The role established you in the musical theater, even though the show ran for only nine performances on Broadway.
A.L.: Although 90,000 people apparently saw it.
S.S.: Closing night, I was in the wings when Angie was about to be carried in on a palanquin by four guys for her first entrance. She said to them, “Okay, let’s give ’em hell.” I cried.
She’d been through the London Blitz—she’s a trouper.
S.S.: And she’d been through Arthur.
You didn’t work together again until the revival of Gypsy. By then, Miss Lansbury, you had carried major musicals—Mame and Dear World—and won two Tonys. You could say no to anything.
A.L.: And I did. When they asked me, I said, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. No way can I dare sing that!” I’d grown up listening to Ethel Merman records.
S.S.:I never thought about the possibility of your being intimidated by the memory of Merman.
A.L.: Of course I was! But Arthur, again directing, said, “We know you can sing it; we want you to act it.”
S.S.: Ethel had one great strength: She knew how to play low comedy because it was in her bones. She knew how to do double takes. But Angie was brought up as an actress, so she had an entirely different take on Rose. Ethel was not one for analysis of character.
A.L.: I did a lot of research. But for the purposes of the show, which revealed only some aspects of Rose, I had to go with what the libretto said. Consequently, what I came up with was maybe a little bit obvious.
S.S.: No, I think you came up with Arthur’s Rose, which has nothing to do with the real Rose Hovick.
A.L.: Well, if you start messing it up with the real Rose, you’re in trouble.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine a lesbian scene in Gypsy.
S.S.:Not to mention that Rose was delicate. Even Bernadette Peters was a little more robust than the real Rose. The only person who played Rose who really looked like her was Linda Lavin.
A.L.: If I had been a little skinny woman, I would love to have tried to approach it from that point of view.
“I never thought about the possibility of your being intimidated by the memory of Ethel Merman,” says Sondheim.
But what you brought to Rose had its own authenticity.
S.S.:Early on, I said to Arthur, “What you’re writing is so strong, I don’t know why it needs songs at all.” He said, “Oh, no, if I were writing this as a play, she’d be much more complex. When I write a musical it’s in broad strokes.” And he’s right. As musicals go, Rose is a very complex character; as plays go, well, she’s a musical-comedy character.
When you next worked together, on Sweeney Todd, the character was something of both. And in a way, the tables had turned.
S.S.:This time, I had to audition for her.
A.L.: I was in Ireland when a woman called to say, “There’s a telegram here from New York from a fella named Harold Prince.” Hal said he wanted me to play the role of Nellie Lovett. I put down the phone and said to my husband, “Hmmm, all right, this show is called Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Then who is Nellie Lovett?”
S.S.:So I wrote half of her opening number, “The Worst Pies in London,” to show her. And because I wanted her to know that there was going to be some music-hall stuff, I wrote “By the Sea.”
A.L.: I understood Nellie immediately from those songs. This total London Cockney from the streets. I knew women like that—women who worked for us. Not women who were making pies out of people, but women with that wonderful jolliness and “don’t worry, I’ll fix it” attitude. That was riveting to me.
S.S.:I told her what’s fun about the characters is that the one who’s sympathetic is the morose, sullen murderer, while the one who’s good company is the real villain.
Miss Lansbury, you’ve been a good advocate for your characters.
S.S.:I remember that when we were picking the advertising for the show, somebody came up with the lovely idea of using that drawing of the guy with the knife, but it was just the guy. And Angie said, “You know, it’s called Sweeney Todd, but there is also Nellie Lovett.” And so we put in the female character with the rolling pin.
A.L.: If I may say so, I actually suggested the images in the first place. They were from a card game in Britain called Happy Families. I believe they were the butcher and his wife.
Speaking of happy families, do you two recall ever having an argument?
S.S.:No, but I don’t remember having arguments with any actor. I mean, I remember Zero Mostel having an argument with me, but I didn’t have an argument with him.