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

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15 Feb 2004

The CD cover art for <i>Sherry!</i>
The CD cover art for Sherry!

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).

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"?)


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