I’ve often thought about how much I would have loved to see Angela Lansbury in The King and I when she performed in the show opposite Michael Kermoyan on Broadway in 1978. Regular readers of this blog might know that, as far as I’m concerned, Lansbury is the ultimate musical theatre actress: the best Rose Hovick, an unmatchable Mame Dennis, a top class Nellie Lovett and a delightfully despicable Cora Hoover Hooper. She has also played Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Countess Aurelia in Dear World and the title role in the gigantic Boston flop, Prettybelle. In between all of that she squeezed in just three weeks of performances in The King and I as Anna Leonowens, a role created in 1951 by Gertrude Lawrence and immortalised on film by Deborah Kerr, with more than a little help from Marni Nixon.
The revival opened in 1977 with Yul Brynner and Constance Towers, and Lansbury was brought in for 24 performances while Brynner was out on holiday. Everything I’ve read about her in the role has led me to believe that she was excellent, as have conversations I have had with people who saw her during her brief stint as Anna. Some people rate Lansbury’s version of “Getting to Know You” as their favourite; her “Can I Tell You What I Think Of You?” was reportedly pretty fierce; her dynamic with Kermoyan incredibly effective, with the moment where he takes her waist in “Shall We Dance?” brimming with sexual tension; and her performance in the King’s death scene completely moving.
How I wish there was at least an official cast recording with Lansbury in the role! I say official as, of course, there are bootleg recordings of Lansbury’s Anna. These reveal some fascinating insights into her interpretation of the role.
Her take on “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, for instance, radiates sheer joy, the attitude of a woman who, in spite of the trepidation she feels starting out on this huge adventure, feels she has made the right choice, secure in the fact that the King will live up to every aspect of their agreement, which is a very comfortable one. It also shows just how the brave the face she is putting on for her son, Louis. Simply through playing into the emotional quality of the music, Lansbury has given Anna many layers and sets up the motivation for the anger and disappointment she feels in the next scene where the King reneges on his agreement to give her a house of her own. Most Annas play the song as a piece that sets up the whistling punch line to the scene, when Anna is confronted by the convey sent to take her to the palace, thus showing the whistle as an idea that quells her own fears as well as her son’s – which is fine and is supported by the text. Nonetheless, Lansbury’s approach increases the stakes and the complexity of what Anna is experiencing.
Lansbury biographers, Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg, reported in Angela Lansbury: A Life on Stage and Screen that Lansbury felt that playing Anna was ‘the chance of a lifetime for me.’ The role fitted her like a glove and Lansbury used her special talents to restore the narrative balance of The King and I, which had become more about the King than Anna (who is, after all, the protagonist of the tale) owing to Yul Brynner’s electric performance and the way that the connection between him and the role was, at that time, a huge selling point of the show.
For her short spell as Anna, Lansbury was nominated for the 1978 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. I am certain her performance was nothing less than magical.