The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Mark Eden Horowitz.
“Angie says she’d be delighted to hear from you.” That was the reply I got from Stephen Sondheim when I emailed him: “Angela Lansbury is currently in DC with the tour of Blithe Spirit. I’d like to invite her to the Library for a show-and-tell and to discuss the possibility of her papers coming here. Would you be willing to provide an email address?” This was March 2015, and the resulting visit was more than memorable.
I’ve done many displays over the years, and many of them for well-known people, but this was the first time I’d done a show-and-tell when I could show the person so many items from our collections that were directly related to them. Among them: original draft scripts for Mame, Dear World, and Mrs. Santa Claus from our Jerry Herman Collection; Hal Prince’s annotated directing script for Sweeney Todd; a letter she wrote to Arthur Laurents when she was starring in Gypsy in London, in which she complains to Laurents about the difficulty of keeping the song “Together (Wherever We Go)” afloat, and begging him to give her character some subtext so she will have something to act. (Laurents wrote the libretto for Gypsy and directed that particular production.) Then there were items related to Beauty and the Beast from our Howard Ashman Collection. My favorite among those items is a two page listing of the “objects” that reside in the Beast’s castle, what their professions had been before they were cursed, and what they most missed about being human. Next to “Mrs. Potts”—the teapot character that Lansbury voiced—it said that she had been the cook, and what she most missed was arms to hug her children. I asked her if this bit of backstory had ever been shared with her and, to my surprise, the answer was that it hadn’t. And this leads to one of the real highlights of the visit.
The Beauty and the Beast material prompted her to recount when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken informed her they wanted her to sing the title song in the film. They auditioned the song for her, performing it themselves. Lansbury then proceeded to serenade my colleague, Janet McKinney, and me with how the song was originally sung to her—surprisingly up-tempo. She told us that she responded that, if they wanted her to sing the song, it would have to be her way, as a ballad, like this… And once again she serenaded us. Swooning comes to mind.
But that wasn’t the only time she sang during her visit. A Jerome Kern manuscript on display prompted her to recall how she and Kern had crossed paths in her early days on the MGM lot, Lansbury being a British ex-pat like Kern’s wife. She added that the very first song she ever sang in public was Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” and somewhat embarrassingly admitted that she was so naïve at the time she didn’t realize that if a song was too high you could either lower the key or replace a high note with a lower note from the same chord. She then began singing “All the Things You Are,” accenting how the high note had been a bit of a stretch. Another swooning moment.
After the display, I asked her if she felt up to going over to the Library’s Jefferson Building (the Music Division is located in the Madison Building), simply because the Great Hall is often described as the most beautiful space in Washington. She was game. We travelled via the tunnel that connects the buildings, quite a long walk that includes an incline. I had difficulty keeping up with Lansbury.
The one sour note of the afternoon: She told us that had already given her collection to Boston University and, worst of all, that most of her collection had been lost in a fire many years earlier. Other than that bit of sad news, it was a glorious and memorable couple of hours, with a more-than-gracious lady who also happened to be one of the great talents of stage and screen (both big and small). We will always miss her, but she leaves a lasting legacy to be treasured.