MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
It's not unusual for celebrities to dabble in children's books or music. Billy Crystal, Spike Lee, even Madonna have all gotten into the game. But playing to a pint-sized audience is more than just a sideline for our next guest.
Mr. JOHN LITHGOW (Actor): Okay. Why don't we introduce ourselves, shall we? My first name is John. My last name is Lithgow. Now you tell me your first and last names right when I say three. One, two, three.
(Soundbite of children speaking in unison)
Mr. LITHGOW: I'm sorry I didn't quite get those names. Once again.
NORRIS: As an actor John Lithgow is known for his versatility. He's played a dirty, rotten scoundrel on Broadway, a psychotic psychiatrist in the movies and an endearingly spaced-out alien on television. He's also a prolific children's entertainer with six illustrated books, two CDs and an occasional concert series to his credit. This month he releases his third CD, The Sunny Side of the Street. It's his way of introducing kids to the sounds of Tin Pan Alley. The 60-year-old Lithgow is a parent and a grandparent, so he knows just how to work a younger audience.
Mr. LITHGOW: I always perform with a gigantic easel. Many of my songs feature animals, so I play a game of guess the animals. Even with a crowd of 2,000 kids, I draw a gigantic manatee and they're all shrieking, it's a manatee, it's a manatee. And I'm saying it's a what? It's a what? And literally it's like a Beatles concert. They shake the rafters with noise. And then I say yes, it's a manatee. And I sing them a manatee song and they listen.
Mr. LITHGOW (Singing): I'm a manatee. I'm a manatee. I keep my reputation spic and spanity. No difference between my face and fannity. A sweetly manatee, that's me.
NORRIS: Why is performing for children and writing for children such a big draw for you?
Mr. LITHGOW: It's a wonderful infusion of energy. Kids are a fantastic audience. Adults, if you bore them, they're polite. They simply clap a little less loudly. But children, if you bore them, they riot. And you know for an actor, it's - if I were a mountain climber, they would be Everest.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about the song Baby. It's a duet with the cabaret singer Maude Maggart, and perhaps while we talk we could also listen to this song. It's track number four.
(Soundbite of Baby)
Ms. MAUDE MAGGART (Cabaret singer): Baby. You wonderful baby. You beautiful baby. What goes on in your head?
Mr. LITHGOW: There is a story attached to this song. I took my own daughter, who's no longer a baby, to see Bergman's Fanny and Alexander down at the IFC Cinema in Manhattan. And they were running a little short with it, which was D.A. Pennebaker's very first documentary from the early ‘50s. The little short was called Baby. And the soundtrack was this scratchy old recording of this song Baby. And I couldn't even make out the lyrics, but I thought this will be wonderful for the album.
So we worked and worked and worked to try to track this song down. We finally found it. It was from an all black Broadway revue from 1927, I think it was called Blackbirds of 1927. And it's a Dorothy Fields song. And it was very much a raunchy song - a woman singing about her man. Well I took a few liberties with the lyrics and turned it into a dialogue between a mommy and a baby. The mommy wonders what the baby's thinking and the baby speaks his thoughts.
Mr. LITHGOW (Singing): Maybe the sky is blue. Maybe I lost my shoe. Maybe time to put me to bed.
Mr. LITHGOW: See, that's the baby talking.
NORRIS: There's a song, I Love You, which is so goofy -
Mr. LITHGOW: Uh-huh. Yeah.
NORRIS: - and effervescent. And you're singing along with the kids and as I listened to this song I wondered if this is a place where you can just let loose, just be a quirky and goofy as you want to be, things that you can't do anywhere else as an actor.
Mr. LITHGOW: Yeah, that's pretty much it. And we have turned that one into a kids' song, too. That's a song from the Marx brothers from Horse Feathers.
(Soundbite of I Love You)
Mr. LITHGOW (Singing): Everyone says I love you. The cop on the corner and the burglar, too. The preacher in the pulpit and the man in the pew says I love you.
Mr. LITHGOW: And if you remember that from Horse Feathers, it's sung by Zeppo and then Chico and then Groucho in the course of the movie. And every time they sing it, it gets nuttier and nuttier. Well, we do that in the course of the song and it's just me.
NORRIS: The pace picks up also.
Mr. LITHGOW: Yeah. And there's a fabulous jazz break where all the instruments just go nuts. And then I start making animal noises.
Mr. LITHGOW (Singing): Every time the cows says moo, she makes the bull extremely happy, too. The rooster when he hollers cock-a-doodly doodly do says rah, rah, rah.
Unidentified Children: I love you.
NORRIS: And I assume that that was all improvisation?
Mr. LITHGOW: Yeah. Yeah. And it's all me. There are no animals used in the recording of this song.
NORRIS: The PETA people will be very happy.
Mr. LITHGOW: Yes.
NORRIS: I understand that you have a hidden agenda, that you're not just trying to entertain children, but you're also trying to educate them about the arts. What do you want children to absorb when they listen or when they watch you perform?
Mr. LITHGOW: Well, basically I'm just trying to delight kids and excite them. But there is a method in the nutty idea of adult songs for kids. I like to set the bar high. Like in my children's books, I don't hesitate to throw in very difficult words. Words like Micawber - my book about the squirrel who learns to paint with his tail. There's a stanza that says a truck trundled by as Micawber alit. On the side it said Park Sanitation. He bounded aboard it, ignoring the grit and completed his peregrination. Now my notion is that a child asks his parent, what is peregrination? I just think -
NORRIS: Hold on while I go to the dictionary, sonny.
Mr. LITHGOW: It's a long journey that brings you back to where you began.
NORRIS: Do we underestimate children when it comes to music?
Mr. LITHGOW: I don't know. It's - all kids are musical. They all respond and I think they love jokes. It's a wonderful thing when kids discover jokes and discover rhymes. It's that marvelous moment and I just want my songs to be there for them.
(Soundbite of The Sunny Side of the Street)
NORRIS: John Lithgow, it's been a pleasure to talk to you.
Mr. LITHGOW: It's great to talk to you, Michele.
NORRIS: Thanks so much.
Mr. LITHGOW: You bet. Say hi to your kids.
NORRIS: I will. John Lithgow. His new CD is called The Sunny Side of the Street.
Mr. LITHGOW: (Singing) Red Rover crossed over. If I never had a cent I'd be rich as a Rockefeller. Gold dust at my feet on the sunny side of the street. On the sunny side of the street.