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Glynis Johns, ‘Mary Poppins’ Star Who First Sang Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns,’ Dies at 100

today01/04/2024

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Glynis Johns, a Tony Award-winning stage and screen star who played the mother opposite Julie Andrews in the classic movie “Mary Poppins” and introduced the world to the bittersweet standard-to-be “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim, has died. She was 100.

Mitch Clem, her manager, said she died Thursday at an assisted living home in Los Angeles of natural causes. “Today’s a sad day for Hollywood,” Clem said. “She is the last of the last of old Hollywood.”

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Johns was known to be a perfectionist about her profession — precise, analytical and opinionated. The roles she took had to be multi-faceted. Anything less was giving less than her all.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m not interested in playing the role on only one level,” she told The Associated Press in 1990. “The whole point of first-class acting is to make a reality of it. To be real. And I have to make sense of it in my own mind in order to be real.”

Johns’ greatest triumph was playing Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music,” for which she won a Tony in 1973. Sondheim wrote the show’s hit song “Send in the Clowns” to suit her distinctive husky voice, but she lost the part in the 1977 film version to Elizabeth Taylor.

“I’ve had other songs written for me, but nothing like that,” Johns told the AP in 1990. “It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given in the theater.”

Others who followed Johns in singing Sondheim’s most popular song include Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan and Olivia Newton-John. It also appeared in season two of “Yellowjackets” in 2023, sung by Elijah Wood.

Back when it was being conceived, “A Little Night Music” had gone into rehearsal with some of the book and score unfinished, including a solo song for Johns. Director Hal Prince suggested she and co-star Len Cariou improvise a scene or two to give book writer Hugh Wheeler some ideas.

“Hal said ‘Why don’t you just say what you feel,”’ she recalled to the AP. “When Len and I did that, Hal got on the phone to Steve Sondheim and said, ‘I think you’d better get in a cab and get round here and watch what they’re doing because you are going to get the idea for Glynis’ solo.”’

Johns was the fourth generation of an English theatrical family. Her father, Mervyn Johns, had a long career as a character actor and her mother was a pianist. She was born in Pretoria, South Africa, because her parents were visiting the area on tour at the time of her birth.

Johns was a dancer at 12 and an actor at 14 in London’s West End. Her breakthrough role was as the amorous mermaid in the title of the 1948 hit comedy “Miranda.”

“I was quite an athlete, my muscles were strong from dancing, so the tail was just fine; I swam like a porpoise,” she told Newsday in 1998. In 1960’s “The Sundowners,” with Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar. (She lost out to Shirley Jones in “Elmer Gantry.”)

Other highlights include playing the mother in “Mary Poppins,” the movie that introduced Julie Andrews and where she sang the rousing tune “Sister Suffragette.” She also starred in the 1989 Broadway revival of “The Circle,” W. Somerset Maugham’s romantic comedy about love, marriage and fidelity, opposite Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger.

“I’ve retired many times. My personal life has come before my work. The theater is just part of my life. It probably uses my highest sense of intelligence, so therefore I have to come back to it, to realize that I’ve got the talent. I’m not as good doing anything else,” she told the AP.

To prepare for “A Coffin in Egypt,” Horton Foote’s 1998 play about a grand dame reminiscing about her life on and off a ranch on the Texas prairie, she asked the Texas-born Foote to record a short tape of himself reading some lines and used it as her coach.

In a 1991 revival of “A Little Night Music” in Los Angeles, she played Madame Armfeldt, the mother of Desiree, the part she had created. In 1963, she starred in her own TV sitcom “Glynis.”

Johns lived all around the world and had four husbands. The first was the father of her only child, the late Gareth Forwood, an actor who died in 2007.

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