Vivacious, bohemian, and bubbling over with joie de vivre, Mame Dennis truly embodies the spirit of the optimistic 1920s. Freed from the long skirts and restrictive corsets of the late Victorian era, a passionate, liberal generation of women like Mame celebrated life while kicking and swaying to new rhythms. But Mame’s character is not dominated solely by gaudy pizzazz; she possesses a sweetness and complexity that actresses have embodied to add depth to the role and endear themselves to the audience. Those tender and subtle aspects of Mame’s personality were somewhat present in every permutation of the classic story, but they were first emphasized and noted by critics during Angela Lansbury’s brilliant characterization of the role in the hit Broadway musical. As is widely known, Lansbury launched her multi-Tony Award winning Broadway career with Mame in 1966.
Prior to Mame, Landsbury had never received top billing for any of her films or three roles on Broadway. In fact, the character of Mame had already been made famous by another celebrated actress and Connecticut native—Rosalind Russell. Similar to many of the musicals that followed My Fair Lady’s success in 1956, the source material for Mame had been adapted several times before arriving on The Great White Way in the form of a musical. In 1955, Patrick Dennis (the pen name of Edward Everett Tanner) released the novel Auntie Mame. His book sold over two million copies and topped the bestsellers list for two years. Then, in 1956, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee successfully transformed the popular novel into a hilarious stage play and vehicle for Russell. In her 1977 autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell writes that she was asked to play Mame in the Broadway musical and she responded by saying, “It’s not for me anymore. I’ve done it; I have to move along.”
In fact, the announcement that Auntie Mame would be made into a musical caused quite a divide among female leading ladies. After Russell, the producers offered the role to Mary Martin and Ethel Merman; both turned down the offer. Meanwhile, hordes of performers were clambering over each other to be considered for the coveted part. The producers continued to approach or discuss casting some 40 other well-known stars before the show’s composer and lyricist, Jerry Herman, suggested Lansbury. He recounted the following:
“I suggested Angela Lansbury for Mame, and the producers thought I was just demented. Their feeling was, ‘This is a brilliant actress and there’s no better actress in the world, but she’s not a musical comedy performer.’ But I had seen her in a Stephen Sondheim show, Anyone Can Whistle, and I remembered this lady belting out a song very, very well. So I said, ‘She’s a musical comedy performer, and all I want you to do is get her a ticket to New York. I’ll do the rest.’ They were so pleased with the score I had just written that they gave me the three hundred dollars to bring her in.”
Starring in Mame proved to be the perfect opportunity for Lansbury to prove her talent as a musical theatre performer and leading lady. The demanding part required her to sing seven numbers, change costumes nearly 30 times, dance in several different styles, and display the sexy side of her personality. Angela Lansbury took home her first Tony Award for her work on the show and established herself as one of the reigning queens of Broadway. She reflected on the experience by saying, “I’ve finally arrived. I always knew I would hit on something that would unlock all the doors and hit all those people right between the eyes.”
Mame ran for 1,508 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then, in 1969, it played for 443 performances at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. A movie based on the Broadway musical version of the show was released in 1974 starring America’s most popular comedienne, Lucille Ball. The film was highly criticized for a number of reasons. However, most critics wrote that Ball was simply too old for the part and that she lacked singing and dancing ability. The musical was revived on Broadway in 1983 with Angela Lansbury again starring as Mame, followed by many professional and amateur revivals over the years. Since the Broadway opening, the part of Mame has been played by such actresses as Janis Paige, Sheila Smith, Jane Morgan, Ann Miller, Celeste Holm, Ginger Rogers, Janet Blair, Susan Hayward, and Christine Baranski. But clearly, the show proved to be much more than a star vehicle. Writers Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Jerry Herman crafted an exuberant, smart, touching, musical theatre sensation.
Herman’s role in the success of Mame went far beyond his eye for talent and cannot be overstated. With unforgettable numbers such as the title song, "If He Should Walk Into My Life," "We Need a Little Christmas," "Open a New Window," "Bosom Buddies," and "It's Today," Mame is generally considered to be Herman’s best score. Herman joined the Goodspeed Musicals family in 2000 when we produced Dear World at The Norma Terris Theatre. His association with Goodspeed continued in 2004 when Mack & Mabel played at the Goodspeed Opera House. We are delighted to bring Herman’s music back to East Haddam and we hope you enjoy this delightfully witty and uplifting Broadway classic.
Photo: Angela Lansbury and Frankie Michaels in the original Broadway production of Mame, 1966