The most shocking -- in a most delightful way -- theater news arrived in my email without fanfare. It said that Angela Lansbury will be going on a four-city tour from December through March with "Blithe Spirit," the Noel Coward comedy for which she won her fifth Tony in 2009.
Very nice, the casual observer might note without realizing (1) Lansbury will be 89 by the time she opens the tour in Los Angeles and (2) stars simply do not go out on tour anymore. It does not happen. At most, stars just want to do 14 weeks on Broadway in a high-profile, high-ticket burst of charismatic marketing, then head back to their real jobs in Hollywood.
It was not always so. As veteran Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann remembers, "Touring was the way of life. Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell would play in New York for a season and tour for a season. That was the way it operated." Sarah Bernhardt did nine American tours from 1880 until 1918.
Decades before plays were taped for limited showings in movie houses, people across the country learned to love theater by seeing its royalty -- the originals, not second casts -- in the flesh in their own cities. McCann isn't sure exactly when and why the road died for plays, though she agrees the years and years of Carol Channing trouping the land with "Hello, Dolly!" are long gone.
Ah, but it appears that nobody told Lansbury. "I think I didn't realize that people don't tour," she told me in a recent phone interview, probably at least half joking. "But they don't, you're absolutely right. And, in some respects, I'm kind of asking myself, 'Why'? I enjoy going somewhere else ... setting the place on fire for a few weeks."
She understates. After all, last year, she and James Earl Jones did a four-city Australian tour of "Driving Miss Daisy." That came immediately after she played an irresistible gorgon of a backroom powerhouse on Broadway (with Jones) in "The Best Man" in 2012 and immediately before she brought "Blithe Spirit" to London last spring -- her first appearance there in 40 years.
"Dammit," she said, sounding not a bit like a Dame anointed by Queen Elizabeth in December, "if you still have the guts to get out there and make an ass of yourself . . . why not?"
In "Blithe Spirit" on Broadway, I remember marveling at her Madame Arcati, the dotty spiritual medium in Coward's sophisticated 1941 drawing-room comic-fantasy. She appeared to be channeling the lighthearted shrewdness of her iconic Jessica Fletcher from her 12 years in "Murder, She Wrote," and the impeccably wild comic timing of her Mrs. Lovett from "Sweeney Todd," the diabolical baker of human meat pies she originated (and for which she won her fourth Tony) in 1979.
Even she admits the response in London was "quite extraordinary. I was like a rock star. The young people, thank God, knew me from 'Beauty and the Beast' and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks.' People knew me from those movies and from 'Murder, She Wrote,' which is shown in the morning and in the evening in England. People in Europe and the Far East know 'Murder, She Wrote.' I am very famous in far-flung places."
She is amused and pleased by how many "illustrious people love that show," she says about the series in which she played a mystery writer and master sleuth, pleasantly resolving grisly slaughters against particularly jaunty theme music. "There's something good about it," she acknowledges at a distance. "It's one of the most calming, feel-good shows."
Older actresses are an extraordinarily ordinary fact of life in the theater, which is one of the best things about it. Unlike movies and television, where women cannot have wrinkles unless they are English or Betty White, the theater does not just appreciate the contributions of women with a past. It actually employs them.
Lansbury was born in London, of course, but arrived in this country in 1940 on a World War II evacuation boat from Liverpool. She was taken under the wing of what is now the American Theatre Wing. She has been its honorary chair for years. Earlier this month, she was honored at its gala, where Len Cariou, her co-star in "Sweeney Todd," roasted her with a song that said, "Last year, she got an Oscar just because she's still alive."
That can't happen in theater. She unflappably calls this a "very manageable tour. First, I'll be in Los Angeles, where I live, so I can drive to the theater or have somebody drive me. Then we do two weeks in San Francisco. That's a pretty damn nice place to visit, isn't it? Toronto is a special kind of town. . . . I did my first 'Gypsy' there." That was before she brought the show to Broadway, where she won her third Tony. Then "Blithe Spirit" goes to Washington, D.C., where she performs in the same National Theatre where she made her first pre-Broadway stage debut nearly 58 years ago to the day.
Jeffrey Richards, a lead producer of the play on Broadway and on the tour, says simply, "She wanted to do it, and we wanted to do it." More seriously, he continues, "There are these people for whom the stage is sacrosanct."
He and Lansbury have been planning a Broadway revival of "The Chalk Garden," Enid Bagnold's 1955 drama. "It's very hard to turn down a great role," she says, "And every role I've done seems to have had something wonderfully interesting." (I don't ask about "Deuce," the disaster in which she made her return to Broadway in 2002.) Her performance as Madame Armfeldt, the imperiously worldly aged courtesan in the 2009 revival of "A Little Night Music," was "a lovely chance to play a fascinating role and to sing again."
There was a time, shortly after she ended her Jessica Fletcher years, when theatergoers worried that every Lansbury performance would be their last time to see her. When I told her that she faked them out, she laughed and adorably defended herself, "But I didn't mean to do it.
"I am an elderly woman who still acts like she is 35 and feels that way most of the time, except in the late afternoon."
I asked McCann if other stars might follow Lansbury's lead and reinvigorate touring. "Just watch," she said, "there may well be hordes following her. It's better than staying home and somebody giving you an award and a chicken dinner."