Dorothy Loudon

Actress and singer with a flair for humour
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dorothy Loudon was a highly talented actress, singer and comedienne who won a Tony for her portrayal of Miss Hannigan, the gin-sodden orphanage headmistress in Annie (1977).

She was also a fine cabaret performer, gaining her early experience during the golden age of New York nightclubs, and she made several recordings, specialising in show tunes and comedy material. She also championed the work of the great popular song composers.

Loudon was one of the initial group of singers assembled by the record producer Ben Bagley in 1960 for his series of discs celebrating lesser-known works of writers such as Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin. On the first such album, Rodgers and Hart Revisited, Loudon sang an extremely touching version of "This Funny World" and displayed her sly sense of humour with an uproarious rendition of "At the Roxy Music Hall", which introduced a whole new generation to that forgotten gem.

A second volume of Rodgers and Hart included her moving "Bye and Bye", and on Alan Jay Lerner Revisited she sang a quietly persuasive "Too Late Now" which lays claim to being the definitive version of the lovely song. Another highlight, on Irving Berlin Revisited, was a wistful duet with Bobby Short, "Waiting at the End of the Road". A later Loudon album, Broadway Baby (1986), includes a vibrant, bouncy version of Kander and Ebb's "Bobo's" and an affecting rendition of Rodgers and Hart's study of regret, "He Was Too Good to Me".

Loudon also appeared on television and in occasional films, but her greatest love was the stage. In common with another great star of an earlier era, Nancy Walker, Loudon found herself more often than not in failures, but she invariably earned rave reviews for her own performances. The New York Times critic Richard Eder found that the musical Ballroom had "remarkably little going for it save for the lovely authenticity of Dorothy Loudon".

Born in 1933 in Boston, but raised in Claremont, New Hampshire, Loudon was taught to sing by her mother, a department store pianist. She took dancing and piano lessons, and her work in high school productions earned her a drama scholarship to Syracuse University. Before graduating, she moved to New York and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Loudon began her cabaret career as a singer of torch songs, but occasionally her strenuous emoting brought giggles, and the owner of theRuban Bleu nightclub suggested she emphasise her comic gifts by satirising the "chanteuse" style. Her new act was a hit, audiences loving her caricatures of singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Shirley Temple. Several television appearances, and a "live" recording titled Dorothy Loudon at the Blue Angel followed. Her act had been assembled and orchestrated in the mid-Fifties by Norman Paris, with whom Loudon fell immediately in love, though their long love affair did not culminate in marriage until 1971.

In 1962 Loudon replaced Carol Burnett, who had a similar style, as a regular on the television variety series The Garry Moore Show. The New York Post welcomed her as

like a doctor's prescription with all the essential ingredients - a sweet and saucy flair for humour, a versatile vocal style, an ability to "move around" without stepping on the dancers and a fine, fast-draw, slow-take sense of sketch comedy.

Loudon made her stage début in a Philadelphia revue in 1957, but her first Broadway appearance was, prophetically, in a show that lasted only two weeks, the musical Nowhere to Go But Up (1962). Setting a pattern for the future, she won personal plaudits, with Theatre World selecting her as the season's most promising newcomer. She also starred in a short-lived revue, Noël Coward's Sweet Potato (1968), and she was nominated for a Tony for The Fig Leaves are Falling (1969), which lasted for only four performances. The same year she won a Drama Desk Award for her work in a revival of the farce Three Men on a Horse, which ran for three months. In 1971 she starred in Lolita, My Love, a musical version of the Nabokov novel, and again won praise, for her playing of Lolita's mother, but the show closed out of town.

She then toured, successfully playing the three female leads in Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. The comedy was directed by Mike Nichols, who had been a friend of Loudon's since their early days in cabaret. When Nichols was producing Annie, a musical based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, he realised that his old pal would be perfect as the harridan in charge of the orphanage, a character described by one critic as "a manic descendant of Cinderella's step-mother".

At first, Loudon had reservations. "There's an old saying," she told the New York Times. "Never be in a show with kids, dogs or an Irish tenor. This show had all three." Feeling her role was also lacking in humour, she partially rewrote it, adding sympathy and laughs. If Loudon had a fault, it was a tendency to oversell, but for Miss Hannigan such broadness was ideal, and her number "Little Girls" stopped the show nightly, as did "Easy Street", in which she shook and shimmied across the stage celebrating imminent good fortune.

Her performance joyfully undercut the show's over-riding sentimentalism and won her not only the Tony Award, but also the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics' Circle Awards. When Annie was filmed in 1982, Loudon was disappointed that the role was given to Carol Burnett. She returned to the character with a leading role in the stage sequel, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's revenge (1990), but it closed in Washington without reaching Broadway.

Following her success in Annie, Loudon was given the starring role in Ballroom (1979), a musical based on the television play Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. It was superbly directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett (fresh from A Chorus Line), but its frequent exhilarating moments were compromised by drab "book" scenes and a patchy score.

Loudon was also in three short-lived sitcoms on television, and appeared in a handful of films, including Garbo Talks (1984) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), but stated, "I belong in the theatre. I have to work off the instant reactions of the audience."

Tom Vallance

Dorothy Loudon, actress and singer: born Boston, Massachusetts 17 September 1933; married 1971 Norman Paris (died 1977); died New York 15 November 2003.

Comments