Angela Lansbury, the 88-year-old star of over 80 films, countless Broadway plays, and fixture of primetime TV for a dozen years as Jessica “Murder She Wrote” Fletcher, was honored by her closest friends in the theater community Monday night, at the American Theatre Wing’s annual gala. As Honorary Chairman of the Wing since 2010, Lansbury’s acceptance speech (told to a rapt, packed Plaza Hotel ballroom) explained how the organization rolled the dice on her as an impoverished emigre back in 1941 — back when it was called the Stage Women’s War Relief.
Fleeing war in her native United Kingdom, Lansbury’s family didn’t have “two cents to rub together,” she said. “The circle is complete… I have been, in fact, taken care of by the American Theater Wing — seventy-four years ago.” The line brought the house down: at the age of 14, Lansbury had received a scholarship from the Wing that let her continue her dramatic training, but in New York City. (Five short years later she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “Gaslight,” her first film role out the gate.)
The speech was droll and self-deprecating, until Lansbury bespoke the importance of the Wing’s mission — but she couldn’t help breaking for inside jokes and faux-gaffes. At one point she pretended to forget her age, grinning mercilessly as the crowd figured it out.
Before Lansbury came onstage, Len Cariou, her costar in Stephen Sondheim’s original “Sweeney Todd,” sung a medley of classic showtunes, with lyrics rewritten in her honor: “Golden Globes, she’s got six / You want Tonys, she’s got five / And last year she won an Oscar just because she’s still alive…”
Additional tribute serenades were performed by Glenn Close, Harvey Fierstein, Christine Ebersole and James Monroe Iglehart. On the red carpet, James Earl Jones commented that working with Lansbury, his costar in a 2013 production of “Driving Miss Daisy” in Australia, was “nothing but a lot of laughs.” Dan Rather praised Lansbury’s versatility, saying that “her ability to go almost seamlessly from television to screen to Broadway is to be much admired.” Prompted for a favorite Lansbury performance, he said, “Given her record, there’s no picking just one.”
Along with Jones, Harold Prince, last year’s honoree, and gala co-chair Howard Stringer, plus Chair of the Wing’s Board of Trustees William Ivey Long each gave soaring introductions in a round-robin format. Stringer, in particular, had the audience in stitches with shoutouts to Scotland’s independence referendum, claiming that as a Welshman, his people “couldn’t even organize a rugby game.”
The gala’s convivial atmosphere managed to harken back past its glistening chandeliers and tender live jazz performances to the gilded Roasts of yesteryear. “What an honor to be introduced by three gentleman who have played such enormous parts,” Lansbury declared, before deadpanning: “It sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it?”
The Wing’s President and CEO Heather A. Hitchens kicked off the festivities with an announcement that the Wing had raised $750,000 for supporting emerging theater artists and talent, merged with the Village Voice’s Obie Awards, and that this was its biggest gala ever — for the third year in a row.