Angela Lansbury (1925-2022) | Tributes

It was Sondheim who allowed Lansbury to go all the way with her darkest creative instincts and on the largest scale in “Sweeney Todd,” and she rose to that great chance and made her deepest mark with it. The popping eyes and quacking voice Lansbury had brought to so many lesser parts are the surface of her Mrs. Lovett, but down below is pure unthinking evil and hedonism and expedience, with a dash of sentimentality. She won her fourth Tony for “Sweeney Todd,” and the production was thankfully filmed for television so that this high-water mark for Lansbury is there in all its seedy glory for posterity.

Lansbury had the biggest success of her life on television as the author and sleuth Jessica Fletcher on the long-running TV show “Murder, She Wrote” all during the 1980s and into the 1990s. That comforting series was an institution in its time, always there on Sunday night after “60 Minutes” on CBS, and Lansbury adapted to what series television of that era needed: a smooth, sunny, and non-threatening presence, always there, and always solving every crime. This show made Lansbury a lot of money, and it gave many older actors who weren’t working too much one more moment in the spotlight.

Lansbury warbled the title song to “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) for Disney, and she continued to work on television, but the theater is where she always had her best opportunities. She won a fifth Tony for her Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit” in 2009, and in interviews Lansbury spoke longingly of wanting one more great role on film, but this was not to be. She won a special Academy Award, a special Tony, and in 2014 she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II, and all of these honors were richly deserved. The movies never knew quite what to do with Lansbury, much to her chagrin, and television provided some fame and fortune, but it was on stage as “Mame” and in “Gypsy” and especially in “Sweeney Todd” that she displayed a talent of the highest order, happy to entertain, but even happier to instruct, to intimidate, or to open a wound that would never heal.

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