rate authors are often dictatorial toward actors, but Angela Lansbury, 84, and Stephen Sondheim, 79, have had a rare theatrical relationship, in a way helping each other create, or reimagine, some of the landmark musicals of the past 45 years: the 1964 cult flop Anyone Can Whistle; the great revival of Gypsy in the seventies; Sweeney Todd in 1979; and the just-opened revival of A Little Night Music, directed by Trevor Nunn and co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. On the morning after the first preview, Sondheim and Lansbury—he weary from the previous night, she chipper and ready for rehearsal—sat down at Sardi’s to discuss their collaboration. It began when Arthur Laurents, who was directing Anyone Can Whistle, as well as writing its book, suggested casting Lansbury in a leading role, despite not knowing if she could sing.
Angela Lansbury: I received a thin blue envelope with a thin blue piece of paper inside, like toilet paper. It was a very nicely handwritten letter from Arthur, asking if I might be interested in auditioning for the part of Cora the Mayoress. The idea of being in a musical thrilled me!
Stephen Sondheim: You’d done the film The Harvey Girls, but they didn’t use your voice. So you hadn’t actually sung with an orchestra in a movie, had you?
A.L.: No, but you’ve forgotten that after leaving London during World War II, I began my professional career in cabaret—in a Russian nightclub in Montreal called the Samovar. I sang a lot of Noël Coward, and an arrangement of “I Went to a Marvelous Party” with coloratura, contralto, mock German. I had ideas of singing, but it was always a character singing, never straight singing.
S.S.: Did you have eyes on a club career?
A.L.: No! I’d just come out of drama school, I was 16 years old, and I needed to work because we had no money. When I got the job, I lied about my age and went up to Montreal. I don’t know how I had the gall to think I could do this.
But by the time you got the letter from Mr. Laurents, you were a movie star with two Academy Award nominations. Weren’t you too established to audition for a strange musical by a not-very-well-known composer?
A.L.: No. The theater always came first. Movies were incidental. So I was happy to audition. I sang “A Foggy Day in London Town.”
You took the role but soon discovered you weren’t completely taken with it. After all, Cora was not exactly a realistic character: the evil mayoress of a bankrupt town who fakes a miracle to attract tourists. Did you try to improve it?
A.L.: I’d like Stephen to take that question.
S.S.: Angie came over one afternoon while we were in rehearsal and said, “Cora is a cartoon, and I don’t know how to play a cartoon. I’m not that kind of performer.” I said, not bluntly, “You read the script and you knew she was a kind of Kay Thompson substitute—the whole idea is that her heartlessness and banality would be reflected in my heartless, jazzy nightclub numbers.” She had trouble with that—I’m putting words in your mouth, Angie—because there was no there there. I didn’t know what I could do about that, but then she added, “And Lee [Remick, the other female lead] has five songs while I have four.” I said: “That I can solve.”
You weren’t above a bit of number-counting?
A.L.: I’m surprised that I wasn’t, but … yes.
S.S.: So I wrote “A Parade in Town,” which has some weight to it and is a solo, giving the audience a chance to see Cora alone.
A.L.: It showed this very layered woman and gave me emotional heft, which the part did not have before. It was a special thing he gave me, and I think the reason we’re sitting here today is because back then he recognized in me a person who could deliver this kind of song in the way it was intended.
Stars do have to be deployed carefully to meet audiences’ expectations. Is there a way in which that’s not just smart for them but for the architecture of the piece?
S.S.: Yes, except sometimes it backfires. I thought if you’re going to see a show with two movie stars, you’d like to see them do a duet, so I devised “There’s Always a Woman.” It lasted one performance. It was an eleven o’clock number, but at that point in the evening, it already seemed like 11:30.
The tryouts in Philadelphia seemed cursed. Henry Lascoe, who played one of Cora’s henchmen, died; a musician in the pit died, too. And apparently Miss Lansbury felt she was dying onstage.
A.L.: I was insecure and unhappy because I did not want to play the role the way Arthur wanted to direct me—he knows this, I’m not talking out of school. I remember standing at the top of the stairs in the theater in Philadelphia and shouting, “I don’t know what you want, and I can’t do it!”
S.S.: And I remember how frightened I was. I thought, “She’s going to quit, she’s going to quit.” But something happened that restored your confidence.
A.L.: Audience reaction—simple as that. Now, I’m not a big audience-chaser. I don’t try to please them; I force them to pay attention to what I’m doing, and get them that way.