Auntie Mame is one of those roles that too many actresses think they were born to play. In 1955, millions felt an affinity while tearing through the pages of the campy comic novel in which she was introduced. Then, thanks to a successful stage adaptation in 1956 and an even more successful film adaptation in 1958, the character was exalted in the American consciousness to icon status. But, for every woman who claimed she was Auntie Mame, the role remained indelibly tied to the first actress who offered her skin: Rosalind Russell.
As far as audiences were concerned, Rosalind Russell was Auntie Mame. After all, she was always a critical darling in the role. Clive Barnes, then critic for the New York Times, had some squabbles with the adaptation, but marked Miss Russell’s performance a triumph:
And let’s not forget the box office. With Russell on the marquee, the show was sold out from Halloween of 1956 to Easter of 1957.
So, when producers finally had the idea to turn the novel/movie/play into a musical, they knew that whomever they selected would need to break the mold. Their first choice for the role was Mary Martin (this was a no-brainer; she was the first choice for nearly everything in those days). Martin accepted— but with one caveat. Because the score was not yet completed, she had a clause added to her contract which would allow her to withdraw should she find the material unsuitable.
Robert Fryer, producer, and Jerry Herman, the wunderkind composer of the smash hit "Hello, Dolly!" flew to a remote location in the jungles Brazil where Mary Martin had permanently relocated. As Herman recalls,“We had to take a tiny plane from Rio de Janeiro to an even smaller South American city. Then we boarded a jeep with a driver who took us through a very rough and frightening countryside.”
But, once they’d arrived, they got a great vibe from Martin. As Herman says,“I played her the songs I had written up to that moment and she was very enthusiastic. She was a warm and terrific lady. She was a grand hostess,” recalls Herman— an excellent advantage to someone asked to play Auntie Mame. “But when it came time to sign a contract, she declined to do the show.”
It turns out that the reason Martin ran all the way to Brazil was to escape the drudgery of living her life in a dressing room. While she exercised the clause in her contract stating that the score failed to captivate her, it is Jerry Herman’s opinion that it wouldn’t have mattered what he’d written; she was always going to say “no.” (In her memoirs, “My Heart Belongs” she also claims to have foolishly turned down "Kiss Me, Kate" and "My Fair Lady").
After Martin declined, more stars were courted. Ethel Merman was wooed to no avail and then Gwen Verdon— who turned the team down so she could work with her hubby Bob Fosse on Sweet Charity (what a strange Auntie Mame she’d have been…). The list of names under consideration was a veritable who’s-who. It included such luminaries as Eve Arden, Bea Arthur, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Kaye Ballard, Constance Bennett, Georgia Brown, Kitty Carlisle, Sirl Conway, Barbara Cook, Bette Davis, Doris Day, Olivia de Havilland, Phyllis Diller, Irene Dunne, Arlene Francis, Mitzi Gaynor, Dolores Gray, Tammy Grimes, Katharine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Geraldine Page, Dinah Shore, Simone Signoret, and Elaine Stritch. Nanette Fabray was offered the role by then director Joshua Logan, but ultimately neither remained with the project.
As you’ve ascertained, the name “Angela Lansbury” was on nobody's lips. Despite being friends and neighbors of original "Auntie Mame" playwright Jerome Lawrence, Angela didn't even rank as dark horse in the race. She possessed, at the time, a name which nearly no one recognized— and the face to go with it. Yes, she did proffer the pedigree of having been already nominated for three Oscars, but she wasn't a star. And, to add insult to injury, her only experience in a Broadway musical was in the Stephen Sondheim mega-flop "Anyone Can Whistle". That show closed after only 12 previews and 9 performances. It wasn't likely to do her any favors.
Yet, strangely... it did! Fortunately, Jerry Herman happened to be one of the (very) few people who saw "Anyone Can Whistle". He thought Angela would be perfect for "Mame". It took some passionate cajoling, but the producers finally relented and allowed her to audition. They flew her to Manhattan and Jerry Herman employed a coup. While every other actress auditioning for the role would be singing her own material, Herman met with Lansbury privately to teach her two of the songs from the score— “It’s Today” and “Open a New Window”. When her name was called to audition, Herman famously sneaked off to the pit so he could personally accompany her, hoping to give her an advantage.
Because this is showbiz, you’d likely expect this story to end right there. You think someone is supposed to holler from the back the house, “You’re hired!”. But that's not what happened at all. Rather, months went by. Still no offer was made. The producers’ search lingered on. Lansbury remained on the short list but was still not favored by all. For the role of Mame, director Gene Saks wanted Bea Arthur— who just so happened to be his wife. Meanwhile, producers Joe and Sylvia Harris were still championing Dolores Gray (whose name is almost entirely lost to the ages).
Still, Angela Lansbury wouldn’t back down. She knew this role had the capacity to catapult her to fame. Four months after her original audition, she laid down the law. “I am going back to California and unless you tell me— let’s face it, I have prostrated myself— now, yes or no, that’s the end of it.’”
The producers acquiesced. Angela Lansbury was finally offered the role of Mame in the new musical adaptations. However, I'm sure the producers' fears were only substantiated by the Wall Street Journal. In an article written to report the casting of Ms. Lansbury, the best credit they could think of to help their readers recall who the actress was: “…the Mother in ‘A Taste of Honey’.”