After a decades-long absence, the woman who charmed the husks right off of the corn is back in the spotlight. But a warning to all Mame fans hoping to see Angela Lansbury sing and dance: in her latest outing, playwright Terrence McNally’s Deuce, the star of Broadway standards Sweeney Todd and Gypsy does neither. In the dramedy, now playing at New York City’s Music Box Theater, Lansbury and fellow legend Marian Seldes play crotchety ex-tennis champions who exchange verbal volleys while watching a match. And judging by the actresses’ lengthy entrance applause — not to mention another Tony Award nomination for Lansbury, a four-time winner — Broadway audiences are grateful for the comeback. ”The payback,” Lansbury sighs, ”is just terrific.” In high spirits, she called EW.com to chat about Deuce, reflect on her career, and reveal — at last! — her favorite musical.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How is it being back on the boards?
ANGELA LANSBURY: It’s glorious to be with Marian. She’s the most divine lady I could imagine sharing a stage with. We get out there and do our thing. We always feel challenged, every time that curtain goes up, just to hold that audience for an hour and a half. It requires a lot of energy and focus, but it’s worth it.
Have there been other roles offered recently?
I wish I could say that there have been. But a whole generation of playwrights has grown up while I was doing other things, television and movies. Terrence McNally — I came into his mind, as he needed an older woman. Other than that, I haven’t been offered New York plays.
What was your impression when you first read Deuce?
I’m a person who reacts very quickly to a role. I immediately called Terrence and said, ”I’d love to do this.” We were originally going to do it at the Primary Stages off-Broadway, and it was going to be a very limited run — which appealed to me a great deal. I always said I wouldn’t come back to Broadway and do eight performances a week. When we shifted the plan to the Music Box Theater on Broadway, it was unexpected. And here I find myself until August! It’s a tough show. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration and energy — and I’ve got all of that, and so does Marian. But I didn’t expect to find myself on Broadway doing eight performances a week!
How did you prepare? I imagine it’s a different process now than when you were younger.
I approached it rather methodically. I started studying [the lines] a month before we went in to rehearsal. Because I realized that at my age, it isn’t that easy to digest.
What’s interesting about Deuce is that the lengthy conversation between you and Marian — with its many arguments — mirrors the action happening in the fictional one-on-one tennis match.
I think it’s ingenious. Each one is really making a point. The score on the tennis court matches the score between these two women. When it’s “deuce,” it means that we’ve reached an impasse in our conversation. At the end, we are 50-50, right on a par with each other, and we’re friends.
I can’t imagine Mame with a racket.
I don’t play anymore, but I did, all through my youth, through my middle years. It’s a wonderful game! We used to play doubles out in Malibu.
A few of the reviews for Deuce have been somewhat negative.
When the curtain goes up we get a lovely reception from the audience, who are very pleased to see two old actresses who haven’t been on Broadway for a while. I think that’s very upsetting to critics. They don’t want to see that. I think if we’d gone up into dead silence, they would have given the play greater pause. I really do.
NEXT PAGE: ”I don’t want to just fizzle out. I’m going to hang on and hope that one day, one glorious final movie role would come along, for posterity.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Describe the entrance applause during the first preview performance.
ANGELA LANSBURY: It was stunning. It was incredible. Really, really, wonderful. Thrilling for me and totally unexpected. I didn’t come back for that. I saw myself as a working actress coming back to play a role on Broadway. I didn’t realize that people would be so pleased that I was there.
Do you get swarmed by theater geeks as you exit the stage door every night?
Yeah, we do. One of my drivers said to me, ”By God, you’re like a rock star!” You know, I’m constantly being stopped by young people who say, I watch Murder She Wrote. Or Mame, or Gypsy, or Sweeney Todd.
Is this the beginning of your return to Broadway? Or is it a one-off?
I’m not going to be working nonstop on Broadway! [But] I never say no to anything, never have. I’m not going to start now. I love music and I do enjoy the excitement of being in a musical.
Broadway hours can be tough. What your schedule like now versus when you performed in your earlier years?
You meet friends after the show, you go to supper…you don’t stay out as late as you used to, you don’t eat as much as you used to! You have to take great care of your body when you’re working in the theater. It’s a very singular life. Especially now that I’m alone — I don’t have my husband with me anymore — which makes it much less fun.
What’s a major difference between performing now and performing then?
In the days when I was doing Sweeney Todd, I was still pursuing a career. I am no longer pursuing a career. I have been enjoying my reputation, trying to continue to do good work, and to improve my own craft. Always looking for ways of doing that!
When you were first starting out, did you ever imagine you’d become Angela Lansbury, American theater legend?
Never. Never in a million years. In those days I was just a starving actress and I took whatever was proffered to me — I was a starlet at MGM. Although I was very well trained! I’ve had it all. I’ve had it in spades. It’s been an incredible career. I don’t regret one minute of it, and I’m thankful for every minute of it. I’d like to be able to do another great movie role. I don’t want to just fizzle out. I’m going to hang on and hope that one day, one glorious final movie role would come along, for posterity. [Laughs] I love the early roles I played in movies like Gaslight. It was the first movie I ever did. It’s remained in people’s minds, and the fact that it has thrills me, now that I’m [nearing] 82 and people are recognizing that person in Deuce.
As a theater geek myself, I have to know — what is your favorite musical?
Gypsy! Musically, it’s marvelous, and dramatically, an ace for an actress.