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Side by Side


And is it true, Miss Lansbury, that you threw little pieces of dough at the conductor in the pit, as has been reported?
S.S.:Angela does not break the fourth wall.
A.L.: I’m too busy staying behind the curtain in terror. Though, may I say that I think I introduced a lot of humor into the playing of Sweeney Todd. Which was unexpected and necessary. That was the Cockney way, you know. Her logic and ingenuousness were what made her funny, and this is what allowed one to be totally serious about the most dreadful idea.
S.S.:When an actor says, “I created the character,” I used to think, “No, you didn’t; the authors did.” But I came to understand what it means from their point of view. Angie would question a line or an emotion or an attitude and say, “This seems inconsistent.” And if I agreed with her I changed it. I mean, that’s what you do with actors, right? Sixty percent of the best plays in history have been written by actors. There’s a reason for that.

For the current revival of A Little Night Music, neither of you is creating a role in that sense. Still, the part of Madame Armfeldt, first played by Hermione Gingold, seems to have been written for someone like Angela Lansbury.
A.L.: Interestingly, Hal Prince originally approached me about playing her daughter, Desirée. I couldn’t because I was doing Gypsy. But Armfeldt has always been out there in the ether; it was a natural for me.
S.S.:After the run of Sweeney Todd Angie was really exhausted, what with the constant running around the stage and up the stairs. She said, “What I want now is a nice play where I sit behind a desk.” Last night, watching Night Music, in which she’s in a wheelchair behind a tray table all evening, I thought: Good for her—she finally got one.
A.L.: I like and understand Madame Armfeldt’s indomitability, that she was a courtesan of her time, and that she maintained this style because it brought her monetary success, jewelry, recognition, a place in society. She didn’t come from any particularly great family, she just was terribly good at what she did. To see that tremendous imperiousness crumble makes the part of enormous interest to play.

And this time you weren’t worried about dying onstage?
A.L.: I did say to Trevor, “Am I really going to die?” Because I thought, “Maybe she could just drop off …”
S.S.:The original stage direction for her dying said that her wig slips slightly off her head. After Gingold read and sang for us, she said, “I notice certain characteristics that I share with Madame Armfeldt. In the script she’s 74 years old. Well, I’m 74.” And she said, “I also notice that in the last scene Madame Armfeldt dies and the wig slides off her head. Well, gentlemen”and she took her hair off and revealed an entirely bald head. She said, “Thank you so much for seeing me,” and left. And you heard three jaws hit the floor. Hal said, “She’s got the part.”

She wasn’t really bald, was she?
S.S.:I have no idea. But I’ll tell you this: She was 75.

Miss Lansbury, would you ever go that far to get a role?
A.L.: No, I’d just act.


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