A king of operetta power he

John LithgowActor John Lithgow '67 reflects on his G&S experiences at Harvard – and how they carried into his career as an award-winning artist. 

By Olivia Munk '16

It’s every director’s nightmare: An actor quits. Opening night looms. No understudy waits in the wings. Following the old adage that the show must go on, a brave replacement is found. It’s a familiar, though harrowing plot line (see: Birdman, 42nd Street), and one that afflicted the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ December 1964 production of Utopia Limited, or The Flower’s Progress

For John Lithgow ’67, fate (and a wise director) cast him as the brave replacement – a role that eventually led him to fall in love with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, pursue a career in acting – a career in which he has won two Tony and five Emmy Awards, just to name one shelf’s worth of the many accolades Lithgow has received since Utopia Limited.

This year, HRG&SP celebrates its 60th anniversary season with a production of H.M.S. Pinafore; or, the Lass that Loved a Sailor, which I directed. In honor of the occasion, I spoke with Lithgow (who, with the other distinctions, is also president emeritus of HRG&SP) about his memories of his first encounter with HRG&SP and how performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas has informed and influenced his career. 

Three weeks before Utopia Limited was set to open on the main stage of the newly renovated Loeb Drama Center, director Timothy S. Mayer ’67, lost his King Paramount. Luckily, as the Crimson reporter who reviewed the production observed, “By some particularly brilliant stroke, he cast John Lithgow as Paramount the First, King of Utopia.” 

“Tim called me and said, ‘Do you sing onstage?’” said Lithgow. “‘I never have, but I sing.’ And I came over to the Loeb, stood on the big empty stage and sang an old English musical song for him.”

Mayer cast him on the spot. As King Paramount, Lithgow started the second act with a patter song. The cast and staff knew his performance would bring down the house. Two encores were prepared in anticipation, and then came opening night. “We did the second, and left the stage, but the audience kept applauding and went nuts,” said Lithgow. 

Though the applause lasted for only about 40 seconds, under the spotlights, Lithgow felt as if the roar went on for an hour. “I always say that it was in those 40 seconds that I decided to become an actor,” he said. Mayer and Lithgow both continued to work on light opera together in Cape Cod for summer stock, where Lithgow played a variety of opera roles in one-week successions.

Lithgow and Jones
John Lithgow '67 and fellow Harvard actor Tommy Lee Jones '69 in Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players' "The Lady's Not for Burning" (1967).
Back at Harvard, Lithgow became the president of HRG&SP, and both directed and played the role of Lord Chancellor in a 1966 production of Iolanthe. “Lithgow himself plays the Lord Chancellor; on his first entrance he is greeted with claps of recognition, which he then goes out of his way to deserve,” wrote the Crimson reviewer. “His leg movements alone are worth the price of admission, which – incidentally – seems awfully high, regardless of the return.” 

Lithgow was awarded a Fulbright award to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after he graduated from Harvard. He soon found success in dramatic plays, and made his Broadway debut in 1973 in The Changing Room, a performance that earned him his first Tony. Turns out, Iolanthe was his last music theater until Sweet Smell of Success in 2002. Despite the years between the Harvard performances and Broadway’s Sweet Smell of Success, Lithgow’s innate talent for musical theater earned him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. 

Though Lithgow has not performed in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since his college days, he has continued to apply aspects of what he learned to other roles. Three years ago, he played the title role in Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate at National Theatre London. The Magistrate, Lithgow told me, was written the same year as one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous musicals, The Mikado, – and is “a farce that right in the G&S mode.” 

The professional work that Lithgow believes most resembles his operetta experience, however, is his six seasons as Dick Solomon on the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. Lithgow felt that the “specific kind of exuberance” that it takes for a performer to work on a Gilbert and Sullivan production was similar to the high energy and fast-paced acting in 3rd Rock. 

Though he may occasionally have been channeling King Paramount, there’s no question about the internationally enduring influence of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, including many productions set in a variety of time periods outside the Victorian era during which they were written. Lithgow noted that re-setting the productions can be risky, since the dialogue and lyrics are very clearly created by and for 19th century Brits. “I think you just have to be true to the form and try to discover what it is that delighted people 150 years ago,” he said, though he noted that director Jonathan Miller put on a modern-dress Japanese Mikado at the English National Opera to huge success.

The fact that Gilbert and Sullivan societies continue to thrive around the world is a testament to the fact that what delighted British audiences more than a century ago continues to entertain today. In the 1960s at Harvard – an era of counterculture, hippies and Hair – “Utopia was an extravaganza,” Lithgow said. Though HRG&SP productions are often performed in the Agassiz Theatre, where plush red velvet seats and a proscenium stage lend a Victorian feel, the musical that nudged Lithgow to discover he wanted to become an actor was performed on the vast main stage of the Loeb Drama Center, across the street. “We were packed, and we were a big, big deal,” said Lithgow. 

H.M.S. Pinafore; or, the Lass that Loved a Sailor, the HRG&SP 60th anniversary season production, will run though April 3 at Agassiz Theatre. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, and $15 for the public. Click here for tickets.