Friday, December 27, 2019

Broadway Greats Jerry Herman & Angela Lansbury

Broadway tunesmith Jerry Herman passed away this week at age 88. Broadway will definitely dim its lights in his memory. That man had the gift -- and he put it to great use as he lifted our spirits and entertained us with his songs. I've seen some big new Broadway musicals, musicals that opened after 2000. I enjoyed them but I could not, for the life of me, hum a single tune once I'd left the theatre. That was never the case with a Jerry Herman musical, even if the musical was not a huge hit like his HELLO DOLLY! That Broadway musical solidified Carol Channing as a musical theatre legend and gave pop culture new showtunes to hum. Top recording stars of the day sang Jerry Herman songs from HELLO DOLLY! on their new albums and their recordings got radio play. Singers like Frank Sinatra, Jack Jones, Eydie Gorme. Louis Armstrong did a cover of "Hello Dolly!" that topped the Billboard charts -- and topped a record by The Beatles. And that's why you see Louis Armstrong make a cameo appearance to sing it with Barbra Streisand when she starred in the film version of HELLO DOLLY! Today, when we hear Angela Lansbury sing a hit Disney tune, like in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and when we watched her solve crimes for many CBS TV seasons as Jessica Fletcher on MURDER, SHE WROTE, I always think "We have Jerry Herman to thank for that." Herman's music made America realize the true leading lady star quality and musical comedy skills of Angela Lansbury.
MGM was the Tiffany of Hollywood studios when it came to movie musicals in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In the studio's roster of stars were Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Lena Horne to name a few. Young Angela Lansbury was signed by MGM in the early 1940s. In her first film, a drama, she got herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She played the promiscuous maid in 1944's GASLIGHT. She got her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing the sweet, doomed music hall singer in another drama, 1945's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. 
Lansbury had the ability to project a maturity that made her seem 10 years older than she was. She played the "bad girl" saloon singer/vamp in the original MGM musical western, 1946's THE HARVEY GIRLS, opposite Judy Garland. She came off older and worldly when she and Judy were only in their 20s and Lansbury was about three years younger than Garland. In that hit musical, Angela Lansbury sang … but, for some reason, MGM decided to dub her singing voice.

MGM never really utilized Angela Lansbury's musical comedy skills while she was under contract. Then came her third Oscar nomination. Again, in the Best Supporting Actress category, she was nominated for her chilling dramatic brilliance as the malevolent mother in 1963's political thriller, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Laurence Harvey played her brainwashed son. In real life, he was only 3 years younger than Lansbury. Here's a clip.

Hollywood was not sending lead role script opportunities to Angela Lansbury. She went to Broadway and did a 1964 Stephen Sondheim musical that lasted for only 9 performances. But Jerry Herman, riding high on the success of HELLO DOLLY!, saw her sing and dance in that short-run musical. He was working on a musical version of the Broadway and film hit comedy, AUNTIE MAME. Rosalind Russell famously originated the role on Broadway and recreated her performance in the movie version. Several actresses were considered for the musical version -- Broadway great Mary Martin, Ann Sothern, Kitty Carlisle … even Rosalind Russell. Angela Lansbury was on nobody's list. Nobody except for Jerry Herman. She got the role and became the "It" Girl of 1966. Broadway gave her the stardom that Hollywood had not. Angela Lansbury looked glamorous, she was the Toast of Broadway, the musical was a huge hit and songs she introduced were recorded by top pop stars of the day. She was now starring in MAME, a leading lady and not a supporting player.

Here is one of the MAME songs written by Jerry Herman that ascended her to Broadway stardom. Click onto the link below:

Here's another Jerry Herman song she introduced as the madcap MAME. She's now legal guardian to her little nephew. His late father, Mame's brother, was a stuffy and conservative executive who rarely had time for the boy. She's devoted to little Patrick even when she's having no luck finding a job during the Depression. She sings this song, now one of our holiday favorites.

Jerry Herman's musical forced the entertainment industry to see the versatile Angela Lansbury in a whole new light. His songs illuminated HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, DEAR WORLD, MACK AND MABEL and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Herman was a Broadway great whose work made others Broadway greats. His songs will always hold a special place in our hearts.


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