|Who's Who in Musicals: Lahr-Layton
by John Kenrick
By this time, Lahr had appeared in several films, including the screen version of Flying High (1931). His most memorable Hollywood role was as "Zeke/The Cowardly Lion" in MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939), introducing "If I Were King of the Forest." Although he continued to make occasional screen appearances, Broadway remained his primary kingdom. Lahr starred in several major revues, including Seven Lively Arts (1944) with Bea Lillie, Two on the Aisle (1951) with Dolores Gray and The Boys Against the Girls (1959). Popular on radio, the rubber faced Lahr became a great favorite on television, making frequent guest appearances and starring in a series of commercials for Lays potato chips. A critic aptly described his distinctive voice as sounding like "an English horn played underwater."
No matter how great or frequent his successes, Lahr remained terribly insecure and fearful that audiences would abandon him. However, his star never really faded. He proved his versatility by starring as "Estragon" in the original Broadway production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1956) and in lighter comedies like The Beauty Part (1962). His last Broadway appearance was in the title role of the short- lived Foxy (1964), a musical adaptation of Volpone. Lahr was playing a burlesque comic in the film The Night They Raided Minsky's at the time cancer took his life at age 72. For more on this unique talent, read Notes on a Cowardly Lion, the superb biography by his son, journalist and show business historian John Lahr.
With the demise of the Hollywood musical, Lane returned to composing for the stage, usually partnered with Lerner. Their On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965) was a modest hit, featuring "Come Back to Me" and the popular title tune. Their Carmelina (1978) failed despite a frequently ravishing score. Towards the end of Lane's life, he accompanied cabaret crooner Michael Feinstein on a superb pair of CD's showcasing Lane's songs.
Lane followed this with a series of non-musical roles, including the egotistical "Max Prince" in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993) and loveable theatre queen "Buzz Hauser" in McNally’s Love! Valor! Compassion! (1994), but it became a running joke that Lane somehow never received Tonys -- or even nominations! -- for his acclaimed performances. This ended when he won Best Actor in a Musical for his hilarious performance as "Pseudelous" in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1996). Lane’s "over the top" style scored well when he provided the voice for the smart-mouthed meerkat "Timon" in Disney’s animated hit The Lion King (1994), singing the bouncy "Hakuna Matata." He also appeared in many live action films, playing drag star "Albert" in Mike Nichols’ The Bird Cage (1996), "Irving Mansfield" in Isn’t She Great (2000), "Costard" in Kenneth Branagh's musical version of Loves Labors Lost (2000), and Victorian impresario "Vincent Crummles" in Nicholas Nickleby (2002). Although Lane had memorable success as host of several annual Tony Award broadcasts, television has not yet found an effective way to utilize his talents his first sitcom faded after barely half a season in 1999.
After appearing in the ill-fated workshop for Sondheim’s Wise Guys (1999), Lane starred as "Sheridan Whiteside" in a revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner (2000), which became the first Broadway show ever broadcast complete on live television. A painfully frank profile in the NY Times Magazine (Sept. 2001) explained that, like many great clowns before him, Lane has dealt with tremendous insecurity. Whatever his personal challenges, Lane's performances remain among the comic joys of our time. He next starred opposite Matthew Broderick as "Max Bialystock" in Mel Brooks' triumphant musical stage version of The Producers (2001), the biggest Broadway musical comedy hit in decades, which brought Lane his second Tony. He repeated the role in London and on screen, and co-starred yet again with Broderick in a New York revival of The Odd Couple (2005). Lane art in a studio recording of Sondheim's rarely seen adaptation of The Frogs, and after revising the libretto starred as "Dionysos" in its 2004 Lincoln Center production. He won praise as "Estragon" in an all-star revival of Waiting for Godot (2009), and his acclaimed performance as "Gomez" in The Addams Family (2010) added another comic jewel to his theatrical crown.
Lansbury followed this with a series of Tony Award-winning performances. Playing the title role in Mame (1966), she introduced Jerry Herman's "Open a New Window," and "If He Walked Into My Life," sharing "Bosom Buddies" with co-star Bea Arthur. As Aurelia in Dear World (1969), she introduced Herman's powerful "I Don't Want to Know." Lansbury played Mama Rose in the first major revival of Gypsy (1974), winning raves in both London and New York, and touring extensively across the USA. She created the role of Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's semi-operatic Sweeney Todd (1979), co-starring with Len Cariou. Each of these demanding roles proved Lansbury's versatility, as well as her stamina, making her the only person with four Tony's for Best Actress in a Musical.
Lansbury played the student witch Eglantine in the delightful Disney screen musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and took on the role of Ruth for the screen version of The Pirates of Penzance (1983). After a long run in the television mystery series Murder She Wrote (recreating her "Little Yellow Bird" routine in one episode), she starred in Jerry Herman's TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus (1996). Lansbury also provided the voices for Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1990) and the Dowager Empress in Anastasia (1998). Still going strong in her 80s, Lansbury received her fifth Tony -- this time for Best Featured Actress in a Play -- as "Madame Acarti" in a revival of Blithe Spirit (2009), and later that same year delighted audiences as the acerbic "Madame Armfeldt" in a revival of A Little Night Music (2000). A frequent hostess of the annual Tony telecast, she now serves as special spokesperson for the American Theatre Wing.
Her few films and recordings do little to explain why she inspired the finest stage composers of her day to some of their best efforts. Lawrence became the first British performer to originate a lead in a hit Broadway musical when she played the title role in Oh Kay (1926) -- the Gershwins wrote the hit songs "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Do, Do, Do" specifically for her. Cole Porter came to London to compose Nymph Errant (1929) for her, including the tongue twisting showstopper "The Physician." Longtime friend Noel Coward wrote and co-starred with Lawrence in the London and New York productions of the comedy Private Lives (1930), where she originated the role of "Amanda" and introduced Coward's "Someday I'll Find You." The duo also costarred on both sides of the Atlantic in the unique cycle of nine one-act musicals and plays called Tonight at 8:30 (1936).
Lawrence had a reputation for spending beyond her means, leading her to declare bankruptcy at the height of her career. In 1940, she married socialite producer Richard Aldrich, who thereafter kept her finances in reasonable order. A year later, she triumphed as loveless "Liza Elliott" in Kurt Weill & Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark (1941), in which she introduced "My Ship" and "Jenny." Lawrence traveled tirelessly to entertain Allied troops during World War II, and spent several years touring the US in a revival of Shaw's Pygmalion. Lawrence enjoyed the greatest success of her career when Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote the role of "Anna Leonowens" in The King & I (1951) for her. She introduced "Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You" and "Hello Young Lovers," winning the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. As the run progressed, her performance deteriorated until it became clear that she was ill. Just a week after withdrawing from the cast for medical tests, she died due to cancer of the cervix at age 54. Lawrence was buried in Upton, Massachusetts clad in the magnificent satin gown she wore for The King & I's "Shall We Dance." Her name remains synonymous with the finest in 20th Century theatre.
As director-choreographer, Layton followed the ill-fated Girl Who Came to Supper (1963), Drat the Cat (1965) and Sherry (1967) with the acclaimed Cohan bio musical George M! (1968) -- which earned him his second Tony for choreography. He directed several TV productions, and received an Emmy for the conception and staging of My Name is Barbra (1965). His film work included the choreography for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Annie (1982) and For the Boys (1991).
Unable to save Dear World (1969), he went on to stage Two By Two (1970), the original London musical version of Gone With the Wind (1972), and returned to Broadway with the intimate hit I Love My Wife (1977). After Platinum (1978) failed, he enjoyed his greatest personal success with the circus-style staging of Barnum (1980). The next decade brought Layton a series of frustrating failures, including Bring Back Birdie (1981), Harrigan and Hart (1985) and the London musical Ziegfeld (1988). Unlike most director-choreographers, Layton did not have a set "style," choosing instead to come up with a singular approach to each new project so no two Layton productions really looked alike. He died just two days after his 64th birthday.
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