If Angela Lansbury takes home a Tony Award on June 7 for her performance as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit—and she’s a huuuge favorite to do just that—she will equal Julie Harris’ record five wins. At this point, Lansbury is synonymous with the Tonys, having hosted, presented or performed on the show a dozen times in the last 40 years. To honor this great lady of the theater, we compiled stats, quotes and photos from her Broadway career.
1957: After building a stellar resume in film, British-born Angela Lansbury makes her Broadway debut opposite Bert Lahr in the French farce Hotel Paradiso. Three years later, in the Broadway premiere of Shelagh Delaney’s domestic drama A Taste of Honey, she plays Joan Plowright’s mother—even though Lansbury is only four years older.
1964: Librettist/director Arthur Laurents invites Lansbury to audition for her first musical, Anyone Can Whistle, featuring a score by Stephen Sondheim. “I had a little, high soprano, and they wanted a belter, so I learned how to belt,” Lansbury later explains. The show closes after 21 performances, but is preserved in a cast album that achieves cult status. “We were all so strung out and miserable because we were closing,” she says of the recording session in a 2007 Broadway.com Q&A. “[But] it was the beginning of a career I wouldn’t have had otherwise, so I’m deeply grateful for that and for my association, subsequently, with Stephen and Arthur Laurents.”
1966: Lansbury wins her first Best Actress Tony for playing the title role in Mame, a show that went on to run for 1,508 performances. “There were many other very big ladies, like Lucille Ball and Ann Sothern and Mary Martin, who wanted to do it,” she later recalls, but composer Jerry Herman “only wanted me.” Her Tony is presented by Ray Milland: “Beatrice Arthur, Frankie Michaels and I were all sitting at the same table in the Rainbow Room, and by god if we all didn’t win. I was up against Gwen Verdon for Sweet Charity that year, and our shows had the same producers. They must have been terribly torn!”
1967: The actress serves as a presenter at the first nationally televised Tony ceremony—also the first year the award medallion is mounted on a black acrylic pedestal.
1968: Lansbury is tapped for her first stint as co-host with Peter Ustinov of the Tony ceremony.
1969: Her second Best Actress win comes for another Jerry Herman musical, Dear World, in which she stars as Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot. That Tony, she tells Broadway.com, “was a surprise, even though I loved the score. I actually loved the show!” Alas, Dear World closes a month after the Tony ceremony, playing a total of 132 performances.
1971: The 25th anniversary Tony ceremony is co-hosted by Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quayle and Anthony Quinn. The still-talked-about telecast includes highlights from 25 years of Best Musicals and the stars who introduced them, with Lansbury offering a high-kicking rendition of “Open a New Window” from Mame. She also presents the Best Music Tony to Stephen Sondheim for Company. At the time, lyricists were given a separate Tony; Sondheim won that, too.
1975: Lansbury takes home her third Best Actress Tony for playing Momma Rose in the first Broadway revival of Gypsy. She thanks “Arthur Laurents, Steve Sondheim, Jule Styne and Miss Ethel Merman for creating one of the most memorable, memorable shows in Broadway history.” During a salute to musicals that played the Winter Garden Theatre, Lansbury sings the title tune from Mame and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy. More than 30 years later, she tells Broadway.com, “Gypsy was a huge, huge event in my theatrical life. Singing-wise, it took every ounce of my vocal energy.” Best of all, she created the role of Rose in her home country to great acclaim. “Merman never played it in London,” she notes with satisfaction. “They were transfixed.”
1979: Four nominations, four Best Actress wins: Lansbury is awarded the Tony for creating the role of Nellie Lovett in Sondheim's masterwork Sweeney Todd, and sings “The Worst Pies in London” during the telecast. Harold Prince’s production is preserved in a 1982 TV film of the show with George Hearn rather than original star Len Cariou opposite Lansbury in the title role. She later calls the lovestruck Mrs. Lovett the role she would “most like to be remembered for.”
1981: A Tony presenter, Lansbury sings “By the Sea” from Sweeney Todd in a medley with Tony winners Nell Carter “Honeysuckle Rose” from Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Patti LuPone “Buenos Aires” from Evita.
1987: Lansbury is now a TV star, thanks to her role as mystery writer-turned-amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Not surprisingly, CBS taps her to host the Tony telecast three years in a row. During the 1987 show, she and close pal Beatrice Arthur also a big TV star at the time in The Golden Girls perform their Mame duet, “Bosom Buddies.”
1988: Hosting again, Lansbury looks lovely in a plunging black gown as she introduces a performance by Phantom of the Opera stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman and enjoys a photo op with Madonna.
1989: In her final stint as Tony host, Lansbury opens the show with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy and later salutes “the eleven o’clock number” by singing “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music in a medley with Larry Kert “Being Alive” from Company and Betty Buckley “Memory” from Cats.
1998: After an absence of almost a decade, Lansbury is tapped as a Tony presenter.
1999: A presenter again, Lansbury takes part in the opening number, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” A few weeks before the ceremony, she appears on the daytime talk show of Tony host Rosie O’Donnell.
2007: Coaxed out of semi-retirement to appear in what was intended to be an off-Broadway production, Lansbury instead opens on Broadway opposite Marian Seldes as a retired tennis champion in Terrence McNally’s Deuce. Within days of opening, she lands her first Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. “I don’t have any illusions about winning,” she tells a TV interviewer. “I’m just happy to be out there and to have been nominated with an incredible bunch of women.” Julie White takes home the Tony for The Little Dog Laughed. Lansbury greets the crowd at the beginning of the host-less ceremony and closes the telecast by presenting the Best Musical Tony to Spring Awakening.
2009: Director Michael Blakemore entices Lansbury to return to Broadway once again in a role tailor-made for her comic talent: the medium Madame Arcati in his revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Her acclaimed performance draws a Best Featured Actress in a Play Tony nomination and wins prizes from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk as well as Broadway.com's Audience Award for Favorite Featured Actress in a Broadway Play. “I have been so blessed to work with the titans of Broadway over so many, many years,” Lansbury says a few weeks before the Tony ceremony, accepting an award from the Drama League for her “unique contribution to the theater,” adding that she felt Madame Arcati was “a part I really should have a crack at. It was such fun ‘putting it all together,’ as Steve Sondheim would say.”
On June 7, 2009, Angela Lansbury will be back onstage at Radio City Music Hall as both nominee and presenter at the 63rd annual Tony Awards. The stage, she told Broadway.com, is "the place I am most comfortable as an actress. It's like Dolly: 'I'm back where I belong' when I'm in the theater." Here's hoping this classy star, equally adept at plays and musicals, was serious when she declared to producers in attendance at the 2009 Drama League Awards luncheon, "Give me another job in the next five years," then called out to the cheering crowd, "I'll see you all on Broadway." Cheers, Ms. L!