Medicine and the Arts Seminar Hosts Film, Theater, and TV Legend

Photo credit: Charles E. Manley
Angela Lansbury

The Medicine and the Arts seminars bring creative artists in music, theater, and literature to the medical center to share their experiences in the arts. “Complementing the many talents of our students and faculty,” says Jay Lefkowitch’76, professor of clinical pathology, “these seminars broaden our perspectives, enrich us, and help us better understand the human condition.”

The guest on Nov. 20, 2006, was renowned actress Angela Lansbury, four-time Tony Award winner, three-time Oscar nominee, and star of the long-running television drama, “Murder, She Wrote.” Excerpts from the interview of Ms. Lansbury by Dr. Lefkowitch:

Jay Lefkowitch: Tell us what you have been up to in New York.
Angela Lansbury: This is kind of a landmark time for me. I haven’t set foot on the boards in a theater in 20-odd years. So I decided that I would come and live in New York part time, not because I thought I would go straight back into the theater, but because I wanted to have the joy of participating in the culture of New York. I wanted to go to the theater, to museums, to be free to spend evenings soaking up some of the extraordinary music and words that are so available to all of us New Yorkers if we have evenings free. Of course, the best laid plans, as we all know, often go awry, and in my case no sooner had I set foot in New York than I received a play from an extremely talented playwright by the name of Terrence McNally. He asked me if I would consider doing a play at the Primary Stages Theater (which is an Off Broadway group) and I said “send it along.” It was a two-character play and it was going to involve an actress whom I adore named Marian Seldes, one of the great actresses appearing in New York today, and the opportunity was too good to miss. So I said “absolutely” and we’d only have to do it for five weeks and that would suit me perfectly. Well, of course the word got out and before I knew it a big Broadway producer came on board and said “Oh, this is a wonderful play. Let’s do it on Broadway.” So here I find myself about to embark on a real Broadway production at the Music Box Theater. The play is called “Deuce.”

JL: On the way here we were talking about the connection between the arts and medicine. I’ve told you how talented the students and the faculty are here at P&S. Why are the arts an outlet?
AL: I could understand wanting to be involved in music or the arts as a counter activity to the extreme concentration that’s required for the work of a physician. I could understand the desire to counter that tremendous intensity with the humanitarian aspect of art. As an actress, that’s one thing I do, but I’m terribly interested in a lot of other things that have nothing to do with acting. They have to do with doing things with my hands, which is a strange thing, I don’t know why. These things relax me to the point that when I do go back to work as an actress I feel enriched by that “other thing,” that alter activity that I’ve been doing. It gives one the kind of feeling that all right, you go and do what you’ve been asked to do — which you do quite well — but you don’t need to work at it 24 hours a day. I think of myself as a woman who does a lot of other things. I play the piano, so I enjoy that, and I love listening to music although I can’t make the great music that maybe some of you can. I can make good music when I’m given a role to play because that’s the thing I do know how to bring off the page. Being involved in the arts helps physicians to have a sense of the humanity involved in their work and the need for understanding and sensitivity toward the patient and the illness and whatever it is they’re dealing with for that person who is needing to be treated. I think it gives them a sensitivity and understanding that they possibly might not necessarily have. I know that a lot of people in the medical profession have been taken to task for not considering the feelings of the patient, necessarily, and being a little less than warm toward whatever it is that is concerning that person, whether it’s life, death, recovery, or whatever, fixing the problem whatever it is. We all have to have much more of a sense of humanity. And of course that’s what acting’s about, isn’t it, understanding the feelings of somebody you are not, putting yourself into their shoes and becoming that person for a moment to grasp and possibly give them that one word which may or may not be the difference between healing or not healing? That’s a very huge subject.

JL: Your family came to the United States during World War II.
AL: We left England in August of 1940 and I was 14 years old going on 15. We were what they called “evacuees.” We were supported by an American family who took us as a whole unit and put us into a little house in Lake Mahopac, N.Y., and we lived up there for about a year. I got a scholarship to a wonderful drama school in New York City, so I’d get on the train every morning on the Croton Line and go to school. It was an exciting, wonderful time, but we didn’t have the ability to work because we didn’t have green cards. My mother was absolutely adamant about becoming independent as soon as possible. She didn’t want us to feel we were a drag on this wonderful American family. My brothers, Edgar and Bruce, who were 9 at the time, were awfully smart and they got scholarships to Choate, believe it or not. So I went ahead with my drama training and my mother started doing readings in schools and would get $25 each time — and in those days, $25 was a lot. And sometimes I would help her; I would play Juliet and she would be the nurse, and we would do scenes from Shakespeare together. And that was the beginning of my performing. In 1942 she went out to Los Angeles and I caught up with her, and we lived in a one-room apartment in absolute penury, really, at the time because neither one of us had a job. Finally I went to work in a big department store and got a job at Christmas time, and that was the beginning of a little money coming in.

JL: Americans don’t know how important your grandfather, George Lansbury, was in England.
AL: My grandfather was an extraordinary figure in British politics. He was a Socialist and founded the Labour Party in Britain in the early 1900s. He was beloved by the people and the workers of England. He went from north to south, from east to west, talking, talking, talking, trying to better the lot of the working man. He was a wonderful speechmaker; he spoke in Hyde Park corner and we as children were taken to hear him. I remember hearing him in the Albert Hall in London, one of our biggest venues for this type of thing. I was absolutely awed by his delivery and the way he controlled the crowd. That was one of the things that I realized I would have loved to have been able to emulate — to make a speech like he did and grab the imagination and the enthusiasm of the crowd. And he did it like nobody I ever heard in all my life. It did have a definite effect on me as a kid. I would go home and give speeches. I inherited his voice, thank God, because it enabled me to do big roles later in my life and never have any problems with my voice — it always held out for me — and I think I got that from him.

JL: Your very first screen role, at the age of 17, was the maid Nancy in “Gaslight,” for which you received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. How did you get that role?
AL: I got it the tried and true way. I was taken to the studio (I had never set foot in a studio) and my mother had to go with me because I was under age, and I was introduced to a casting director. There were two people who were casting pictures during that period: One of them was George Cukor, the great director, who was casting “Gaslight.” He had already cast Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. And the other director [Albert Lewin] was casting “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” I was taken to meet George Cukor, the movie writer, and the producer, Arthur Hornblower. But I have to say this: I had enormous self control in those days. I was very clever at not letting on that I was nervous and I had a sense of great self-assurance. I know that now, because otherwise I don’t know how the heck I would have ever gotten the chance to do the things I’ve done. I just gave the illusion that I was calm, that I knew what I was going to do, and that I wasn’t going to be any trouble. Well, that’s always very encouraging to a director. George asked me to read the part, and he said “That’s very interesting, Miss Lansbury” — he called me “Miss Lansbury,” which nearly knocked my socks off. And he said, “I want you to take this scene home and I want your mother [actress Moyna MacGill] to help you, and would you come back in a few days and read it for me again?” So, that’s what I did. But on the very same day I was also taken to see Albert Lewin, the director of “Dorian Gray,” and he was also interested in me to play the role of Sybil Vane. There was a very famous English actress, Flora Robson, who happened to be staying in a house close by where my mother and I lived, and she was very, very helpful and she coached me on how to do the scene. So when I went back to see George Cukor, I was very prepared. When Louis B. Mayer came back [to L.A. from the East Coast], he asked to see all the test films made in his absence and one of those that he saw was my test for “Gaslight.” He looked at it and he said “Sign that girl!”

JL: “Sweeney Todd,” a great show, was also taped on stage, so there is a filmed record of it.
AL: What an opportunity that was. You have no idea! It was like we took off all the shackles and just went to town. I’m so thankful that I got to do it, because it’s the only Broadway show that I have [done] that’s on tape.

JL: It’s an amazing piece. Did people walk out?
AL: At least in previews they did. The people in the front rows get splattered with phony blood. It was very messy, you

Photo credit: Charles E. Manley
Bard Hall Players perform for the performer
Bard Hall Players perform for the performer
know. And they didn’t know if they really liked this idea of people getting [gesture of throat-slitting]. It was a hard one to sit through in the early days. And gradually as word got out and the show got a little more oiled in its tracks, we all kind of relaxed and they went with the spirit of the piece. They went with the comedy and with the drama too. Because, let’s face it, the orchestrations of the original are extraordinary. They are lovely, Jonathan Tunick at his best. And the singing was glorious, and the songs — “Pretty Women” — “what lovelier than that?” The show succeeded on every count.

To cap the afternoon, members of the Bard Hall Players and a 24-piece P&S Musicians Guild orchestra performed the title song from composer Jerry Herman’s “Mame” (1966), the show that first catapulted Ms. Lansbury to stardom. Ms. Lansbury’s response to the surprise:
I couldn’t have imagined a lovelier group singing to me, dancing for me, reminding me of a great, wonderful moment in my career which I’ll never forget. It makes me sad-happy all at once. And I’m most grateful to you, Jay, for arranging all this, and to Dean Goldman for allowing us to have this time to spend together and to meet all of you and to talk with you and to share, for probably one of the few times that I’ve had, to just sit and talk about a whole 60-year career, because that’s what it is, you know. It’s very special to me and very moving indeed. I thank you for rehearsing and singing. I know what else you’re doing, and what you’re doing is far more important than this — except it isn’t — because it balances all of that very serious work. I have great admiration for you all and thank you from the bottom of my heart.