“This is the last tour of my career. I can say that right now with absolute certainty,” says 89-year old actress Angela Lansbury, best known as Jessica Fletcher from her highly successful television series Murder, She Wrote, over the phone. “Touring is tough. It really is. I wanted to come to Los Angeles. Isn’t that funny? I needed to put my foot down here again. I still have a house here. My family is here. I feel very much at home. I just wanted to come back as a last thing.”
In Blithe Spirit, currently running at the Ahmanson Theatre, Lansbury plays a medium named Madame Arcati, a role she won her fifth Tony Award for when the play appeared on Broadway five years ago. Arcati is called to the home of writer Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards), who is researching a new novel. During a trance, which no one believes could possibly be real, Arcati summons the ghost of Condomine’s dead wife (Jemima Rooper.) Only he can see and hear her and that complicates his relationship with his new wife (Charlotte Parry.) First performed in 1941, the play was written by Noël Coward.
Lansbury met the playwright years ago. “I met him at the Plaza Hotel in New York with Marlene Dietrich,” she reveals. “It was the only time I ever met him. I had never done his plays, although I had done them at drama school and knew [them] intimately. He was about to leave to go to Las Vegas where he had a huge success. He was the epitome of the English stage man, the English writer. He was marvelous and we all just bowed at his feet.”
Though she first played Arcati in 2009 and again last year in England for five months, the actress still works to make each moment unique. “Every time I go out of the box onto the stage,” she says, “I am going to bring, hopefully, a fresh approach. Also earnestness because I think Arcati is totally serious in her abilities as a medium, even though she’s a funny character. I’m always going for something that’s better. Not to upset the other actors, this is the thing that I believe one has to do every single time you play the part.”
After being dissatisfied with the roles she was offered while under contract with MGM, Lansbury made the decision that changed her life. “I had no reputation except as an also-ran. It was very discouraging. I had to pack up and go back to Broadway. That was a great decision I made. Thank God. I never looked back and I never came back to Hollywood to make a film.”
Upon her return to Broadway, the actress played the title character in Mame (1966 and 1983), Mama Rose in Gypsy (1974), Madame Arnfeldt in A Little Night Music (2009) and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (1979.) In fact, the last performance she gave as Lovett was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1981.
After the Blithe Spirit tour (which goes on to San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C.) Lansbury hopes to appear in a production of the Enid Bagnold play The Chalk Garden. “Enid wrote the book of National Velvet which is a film I did at the beginning of my career with Elizabeth Taylor. She was the most interesting authoress of her day. She wrote this play back in the 1930s or maybe a little later. It’s a small play but has to be carefully cast.”
And if she had to give up acting, what would she do? “That’s a hell of a question, isn’t it? I’d take up causes and become more involved on a personal level with the things I care about: children and also educating children in schools to have more access to dance and music and singing and acting. I think it’s a wonderful developer to have that access and they don’t have that in the schools today.”
Until that day comes, Lansbury will continue to tread the boards as she is currently doing. With her entrance and most exits in Blithe Spirit she is overwhelmed with applause from the audience. “It simply means here’s an old friend. Here’s somebody we know and we’re very happy to welcome her back to Los Angeles, back to the theatre. That’s a lovely feeling. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it can also breed friendship and I sense that friendship.”