Is John Lithgow ready for the big time?
Oh, sure, he’s got a handful of Emmys (for “3rd Rock From the Sun”), a Tony Award (for “The Changing Room”) and he’s a double Oscar nominee (for “Terms of Endearment” and “The World According to Garp”), but can he handle a real challenge?
Say, singing for a thousand or so little kids, whose idea of celebrity is probably a lot closer to Tinky Winky and Barney?
Lithgow’s going to find out. On Saturday, he’ll be “Singin’ in the Bathtub” at UCLA’s Royce Hall, giving his first big family concert, and he’s just a wee bit unsettled by the whole thing.
“The concert at Royce is going to be losing my virginity big time,” said the irrepressible “3rd Rock” star. “I mean, I’ve never done anything like this.”
John Lithgow: children’s singer-songwriter. He’s not giving up his day job, but he’s having an absolute blast with this part-time second career. He’s no newcomer to it, either. Lithgow has been happily singing and making up songs for kids since his own two sons and a daughter--now in their teens and 20s--were little, even carting his guitar to preschools.
“I’ve come a long way,” he joked, since the no-frills kids’ concert home video he did in 1990 (“John Lithgow’s Kid-Size Concert”). “But it’s mostly through the good offices of expert musicians and music producers,” he added. “They can make you sound awfully good.”
Lithgow’s modest disclaimer refers to his well-received “Singin’ in the Bathtub” children’s CD, released by Sony Wonder early this year. He’ll perform cuts from the album, a delicious mix of novelty songs from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, adaptations of Broadway classics, big band and English music hall.
“The songs that I loved as a kid were the songs that my folks loved. Danny Kaye songs, Gilbert & Sullivan, Flanders and Swan, and Broadway musicals from the great era of very, very witty Broadway musicals. There really is a richness there, and it’s something you remember when you grow up.”
He re-created that cross-generational appeal with the album’s producer, Jai Winding, “the genius behind it,” and in serendipitous collaboration with the Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra, a sleek, sophisticated complement to Lithgow’s warmth and impish ebullience. The orchestra will perform with Lithgow at Royce Hall, along with a children’s chorus and swing singers “Bill’s Lucky Stars.”
“There are really only [a few] songs which were written for children [on the CD]. Two are songs that I wrote, the other is ‘Inchworm,’ by Frank Loesser, who’s not exactly a kids’ composer.”
Of course, these are not exactly lofty adult songs, either, and Lithgow renders them with great, syllable-rolling relish.
A sampling: “The Gnu Song” and “The Hippopotamus Song” (“Mud, mud, glorious mud”), both by comic British duo Flanders and Swann; “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” (“Have a frittata, Lotta; Nibble a kibble, Sybil”). The nuttiest is the sly, Spike Jones-ish “From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies,” about a uniquely prepared traveler.
Lithgow knows from experience that while kids may not understand all the words, they’ll appreciate the musical bounce and the sense of story and fun in the lyrics. “Triplets” is on the CD because, as kids, he and his sister learned the comic song about anarchic infants from their favorite Danny Kaye record--"we knew every syllable of that album.” When they gave an impromptu performance of it at their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Lithgow’s own children, who were preschool age, couldn’t get enough.
“That’s all they wanted to hear, over and over again. As much as anything else, that’s what gave me the idea of finding the songs that I loved as a kid.
“Danny Kaye is my model for this,” Lithgow added. “He gave wonderful concerts for kids, and he gave concerts not all that different for adults. I don’t really see anybody doing that these days. That’s the vacuum I’m intent on filling.”
Lithgow, who keeps busy--besides “3rd Rock” he stars in the upcoming TNT film “Don Quixote"--will repeat his family concert in February at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. He hopes to include his ambitious new performance piece then, “The Remarkable Farkle McBride,” an introduction to the orchestra, a la “Peter and the Wolf.”
The story of a child prodigy who masters all the instruments, then “realizes that what he really wants to be is a conductor,” will be published as a book by Simon & Schuster in September.
How do his own children view what he does?
“It veers between pride and embarrassment, but that’s pretty much how kids see their parents anyway. I mean, I make a real studied, calculated effort to be a completely ordinary and inconspicuous father.”
“John Lithgow: Singin’ in the Bathtub,” UCLA, Royce Hall, Westwood, Saturday, 2 p.m. $20 to 30. (310) 825-2101.