Who's Who in Musicals: Lahr-Layton
by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1997-2003)

 

Lahr, Bert
(b. Irving Lahrheim)
Comic, actor, singer
b. Aug. 13, 1895 (Yorkville, New York City) - d. Dec. 4, 1967 (NYC)

One of the greatest clowns of the 20th Century, Lahr left grammar school to become a child performer. He worked his way up through burlesque and vaudeville, making his Broadway debut in Harry Delmar's Revels (1927). Winning raves as "Gink Shiner" in the musical hit, Hold Everything (1928), he remained Broadway's reigning comedian through the 1930s. Lahr starred as "Rusty Krause" in Flying High (1930), "Alky Schmidt" in Hot-Cha (1932), Life Begins at 8:40 (1934), two George White revues, and originated the role of "Louis" in the Cole Porter hit DuBarry Was a Lady (1939) – in which he and co-star Ethel Merman introduced "Friendship" and the bawdy showstopper "But in the Morning, No."

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.

 

Lane, Burton
(b. Burton Levy)
Composer
b. Feb. 2, 1912 (New York City) - d. Jan. 5, 1997 (NYC)

After collaborating with Howard Dietz on songs for Three's a Crowd (1929) and with Harold Adamson on Earl Carroll's 1931 Vanities, Lane spent most of the 1930s and 40s in Hollywood working on various films scores. His early song hits included "The Lady's In Love With You" and "I Hear Music," both with lyrics by Frank Loesser. Lane is credited with bringing young vaudeville singer Judy Garland to MGM's attention, leading to her stellar screen career. He returned to Broadway on occasion, with songs for various revues, including Hold Onto Your Hats (1940). With gifted lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, he composed the score for the Broadway hit Finian's Rainbow (1947), including the hit songs "Old Devil Moon," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra" and "Look to the Rainbow." Lane's most popular film score was for MGM's Royal Wedding (1951), with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner – it included "Too Late Now" and "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life."

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, Nathan
(b. Joseph Lane)
Actor, singer
b. Feb. 3, 1956 (Jersey City, NJ)

When joining Actor’s Equity, this gifted comic actor had just played "Nathan Detroit" in a summer stock production of Guys and Dolls -- since his birth name was already being used by another actor, he decided to use "Nathan" as his stage moniker. Lane made an impressive Broadway debut as the obsessive "Roland Maule" in a revival of Present Laughter (1982), and darn near stole the musical Merlin (1983) in the non-singing role of "Prince Fergus." After co-starring with Judy Kaye in the off-Broadway failure Love (1984), Lane scored a personal triumph as "Toad" in the short-lived Broadway musical Wind in the Willows (1985). He continued to win raves off-Broadway in such plays as Terrence McNally’s Lisbon Traviata (1989) before his breakout performance as "Nathan Detroit" in the Broadway revival of Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls (1992). Although he did not win a richly deserved Tony, Lane won suffcient press attention to became a top-rank stage star.

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.

 

Lang, Walter
Film director
b. Aug. 10, 1896 (Memphis, TN) - d. Feb. 7, 1972 (Palm Springs, CA)

Lang somehow went from working as an illustrator for men's fashion ads to directing silent films. When sound came in, he built a reputation for getting demanding projects done on time and on budget. With over fifty feature films to his credit, he is best remembered for the twenty musicals he helmed for 20th Century Fox. Beginning with Tin Pan Alley (1940), he saw Betty Grable through six hits, including Coney Island (1943) and Mother Wore Tights (1947). Lang's best films include State Fair (1945), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) and the screen versions of Call Me Madam (1953), The King and I (1956) and Can-Can (1960). When the decline of the studio system left him directing Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961), Lang opted for retirement.

 

Lansbury, Angela
Actress, singer
b. Oct. 16, 1925 (London, UK)
A rare ability to embody warmth, glamour or icy evil has kept Lansbury an audience favorite for more than half a century. Brought to America in 1942, she was quickly discovered by Hollywood. Despite a fine voice, she only sang on screen during a music hall scene in A Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), warbling the poignant "Little Yellow Bird." Primarily considered a dramatic actress, she had non-singing roles in The Harvey Girls (1946) and The Court Jester (1956). She made her Broadway musical debut in Stephen Sondheim's ill fated Anyone Can Whistle (1964).

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.

 

Laurents, Arthur
Librettist, playwright, director
b. July 14, 1918 (New York City) - d. May 5, 2011 (NYC)

A distinguished playwright, Laurents wrote the librettos for seven Broadway musicals, beginning with the landmark hit West Side Story (1957). His Gypsy (1959) is considered by some to be the finest libretto of all time. He worked on both of these shows with choreographer Jerome Robbins, with whom Laurents had an acrimonious relationship. His less successful efforts include the book for Stephen Sondheim's cult favorite Anyone Can Whistle (1964). Laurents directed Anyone Can Whistle, La Cage Aux Folles (1983) and major revivals of Gypsy in the 1970s and 1990s, and served as ibrettist and director for the ill-fated Nick and Nora (1991). He died of pneumonia at age 93.

 

Lawrence, Carol
(b. Carolina Maria Laraia)
Actress, dancer, singer
b. Sept. 5, 1932 (Melrose Park, IL)

This lovely dark-haired soprano appeared as a dancer in several Broadway shows, including New Faces of 1952 and Me and Juliet (1954). After playing "Ariana" in the short-lived Shagrila (1956), and dancing in the ill-fated Ziegfeld Follies (1957), she was cast as the original "Maria" in West Side Story (1957). Lawrence won raves introducing Bernstein and Sondheim's "I Feel Pretty" and sharing "Tonight" with Larry Kert. She starred in two high-profile flops, playing "Cleo" in Saratoga (1959) and "Angela" in Subways Are for Sleeping (1961). She co-starred with Gordon MacRae in the replacement cast of I Do, I Do (1967), and starred in several televised musicals, including Kiss Me Kate (1968) with then-husband Robert Goulet, who she was married to from 1968 to 1981. Lawrence has continued to appear in concerts and regional productions, including playing "Signora Fiora" in the Pasadena Playhouse revival of Sondheim's Do I Hear a Waltz (2001).

 

Lawrence, Gertrude
(b. Alexandra Dagmar Lawrence Klasen)
Actress, singer
b. July 4, 1898 (London, UK) - d. Sept. 6, 1952 (New York City)

A professional performer from the age of 10, the half-Danish, half-Irish Lawrence was the child of music hall troupers. Lawrence's unsuccessful marriage to Francis Gordon Howley ended soon after the birth of daughter Pamela in 1920. She first won major attention as understudy to her friend Bea Lillie in Andre Charlot's chic London revues of the 1920s. These shows brought Lawrence to Broadway in 1924 and 1926. Capable of chic elegance and hilarious slapstick, Lawrence was soon acclaimed as one of the premiere stage comediennes of her time. Her singing voice was eccentric (sometimes downright flat), but her charm proved irresistible to theater audiences.

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.

 

Laye, Evelyn
Actress, singer
b. July 10, 1900 (London, UK) - d. Feb. 1996 (London, UK)

For more than half a century, this strikingly beautiful soprano was the toast of the London stage. To friends and fans, she was "Boo," a nickname from childhood. Laye made her West End debut as a teenager, and came to fame in operettas like The Shop Girl (1920 - R), The Merry Widow (1923 - R) and Romberg & Hammerstein's The New Moon (1929), achieving international stardom when Noel Coward cast her as "Sari Linden" in the Broadway production of Bitter Sweet (1929). She appeared in several Hollywood films, introducing Romberg & Hammerstein's "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" in The Night is Young (1935) with co-star Ramon Novarro. Loved by audiences and critics alike, Laye continued to play leading roles on the London stage until 1969, and made concert appearances through 1992.

 

Layton, Joe
(b. Joseph Lichtman)
Choreographer, director
b. May 3, 1931 (Brooklyn, NY) - d. May 5, 1995 (Key West, FL)

As a dancer, Layton joined the Broadway cast of Oklahoma! in 1947, leading to appearances in the endembles of Miss Liberty (1950) and Wonderful Town (1953). He choreographed an unsuccessful Off-Broadway revival of On the Town (1959) before winning acclaim for his dances in Once Upon a Mattress and Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music that same season. His raunchy choreography was one of  the highlights of Tenderloin (1960). He staged the breezy musical numbers for Noel Coward's Sail Away (1961) before taking on his first directorial assignment, Richard Rodgers' No Strings (1962) -- which brought him a Tony Award for Best Choreography.

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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