After 775 performances as Broadway’s most endearing doyenne, Angela Lansbury announced she would be leaving Mame. She knew it was best to go out on top, and boy was she ever: the role had won her the Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical, she’d garnered the best reviews of her career, and she was the toast of the town. Margaret Hall, who played Sally Cato— Mame’s bitchy foil in the deep South scenes— fondly remembers Lansbury’s final performance:
Then, with tears streaming down her cheeks, Lansbury was presented with the prop bugle she’d used every evening for her entrance at the top of the show. Only now, it had been lovingly engraved by her company.
While it was all loving cups and laurels for Angie, the producers were having a tougher go of things. As you can imagine, losing a star can be a real sock to the gut at the box office. The producers needed to find a way to keep their beautiful money printing machine in working order. And, as hard as it was for producers to settle on Angela Lansbury in the first place, selecting her replacement was proving a similar crucible.
Actress Celeste Holm (whom you should remember from OKLAHOMA! Fact #3) had played ‘Mame’ temporarily while Lansbury was on vacation. Her notices were mixed-positive, too. Dan Sullivan of the New York Times said in his August 15, 1967 review:
Ms. Holm would have taken over the Broadway company full time but she was already slated to take the show on the road. The producers search continued. They saw Jane Wyman for the role but she was deemed too inexperienced. Shirl Conway proved insufficient as well. Ultimately, they settled on Janis Paige. Paige had made a smash over a decade prior as the aptly named “Babe” in The Pajama Game. She’d won over the producers, but how did she fare with the critics? According to Clive Barnes of The New York Times in his review on April 20, 1968, she did a fine job:
After Paige vacated the role, Jane Morgan was next to wear Mame’s elegant furs. Clive Barnes seemed to like her. In his review for the New York Times on January 5, 1969 he said she,
And then from Mount Olympus, the Gods loaned us Ann Miller. Miss Miller, known as the “fastest legs in show business”, was a self-assuredly brash Texan, a tap dancer, and an absolute sensation in the role. On July 20, 1969, Clive Barnes raved:
With a review to match her irascible charm, Ann Miller was able to boost the box office for an additional year of performances. She closed the show on January 3, 1970 after it had played 1,508 performances.
But for all the Mames there were, there was the one that wasn’t: Judy Garland. Jerry Herman thought she’d be perfect. And he almost got his wish. Almost.
It was a big help that Garland adored the show; she’d seen it three times starring Lansbury during 1967. When she expressed interest in playing the role, Herman says, “I just about lost my mind. I was the craziest, most ardent Judy Garland fan of all time. I still am. I worshipped that woman. It was a passion that went beyond reason. She sang, and it was a religious experience for me.”
The pursuance of her for the role even led to several meetings. But her reputation preceded her. After having been recently fired from the film adaptation of Valley of the Dolls, Judy was deemed to be too much of a liability. The producers of Mame told Herman, “We cannot entrust this show to Miss Garland. We have the backers to consider, and we cannot risk a show that is at its peak and has many more years to go. If it all falls apart because she doesn’t show up on opening night, we will have destroyed everything that we worked so hard to create.”
Herman still lobbied on her behalf. As he put it, “Even a bad performance from Judy Garland would be an event. Just to have Judy Garland in this show for one night would be magical— historical.”
Reflecting on the incident, Garland told her daughter Liza Minnelli her, “heart was broken, because she knew how right she was for it.” Garland was dead two years later. And, for Herman, she would always be “The [Mame] That Got Away.”