Glynis Johns is used to being treated like a star.
Granted, she’s had a very long and very accomplished career to back that up. At 12 she was a leading ballerina; at 19 she was playing Peter Pan in London. Now, at 67, she has returned to one of her favorite--and most popular--vehicles, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music,” which opens Thursday at the Doolittle Theatre.
When Johns premiered the role of Desiree (and the song “Send in the Clowns”) on Broadway in 1973, she won a Tony for best actress in a musical. In the current production, Johns plays Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt.
If that might seem like a diminution of stature to some, Johns is holding her head high. Very high. An interview that would normally take place at the theater or at home is now relegated to a limo ride ferrying the actress to her home base in Brentwood from a rehearsal at the Music Center. Apparently, the original limo issued for the afternoon was not up to Johns’ standards; she has dispatched the driver to return for the interview with a stretch model. Once settled in, however, there is no prima donna behavior. The actress--although suffering from a dental ailment and bronchitis that forced her to miss some performances--is candid, bright, personable.
“I’ve been doing songs from the show off and on through the years,” she explained. “So I’ve never really been away. Even a few months ago, I was singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ for a charity performance. But my doctors were advising that I not work for a couple of months--that I needed to relax, take it easy, do physiotherapy for my dental problems. More specifically, I had to make the decision about whether I wanted to come back playing another role: to hear somebody else eight performances a week, doing something that I was used to doing. You know, ‘Clowns’ was written for me.”
When it came down to the decision, the British actress looked at her date book for the next two months and saw nothing but doctor and dentist appointments.
“I thought, ‘Am I in control of my life, or am I just being tossed around by other professional people?’ I read the book again, and looked up the lyric of ‘Liaisons,’ which is the big number (Madame Armfeldt) sings. I had never liked that number before when I was in the show. But I suddenly thought, ‘I think I’m going to enjoy singing that song.’ And I believe in prayer. I prayed that I would find an enthusiasm and joy in doing the role I can do now--so that I wouldn’t have any room inside me for any grief about not doing the other role.”
She says that’s exactly what happened. “I had a big healing,” Johns said simply. “I decided to take the reins into my own hands, and the doctors and dentists would have to fit in with me. I’m where I belong. I want to be surrounded by love--and it’s a wonderfully loving company. I’ve never known a more loving one. And I enjoy Lois Nettleton (who plays Desiree). I don’t have any resentment, not even deep down. I think she might have been concerned at the beginning, but we have a very easy, straightforward relationship. And she sings ‘Clowns’ beautifully.”
At any rate, Johns has her hands full with her own part.
“I’ve gotten so involved in working out ‘Liaisons’ because I’m doing it quite differently from the way it was done before,” she said. “That was (Hermione) Gingold, and she was very difficult"--Johns laughs, gently scooping up her Freudian slip--"she had a very different personality than mine, and it was difficult to keep that image away. I’m still trying to fight it myself. And I’ve been so sick with this bronchial pneumonia--just lying in bed, coughing, with a fever--that I haven’t really been able to work.”
The prospect of playing an old woman, she says, does not wear heavily on her ego. “Actors play all ages anyway,” said Johns, who starred in her own TV series, “Glynis,” in 1963 and is recognizable to the thirtysomething set as the mother in the film “Mary Poppins” (1964). “Onstage, I played (80-year-old) Maude in ‘Harold and Maude’ in 1978, and I didn’t use an aging makeup; I didn’t use a wig or anything. I just played it and stated that I was 80. The fact that one is now playing a woman in her 70s does not mean that the next role is going to be a woman in her 70s. I mean,” she added, unfazed, “I’m not going to play Peter Pan again. I’m happy to get on to another role.
“There’s no point in acting at my age unless I’m going to feel that I’m stretching--or unless (I were) getting a million bucks a day. In classical theater in Europe, everybody plays all kinds of parts. Juliets go on to play the Nurses; they don’t want to play Juliet again. I think we’ve got to remember to grab onto our perks, whatever is the good thing about each age. Each stage of life should be a progression.”
Still, there are temptations to repeat. “Of all of the shows I’ve done, there’s nothing as personal to me as ‘Send in the Clowns,’ ” Johns said reverently. Yet when she received an offer to play Desiree a few years ago, she turned it down.
“I said, ‘Why would I want to go back and do something I did 15 years ago? I couldn’t do it any better now, and I’m not going to look as good, so what’s the point?’ I’ve done it, done it well, and was rewarded for it. What I have to do is cherish it and leave it where it is. It’s still part of me. And when you’ve got a song like ‘Send in the Clowns,’ it’s timeless.”
The actress credits her stage debut to a carry-on appearance by her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Steele--at age 3 weeks. “She was a pioneer, one of the first great violinists in Australia,” said Johns, who speaks equally proudly of her 17-year-old grandson in England--and likens their relationship to the close bond between grandmother and granddaughter in “Night Music.” When Johns’ parents met and married at the Royal Academy of Music, her grandmother put the pair under contract. Johns was born during a tour of South Africa.
But it was dancing that Johns was drawn to, starting at a very young age. “I had degrees to teach ballet by the age of 10; I was an advanced teacher by 12,” she said. “I was a child prodigy dancer--very talented. I loved dancing.”
She makes it clear that the acting career was strictly her parents’ idea. “They were situations that were hard for parents to turn down,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “It’s difficult to turn down a chance to star with Laurence Olivier, to say, ‘No, she has to go to school.’ They had a big decision to make; I don’t know if I would’ve done any better than they did.”
Still, she wishes there had been other options. “As a youngster, I was interested in everything,” Johns said wistfully. “I wanted to be a scientist. I would’ve loved to go on and on and on at the university. But you can’t do everything in life. And I didn’t have any choice at the time. (World War II) broke out when I was 16; I was doing theater in the blackouts.”
The actress, whose starring stage debut (subbing for the 30-year-old leading lady) came at age 12, identifies with the remnants of her abbreviated childhood in a collection of stuffed animals that she keeps close: “That’s an area of childhood I’m not letting go of.”
Although Johns swears she’s equally happy not working (and has gone through long periods without performing), a good part of the actress’s life has been spent geographically accommodating her career. “It never occurred to me to settle in one place,” she said, looking slightly horrified. “I was on Broadway (in) 1950; in 1954 I made my first film, with Danny Kaye--and I was already established in England. So I was commuting from L.A. to London to Broadway.”
What with four marriages and “various kinds of lives,” Johns established a far-reaching personal network: “I’ve got people who’re practically family in New York, family and practically family in London and Wales, family in Australia, family in South Africa.”
Although she used to keep homes in Connecticut and London, Brentwood is her primary base now. “It varies year by year, Johns said. “Last year, most of the year was in New York, because I did ‘The Circle’ (on Broadway) with Rex Harrison. The year before that I was in South Africa for many months. Then I was in Virginia on two different films. Next year, I may be in England doing another musical.” She grinned. “My doctors are giving me no sympathy.”