Mrs. Russell never wanted to play Mammy again. Mary Martin was selected but chose to participate. More than a dozen other actresses, including Judy Garland, Doris Day and Mrs. Hepburn, were said to be under consideration. But Ms. Lansbury was one of the few willing to audition for the role before the show’s creative and financial directors.
In a Life magazine cover article about the show and her role in it, she recalled that there were several distracting interruptions by men in dark glasses, forcing her to sing songs again. “Then they said, Goodbye, thank you.” She said.
Back home in Malibu, California, with her husband, MGM CEO Peter Shaw, and their teenage children, Anthony and Deirdre, she waited for months for a call from East. Finally, I traveled to New York and confronted the producers.
“I’m going back to California,” she recalls, “and unless you tell me—let’s face it, I’ve prostrated—now, yes or no, that’s the end of it.” That afternoon, I got an official yes.
Her performance eventually made her a real star. The show opened in New York on May 24, 1966, and columnist Rex Reed reported in The Times that on the night he attended, “when the people were tired of whistling and clapping like thunder, they stood in the newly refurbished benches in the winter garden and cried.” He likened Lansbury to “a happy caterpillar who, after years of being thumbed down by Hollywood in endless roles as a loose-hearted, turns into a butterfly with gilded edges.”
However, to Mrs. Lansbury’s disappointment, Lucille Ball was selected for the movie version of “Mammy”, which was not a success.