On December 8, 1996, CBS aired a Hallmark Entertainment musical titled Mrs. Santa Claus. It starred Angela Lansbury singing songs by Jerry Herman, the composer for Hello Dolly! and her Broadway hit Mame. Mrs. Claus leaves her distracted husband for a romp through 1910’s Manhattan. There she’ll help Jewish suffragettes and Irish sweat shop workers discover the true meaning of Christmas. At the time I thought it was bland. Lansbury’s sticky sweet performance overpowered the other flavors. Re-watching in 2019 gives me a better appreciation for how subversive it could be.
Want to learn more? Then read a spoiler filled recap.
Scene One: The North Pole
ELVES: (Sing) We love making toys for for Santa!
ANGELA LANSBURY: I’ve mapped out a faster flight path for your sleigh.
SANTA: Hush woman. This is man’s work.
ANGELA LANSBURY: (Sings) “I’m Mrs. Santa Claus, the invisible wife. And Mrs. Santa Claus needs a change in her life!”
ELVES: What are you doing?
ANGELA LANSBURY: I’m stealing the reindeer to test my new flight path!
(A thunder storm! The sleigh crashes.)
Scene Two: Manhattan Island, 1910
ANGELA LANSBURY: This California August doesn’t look like a New York December. Whatever. Can I store my injured reindeer in your stable?
HOT STABLE BOY: Not-a to worry signora! (Sings) New York is multi-ethnic! Meet our giant rainbow chorus!
(Irish dancers jig. Black dancers tap dance. Jewish dancers dance a Hora. Italian dancers… somersault?)
CHOREOGRAPHER ROB MARSHALL: They’ve got to take me seriously now!
LITTLE IRISH GIRL: Hi homeless lady! Want to make toys at the sweat shop with me?
ANGELA LANSBURY: Well, I have to do something while my reindeer recover.
HOUSEWIVES: Happy Hanukkah!
ANGELA LANSBURY: Huh?
Scene Three: Tavish Toy Factory
MR. TAVISH: (Sings) I love making toys for money! And making children cry! I bought a house in Chelsea!
ANGELA LANSBURY: Your toys are garbage. And these working conditions are terrible! We’ll go on STRIKE!
KIDS: Yay! Let’s sing an angry song! (They sing) Now is the time to seize the…
ANGELA LANSBURY: Anger’s not Jerry Herman’s style. How ’bout a charm song? (Dances on the table and sings) That’s how young I feel!
KIDS: That’s just a song from Mame.
Scene Four: Suffragette March
SUFFRAGETTE: Women should vote!
SCARED MOM: Stop protesting or the Irish Cop will kill us! Like they killed your papa in the old country!
IRISH COP: What? No, I won’t.
SUFFRAGETTE: Women’s rights! Vote! Join me sisters!
HOUSEWIVES: Our husbands make our decisions.
ANGELA LANSBURY: Do your husbands decide how to cook dinner and run a household?
HOUSEWIVES: No, they do NOT! (They sing) We’re Mrs. Suffragettes and we’re marching to vote! Yes, this is a reprise of the title song!
HOT STABLE BOY: Signora Suffragette, I love-a you so much!
Scene Five: Tavish Toy Factory
MR. TAVISH: I’ve kidnapped your reindeer! Now everyone has to buy my toys! Bwa ha ha!
ANGELA LANSBURY: Your father hated you.
MR. TAVISH: What?
ANGELA LANSBURY: All you wanted was a teddy bear. But he laughed. You could smell the alcohol and vomit on his breath. He locked you in your shabby room and you wept bitter tears. And then he would scream ‘When are you going to be a man, son? WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO BE A MAN?’
MR. TAVISH: STOP! STOP! (Sobs.)
ANGELA LANSBURY: Here’s a teddy bear kid. I’m taking my reindeer.
(Okay, it’s not THAT dark. But that’s the subtext.)
Scene Six: North Pole
SANTA CLAUS: I suddenly respect you. Pilot my sleigh with your new flight map.
ANGELA LANSBURY: Which I never tested because I was busy inventing women’s rights and leading the Children’s Crusade.
SANTA and ANGELA LANSBURY: We bet you forgot this was a Christmas film. (They sing) It’s the best Christmas of all!
Honestly this is not Lansbury’s best work. She pops her eyes, smiles a big smile, and coasts on charm. Even at her angriest she’s directed to stay “cute.” Charles Durning’s Santa and Michael Jeter’s elf haven’t much to do at the North Pole but it’s always nice to see them. The New Yorkers have more fun. David Noroña provides stand-out vocals as the Hot Stable Boy. Lynsey Bartilson avoids some child actor traps and Terrence Mann’s Tavish makes a fine panto villain.
Mrs. Santa Claus was nominated for several Emmy Awards. It won for Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Special. Which is fair. The hair game is on point. It’s nearly forgotten today but the catchy title song has stayed with me for 23 years.