STAGE TO SCREENS: James Lipton Chats About Sherry and "Inside the Actor's Studio"

This month we talk to James Lipton, the host-writer-executive producer of "Inside the Actors Studio" (which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary) and the lyricist-librettist of Sherry (the 1967 Broadway musical, based on the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman classic comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner).

The CD cover art for Sherry!
The CD cover art for Sherry!

A stellar Angel studio recording of the latter is being released February 24 as a two-CD set.

Concerning James Lipton, one feels safe in assuming that there's no middle ground. He's the Mandy Patinkin of interviewers. While Patinkin has been the subject of Forbidden Broadway spoofs (such as "Somewhat Overindulgent," done to the tune of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), Lipton has been satirized on "Saturday Night Live" by Will Ferrell. In Lipton's defense, it is difficult to say the name Bernard Pivot (who devised the questions with which Lipton ends each program) and not sound pretentious. But, like Patinkin, Lipton does it his way, and is unlikely to change his act any time soon.

According to Lipton, his show is seen "in 75 million homes on Bravo and 125 countries." If worldwide viewers are not watching Lucille Ball sell Vitametavegamin or do battle with chocolates on a conveyer belt, they're learning an actor's favorite curse word and what greeting the star, if heaven exists, would like to receive from God. While Lipton's always extremely well prepared, some people object to his fawning over guests, something not uncommon to other hosts. Perhaps it sounds worse because Lipton is occasionally prone to hyperbole.

***

"Hi, this is Jim Lipton," begins our telephone interview. I ask if having Sherry recorded for the first time — with a cast including Nathan Lane, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Tommy Tune, and Mike Myers — is a dream come true. "If ever in my life, a dream has come true, this one has. This is the show that was never seen, never heard on Broadway [where it ran 72 performances, with Clive Revill, Dolores Gray and Elizabeth Allen in the leads]. "I can't say if it's good or not. That's for others to say, or not to say [Chuckles]." In last week's "On the Record" review, Steven Suskin noted, "James Lipton does some fine work, impressively so for a novice lyricist." Suskin also praised Lane ("an exceptional job"), Burnett and Peters, and thought the end result "highly listenable." At least one other critic referred to Sherry as what Stephen Sondheim calls a "why" musical — why add songs to a play that works so well in its original form?

Lipton's notes for the CD booklet (and various reviews) have detailed the saga of how the score was thought lost for 34 years and then discovered at the Library of Congress, and how the orchestral tracks — in the singers' keys — were recorded in Bratislava (probably during its slow season). Bravo has an upcoming cable special on the show's recording. The CD, explains Lipton, ends "the frustration" that he and composer Laurence Rosenthal endured over the years. "We'd never know if the show would have been okay or not."

Originally, Sherry starred George Sanders, an Oscar winner as critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Author of an autobiography entitled "Memoirs of a Professional Cad," he possessed a good singing voice, which was heard as Ethel Merman's love interest in the 1952 movie version of Call Me Madam, and on a 1958 album (now a collector's item) called "The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady." Off-screen, his second and fourth wives were two of the three Gabor sisters: Zsa Zsa and Magda; his third wife, Benita Hume, was Ronald Colman's widow. In 1973, at 67, Sanders committed suicide; he left a note that said it was "because I am bored. . ."

States Lipton, the choice of Sanders to play Sheridan Whiteside "was, I think, the most brilliant piece of casting in the history of the theatre. And it was! He was perfect! He was acerbic and had a very beautiful baritone voice. He would have been absolutely wonderful, but we never saw him [fully] in the role. The show we opened with in Boston — and two weeks later in Philadelphia — was a skeleton of what we had written." The trouble, claims Lipton, started during the tryout "on that hideous night when I was summoned to the theatre. George would only speak to me. I was the only person he really knew in the company. I had taught the score to George; he had worked with me for weeks. I found him sobbing in his dressing room. He said, 'You've got to get me out of the show.' That day, the doctor had told him that his wife, Benita, had only a few months to live. He was a wreck. We cut all his songs to bits and pieces, just to get him through the performances.

"He was replaced by Clive Revill, who was very good, and Joe Layton came in to re-direct, but it was a different show — not what we had seen and heard in our heads. It was fine, but it wasn't successful. We brought it in hastily and never got our balance again." Lipton recalls that the show "got mostly good reviews, but not enough to succeed. The score was extremely well received. We felt we'd never know if what we originally hoped for would have succeeded. Now, we do. That's the miracle of this, that we got this extraordinary second chance. We had to wait for this moment — it's almost as if Fate decreed, 'If you want to hear it right, you must wait for [these artists] to grow up.'

"I'm convinced that Nathan Lane was born to play Sheridan Whiteside. Because of 'Inside the Actors Studio,' I was able to speak to people whom I would not have known previously. I'd say, 'There's this show. . . ' Aside from those already mentioned, the players include Tom Wopat as the newspaperman who's the love interest for Peters' character; Phyllis Newman and composer Rosenthal as the Stanleys, at whose home Whiteside recuperates after he slips on ice; Lillias White and Keith David portray their servants; and, Lipton points out, "I'm playing the doctor. I'm in good company, huh?"

***

The Man Who Came to Dinner was inspired by critic-radio commentator Alexander Woollcott, who, one weekend, was Moss Hart's house-guest-from-hell. Kaufman suggested that he and Hart (to whom he gave uncustomary top billing) turn it into a play. Monty Woolley starred and later did the movie. The property had been bought for John Barrymore, but the actor's alcoholism made it impossible for him to work.

It's always interesting to see how numbers fit into a musical version of a play. The first song in Sherry is wonderfully titled "Why Does the Whole Damn World Adore Me." (Part of its lyric states, "Where do they get/ The pathetic illusion/ That I care to be their cup of tea?/ I've a sad but true conclusion/ That it's absolutely deplorable/ To be as downright adorable as me." Wouldn't a character based on Woollcott have been grammatically correct and said, "as I"?)

Mike Myers' interpretation of Banjo excites Lipton. "This is [supposed to be] Harpo Marx, for Christ's sake, not Jimmy Durante, as in the movie. That was terrible casting. Woollcott wouldn't have hung out with Durante — and vice-versa — but he and Harpo were like blood-brothers."

I say how good I thought Lewis J. Stadlen had been as Banjo in the recent Man Who came to Dinner revival, starring Nathan Lane. "But he was doing Jimmy Durante!" insists Lipton. "He sang, 'Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go. . .' [Stadlen] is very good, but I didn't like what they did; I can't imagine why they went with Durante. I've never seen it with Harpo Marx [perhaps because people didn't know what he sounded like] — until Mike Myers. Like Nathan, he's a genius!"

To write for the Noel Coward character (Beverly Carlton, played by Tommy Tune) particularly delighted Lipton. "Coward is one of the most underrated songwriters of the twentieth century. In the play, they often interpolate a Noel Coward song, but ours is a real pastiche. [Lipton sings the beginning of "Au Revoir":] 'Magic moments all too quickly melt away. . . ' That's Coward!"

Sung by Marilyn Maye, the pop single of the Sherry title song "climbed to number three on the charts," relates Lipton. "Did you know that? In those days, the recording world drew primarily from musical theatre. [I remember it well.] I think that song is irresistible. I think I wrote a good lyric, but the real secret to that song is Larry's music, which is ineluctably charming and beguiling. Larry was trained by Nadia Boulanger in Paris."

I mention that I first heard the song performed by Jonathan Freeman and Christine Baranski on an "Unsung Musicals" CD, and had loved it. "Carol sings it to a fare-thee-well, to my taste," declares Lipton. (As much as I admire Burnett and Lane, to my taste, the Freeman-Baranski version is definitive.) One wonders if the title-song lyric, "The crowd at El Morocco is snarling/ About some dumb bum/ Who created mass disaster/ Kicking Elsa in the Astor," is intended as homage to Cole Porter, who wrote about a Miss Finch, who "got pinched in the Astor Bar. . ." (Well, did you evah?)

*** Born in Michigan, Lipton was the son of "the beatnik poet, Lawrence Lipton. He taught me to read when I was one-and-a-half. He was eccentric, and left my mother and me while I was still quite young. I wrote from a very early age. I was writing when I was three. It was trash, but I could do it. When I was 12, I wrote three novels; again, junk, but I was doing it. I tried to steer away from that; I tried to choose a very bourgeois life. When I went to university, I thought I was going to be a lawyer.

"When your father's a poet and your mother's a teacher, there's not much money, not much food in the larder. I became an amateur actor at 13 in Catholic theatre in Detroit. When I came to New York, I acted to support myself and my mother, who was then retired." He made his Broadway debut (and, to date, his only appearance) as Frederick Ellis in Lillian Hellman's 1951 play, The Autumn Garden, which starred Fredric March and (wife) Florence Eldridge.

"I began this insane training: two-and-a-half years with Stella Adler, four years with Harold Clurman, two years with Bobby Lewis. I also studied voice, modern dance, Russian technical ballet, jazz technique; for 12 years, I studied full time. The Actors Studio Drama School [at New School University] is essentially those 12 years of my life compacted into a Master of Fine Arts [program accomplished] in three years. I invented [the series of courses] then, and reinvented it for the school."

Over the years, Lipton, who pilots his own airplane, has appeared in an independent film, "The Big Break" (1953), written for soap operas ("The Edge of Night," "Another World"), scripted several TV movies, choreographed a ballet and twice produced for Broadway ( The Mighty Gents, Monteith & Rand). He also supplied the book and lyrics (to music by Sol Berkowitz) for the 1962 musical, Nowhere to Go but Up, directed by Sidney Lumet. Marking Dorothy Loudon's Broadway debut, it had a cast that included Tom Bosley, Martin Balsam, Phil Leeds, Bert Convy and Mary Ann Mosley, and ran nine performances.

From 1952 to '62, Lipton played Dr. Dick Grant on the soap opera "The Guiding Light." Actress Nina Foch was his first wife; married in 1954, they were divorced in 1959. He met his second wife, Kedakai, "when she was a supermodel; now, she's a real-estate broker. She's half-Japanese, half-Irish. We've been married 34 years. When I am asked, 'What is your greatest achievement?' I reply — without hesitation — that, by far, [his marriage] is." While the Liptons have no children, he says, "I have 200 actors and writers [at the school]."

The Actors Studio Drama School began suddenly, remembers Lipton. "Bang! — it was accredited. Since it was my idea, they insisted that I become its Chair. Today, it's the largest graduate drama school in America, and I'm the Dean. From September until May, I work seven days a week, 14 hours a day.

"One of the courses I created became 'Inside the Actors Studio' in September 1994. There will be a 10th-year celebration show near the anniversary." Among upcoming guests on "Actors Studio" are Hugh Jackman (March 7) and Barbra Streisand (March 21). "We're doing premiere after premiere. At the moment, there's an Oscar [nominee] marathon. Seems that having our show on during the nominating season is helpful. I'm not saying that we got them nominations, but we didn't hurt them." (And those who don't win are reminded of their favorite curse words.)

On the Feb. 15 edition of "Inside the Actors Studio," Lipton's guest is Jay Leno (whom I've enjoyed in numerous plays and movies), and the host says, "I do a monologue at the beginning." In today's New York Times magazine, a layout called "Domains" was photographed at the Liptons' home. "It's supposed to picture objects that mean the most to me," reports Lipton, "but they've included some things that don't mean anything."

Does James Lipton hope that the Sherry recording will lead to a production? He replies, "If God is good, if Fate is kind, it will. . . " Suddenly, he switches gears: "Of course, I want a production — and not only in musical theatre. I'm especially interested in film. Since the success of 'Chicago,' everyone's looking for musical properties."

***

END QUIZ: On November 29, 1972, TV's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presented "The Man Who Came to Dinner," in which Sheridan Whiteside was portrayed by a) Zero Mostel; b) Orson Welles; c) David Niven? (Answer: Next column, March 16)

The January 18 question was: Which of the following actors appeared with Uta Hagen in the 1959 TV version of "A Month in the Country": a) Luther Adler; b) Richard Easton; c) Alexander Scourby? The answer is a), b), and c).

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com.