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Glynis Johns (5 October 1923–4 January 2024)

The Tony Award winning actress Glynis Johns, who originated the role of Desirée Armfeldt in the 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music, has died at the age of 100.

The British actress, perhaps more widely known for depicting Mrs Winifred Banks in Disney's Mary Poppins (1964), was born in South Africa, to Australia-born concert pianist Alyce Steele-Wareham and Welsh actor Mervyn Jones. The couple were touring together in Pretoria when Glynis was born, but the family returned shortly afterwards to the UK, whereupon the three-week-old was soon put to work on stage, appearing with her grandmother in the family's theatre company!

Glynis initially pursued an education in ballet, which made her stand out among other child actors, and at the age of eight she joined the cast of Judgement Day at the Phoenix Theatre in London. More theatre roles followed, at the Garrick Theatre, The Old Vic, The Strand and Wyndhams, and the young Johns soon earned herself a solid reputation among the London scene.

Her movie debut came in 1938, playing the daughter of Ralph Richardson's character in the screen adaptation of the novel South Riding. Throughout the 1940s, she appeared in an average of three films every two years, playing alongside the likes of Deborah Kerr, Roger Moore and Dirk Bogarde. She was hailed by Powell and Pressburger, no less, as one of the most sought-after British stars, and was receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Meanwhile, she continued to dedicate time to appearing on stage in London, despite the Blitz.

Johns, now considered a box-office draw, worked solidly throughout the 1950s, becoming a household name. It was also in the early 1950s that she first worked for Walt Disney. Johns initially understood that Disney's offer to star in Mary Poppins would involve her playing the title character (the role given to Julie Andrews, of course) so to soften the blow, Disney himself insisted that the Sherman Brothers write a song for her, which they did: "Sister Suffragette".

In the 1970s, Johns found herself spending more time on stage, and so it was that she was cast in the lead role of Desirée in the original 1973 Broadway production of A Little Night Music. Her most famous song, "Send in the Clowns", was a late inclusion in the show, originally planned as the 11-o'clock number for male lead, Len Cariou, but wisely given to Glynis.

Sondheim explained the genesis of the song in an interview in 2005:

We hired Glynis Johns to play the lead, though she had a nice little silvery voice. But I'd put all the vocal weight of the show on the other characters because we needed somebody who was glamorous, charming and could play light comedy, and pretty, and to find that in combination with a good voice is very unlikely, but she had all the right qualities and a nice little voice. So I didn't write much for her and I didn't write anything in the second act.

And the big scene between her and her ex-lover, I had started on a song for him because it's his scene. And Hal Prince, who directed it, said he thought that the second act needed a song for her, and this was the scene to do it in. And so he directed the scene in such a way that even though the dramatic thrust comes from the man's monologue, and she just sits there and reacts, he directed it so you could feel the weight going to her reaction rather than his action.

And I went down and saw it and it seemed very clear what was needed, and so that made it very easy to write. And then I wrote it for her voice, because she couldn't sustain notes. Wasn't that kind of singing voice. So I knew I had to write things in short phrases, and that led to questions, and so again, I wouldn't have written a song so quickly if I hadn't known the actress... I wrote most of it one night and finished part of the second chorus, and I'd gotten the ending ... The whole thing was done in two days.

The New York Times was more to the point: "Stephen Sondheim composed his most famous song, 'Send In the Clowns,' for an actress with virtually no voice, Glynis Johns, and few genuine singers have performed it as effectively."

Glynis had just two days to learn the song before singing it at the "gypsy" run-through (the final rehearsal, usually for friends and family), the day before the company set off for Boston for the out-of-town try outs. That year, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical.

She would also return to Night Music in 1991, when – at the age of 68 – she played the disapproving mother, Madame Armfeldt, in a production at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles.

Sondheim wrote of Glynis' performance of "Clowns": "I've heard it sung since by many fine singers (I'm happy to say) but to me her version is still the most satisfying... Deeply moving as Judi Dench's cello-voice performance of this song was in the British Royal National Theatre revival of the show, I'll always hear Glynis's flute."


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