That she was terrific — more Lady Macbeth than Ethel Merman — is hardly surprising. What does surprise me is that it was possible to see her at all. Tickets that cost less than $9 were part of it, as was abundant free parking. Not especially wealthy teenagers could swing it on their summer salaries.
More amazing is that there was something in the suburbs worth swinging it for. Lansbury was already among the last major stars who took their best roles on the road, and not just to major cities. Granted, she didn’t do it as charity; she reportedly received $200,000 for the music fair tour, a quick million today.
Still, no one could call the schedule relaxing or the accommodations luxurious; whether or not she stayed with the rest of the cast at the Tally Ho Hotel Motel, adjacent to the theater, she surely lived out of a trunk like Rose herself. After Devon came similar stands at in-the-round theaters in the suburbs of Baltimore, Washington, New York and Cleveland.
Most of those theaters were part of a chain owned by Lee Guber and Shelly Gross, and most had started out, like the Valley Forge, as hot, dusty tents. For a couple of decades Guber and Gross had nevertheless kept top-drawer Broadway stars and hits shuttling among them: Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Howard Keel in “Man of La Mancha,” Leslie Uggams in “Cabaret.” The sets were vastly reduced from Broadway, but the shoestring décor and arena excitement created something usefully distinct from traditional tours. Going to a musical was, for a time, as easy for suburbanites as going to a horse show.
That time is long gone. All of Guber and Gross’s theaters have been demolished or burned or, in the case of the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, sold and repurposed to showcase pop and circus acts. The one where I saw “Gypsy” on my 17th birthday closed after a Kenny Rogers Christmas show in 1996 and was razed to make room for a Super G supermarket. Now the site is occupied by a Floor & Decor outlet.
But like many things experienced in one’s own backyard, Lansbury’s performance remains indestructible in memory. When she finished the climactic “Rose’s Turn” — that nervous breakdown set to scraps of show tunes — she bowed and bowed, rotating to acknowledge the whole arena, until she outlasted the applause but kept on bowing: as chilling a portrait of terminal narcissism as (politicians aside) I ever expect to see.