As an actor, John Lithgow is beloved by millions for his depth and body of work, which includes just about every genre, onstage and off. In his solo show Stories by Heart, Lithgow gets to show off every tool in his arsenal as he reenacts two short stories, one by P.G. Wodehouse and another by Ring Lardner, that have a deeply personal connection to his life. They're stories that were read to him and his siblings by their father, the theatrical impresario Arthur Lithgow, and which John, in turn, read to his mom and dad during the last years of their lives.
As the long-gestating solo show, which has played all around the world, gets ready to conclude its Broadway run at the American Airlines Theatre on March 4, Lithgow discussed his inspiration for the production and filled us in on why solo shows shouldn't run past 10pm.
1. What is your favorite line that you get to say?
Naturally, it's the line that gets the biggest laugh. It will make no sense out of context but the line is: "...and that makes him stammer."
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
At one point, I direct a joke at an actress whom I adore. I tuck in my shirt and say, "That's the only costume change I need." Then I add, "Eat your heart out, Bernadette Peters." She's a block away in Hello, Dolly! wearing about a dozen costumes.
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
My Broadway run has been trouble free, but a few years ago, at the National Theatre in London, the guy running the lights cued a blackout about five minutes before the end of the show. In the pitch dark, I simply said, "Uh, that was a mistake." The lights came back on, I backtracked about 10 seconds like a movie in reverse, then just pressed on to the curtain.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
Interesting? Well, a woman once had me autograph her arm and several weeks later she reappeared to show me a tattoo of my signature. Not exactly a present. More of a tribute. And a pretty creepy one at that.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Hillary Clinton by a long shot.
6. How did you pick the two stories that you perform in Stories by Heart?
The show itself tells you all about it. My father read loads of stories to me and my sibs when we were kids, and I read them to him when he was old and ill. That's a great story in itself, but Ring Lardner's and P.G. Wodehouse's stories were the most actable.
7. Which of all the characters is your favorite and why?
Uncle Fred and Whitey the barber, the main characters in the two stories. They have the most layers and colors, one comic and one deluded. But the Wodehouse parrot is pretty great too.
8. You've developed the piece for a decade. What was the hardest element to lose over time as you came to the final version?
There used to be a long, sweet section about my father as a kid and his mother (my grandmother) reciting long poems to him. It added an extra generation to the history of storytelling in our family. But I don't miss it. The evening is far more compact now. No solo show should run past 10pm. That's when mine ends, but it used to run a half hour longer!
9. What do you believe is the importance of storytelling?
I actually take storytelling to mean all the performing arts. They take us both out of ourselves and into ourselves, like nothing else.
10. What notes would your dad have had about your performance?
As a director, my dad believed in high energy onstage. I do believe he's already given me my most essential notes from the beyond. They usually boil down to "louder" and "faster."
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