Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman
Political satire from John Lithgow? No one is more surprised than I. I’m a grizzled thespian, not much known for my politics, and pretty far along in life to head off in such a wildly different direction. But to my own amazement, my first ever book of political humor arrives hot off the presses this fall. How could this have happened? Well, the book probably would never have existed without the prodding of two confederates and without the occurrence of a single explosive moment onstage.
Have I made you curious? Good. Read on. Let me tell you the story of how, at the age of 73, I came to write Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse
The first of those aforesaid confederates was New York stage director Dan Sullivan. In 2017 Dan invited me to perform in the New York Public Theater’s annual June gala in Central Park. That year the Public had chosen to celebrate its long history of musical theater, with performances from hits like Hair
, A Chorus Line
, and many more.
For the gala, Dan proposed that I sing the patter song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from Pirates of Penzance
. This is the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which the Public revived to great acclaim in the 1970s. Noting the Public’s penchant for political mischievousness, Dan suggested that I perform the song in the person of retired general Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor. Patter songs are devilishly hard to learn and I was skeptical of putting a political gloss on Gilbert and Sullivan, but Dan’s a good friend and he’s no fool. I said yes.
My imagination immediately ran away with me. In a series of phone calls, Dan and I brainstormed about my performance. We decided I would don a navy suit and wear Michael Flynn makeup featuring a beetle brow, a hawk-like nose, severe spectacles, and a black crew-cut wig. I would be introduced by name over the sound system, but we would deliberately befuddle the audience: in my costume and makeup, they would barely recognize me as either Lithgow or Flynn. I would launch into the famous patter song, but the only hint of my imposture would be a tiny tweak in its lyrics, switching my rank from “a modern Major General” to “an Ex-Lieutenant General.”
The tip-off would come in the second verse, after several rapid-fire lines of dense Victorian wordplay. In the verse’s final couplet, W. S. Gilbert had written a snappy in-joke:
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
But in our version, for the second line of that couplet we would substitute:
There’s never been a general the likes of Michael Flynn afore.
Dan and I anticipated that, at that moment, well into the song, the whole audience would gasp with a collective realization: “Oh that’s
what they’re up to!”
And on a balmy June night a few weeks later, in the vast confines of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, packed with an eager crowd of Public Theater devotees, that’s exactly what happened. Up on stage, I could hear a kind of giddy whoosh at the mention of Michael Flynn. It was the sound of 1800 happy people starting to get the joke.
But the big explosion came in the third and final verse. I had chosen to completely rewrite it in Flynn’s voice and sing it at half the tempo of the two manic, barely comprehensible verses that preceded it. Thus, as the orchestra ponderously decelerated, I sang:
When President Obama made me head of all things clandestine,
He realized he’d brought to life a governmental Frankenstein.
But then I made a killing in a case of public pillory,
By shouting “Lock her up!” in my harangue opposing Hillary.
So I was chosen National Security Advisor-y,
Until I let the crafty Russian secret service hire me.
Now I’ve become the subject of a Special Counsel crime report,
A fate I share with Cohen, Donald Jr., and with Manafort.
I plead the Fifth Amendment when the public and the press attack
My meeting Jared Kushner in a room with Sergei Kislyak...
Then back to breakneck speed:
In short in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,
I am the very model of an Ex-Lieutenant General!
After the fact, it is next to impossible to capture in words an electrifying moment in the theater. But for me, in a lifetime onstage, this was up there with the best of them. Each couplet ended with a joke that went off like a firecracker. And just like with a good fireworks display, the bursts of laughter built exponentially with each rhyming punchline.
And consider this: that June marked the sixth month of the new Trump administration. Democratic New York had been mired in a deep political funk ever since election night eight months before. My song had been slotted near the end of the program and little attention had been paid to politics until I sprung my Flynn lyrics on the unsuspecting crowd. The Public’s liberal fans out front were having a good enough time but they were primed for something more: a musical comedy take-down of Trump’s cabal. They were hungry for it. Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs are always fun, but no one expected “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” to offer the evening’s one moment of charged political catharsis. They went nuts.
* * *
Cut to one year later at a meeting with my literary agent, David Kuhn. He’s the second of my confederates in this brief history.
A few years before the meeting with David, I’d had the idea of writing a book about the absurdities of an actor’s life. I figured I would spin self-mocking essays out of personal anecdotes about the indignities, mishaps, fleeting successes, and humbling failures of my curious career in show business. I wrote one such essay to get started and, after asking around to find the very best agent, I sent the essay to David Kuhn.
He read it, signed me up, and told me to keep writing.
By then I’d published a memoir and nine children’s books, but I’d never had a literary agent. I’d barely even met one. But I suspect there are not many literary agents like David Kuhn. I was grateful for his encouragement, but I was not prepared for his honesty. After I sent him two more of my essays, he called me up and leveled with me. He bluntly stated his opinion and it was not easy to hear.
Writing about what scared me simply scared me.
David could not have been more gracious, but he was tough as nails. He praised my language and my storytelling but told me I had set my sights too low. To him, my essays read like glorified talk show fodder. He urged me to steer clear of showbiz and to write what I was scared to write. He told me to try taking on such subjects as growing old, losing friends, my marriage, my brushes with serious illness. He told me to write not as if I was breezily talking to 10 people, but as if I was confiding in just one. He told me that he could probably sell a lightweight book of actor talk to some publisher but that it would give him no pleasure to do so. He told me he thought airy celebrity chat was not worthy of me and that I could do better. And he told me that if I chose to go with a different agent there would be no hard feelings.
I didn’t want any other agent. I found David to be smart, challenging, passionate, and absolutely right. But to my shame, his bracing pep talk stopped me dead in my tracks. Despite his continued solicitude and occasional prodding, I didn’t give a single thought to writing a book for the next three years.
* * *
In the spring of 2018, three years into my writer’s block (and a year after my splashy turn at the Delacorte Theater), The New York Times
asked me to write a review of three new children’s books, something I had done for them twice before. The review appeared, David read it, and immediately called me up. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was a good writer, that I should be writing a book, and that we should get together to discuss ideas for it the next time I was in New York.
Thus it was that I found myself on the leafy terrace of David Kuhn’s apartment in the West Village on an evening in late June, drinking vodka tonics and talking about everything but books. It was the first leisurely, face-to-face conversation we’d had. Considering the short, abortive history of our working relationship, I sensed that he knew he’d never get me writing again until we’d achieved a modicum of friendship and trust.
An hour into my visit, David announced that we should talk business. We shifted to another part of the terrace facing west. He brightly stated that we would have an idea for a book in hand by the time the sun set over the Hudson River.
I confessed to him that I had developed a stultifying writer’s block in response to his tough love, that writing about what scared me simply scared me. He suggested that maybe I might break the ice by writing another of my children’s books and asked me to describe the ones I’d already written. I told him they were all stories told in rhyming verse, many of them derived from lyrics I’d written for loopy songs that I performed in children’s concerts. I recited some of the doggerel verses and sang a snatch of one of my songs.
Then with a start, I suddenly recalled the Public Theater gala from a year before. I told David all about Dan Sullivan, the Major General song, Michael Flynn, and the wild response of that huge crowd. I even launched into the substitute lyrics that I’d written for that third verse.
It is rare that you see a big change in your life take place on the face of someone else. As I sang about Flynn, Cohen, Donald Jr., Manafort, Kushner, and Kislyak, David’s face lit up, even as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. The moment I finished the song he spread his two arms wide and shouted, “There’s your book!” We babbled excitedly for the next 10 minutes and, just as he had promised, by the time the sun had set we had settled on a fully formed book proposal.
I left the next day to act in a movie. It called for a month of shooting in Montreal with half my days free to sit in a hotel room writing poems. The process was agonizing, exhausting, exciting and, just as David had urged on me, very scary. But I finished a half dozen of them within a couple of weeks and sent them off one by one to David in New York. He downloaded them off his computer as if he were opening presents on Christmas morning.
By mid-July, David had assembled enough material to send a proposal to prospective publishers. I hoped to illustrate the book as well, so the pitch included samples of my artwork. These were cartoons and caricatures I’d done over the years for opening night gifts and Christmas cards. The one nod to politics was a 2008 watercolor of Barack Obama with a broad smile, his teeth clamping a sprig of mistletoe, with the word HOPE below it in bright Christmas colors.
Things moved fast. Within days David struck a deal with the editors at Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books in San Francisco. Together we settled on the title Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse
. They proposed a publication date in the fall of 2019. For the next eight months, all through another long film shoot and through seven weeks of rehearsal for a Broadway play, half of my brain was obsessively preoccupied with rhyme, meter, American politics, and my first book of verse.
* * *
Appropriately enough, my deadline for completing my poems was April Fool’s Day 2019. I finished the last one, poem number 33, on that exact day. When I wrote down the very last rhyme, I was overwhelmed with relief.
The following night I was scheduled to appear on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
to promote my Broadway play. Steven had gotten wind of Dumpty
and had even sent for a mock-up of its cover art. As an afterthought at the end of my interview, he wanted to announce the book’s October publication and have me read a passage from it. With some trepidation, and after clearing it with my friends at Chronicle Prism, I agreed. I decided to publicly celebrate meeting my deadline by reading a stanza from my just-completed final poem. Its satirical target was the big news from a few days before, Attorney General William Barr’s public response to the Mueller report. In my poem, I imagined Barr briefing Dumpty over the phone:
"Great news!” Barr exclaimed, “We’re home free! It’s a wash!
The Report’s a big nothing that’s easy to quash!”
Thus began Barr’s campaign to covertly impede it
Since he, only he, was permitted to read it.
In fact, he just gave it a cursory glance
But that hadn’t thwarted his victory dance,
Nor forestalled his appalling misrepresentation
Proclaiming the POTUS’s exoneration.
My timing could not have been better. A national television audience was learning for the first time about my skewering of Donald Trump at the very moment of peak interest in his fortunes. As I read my own lines, Steven broadly grinned and the studio audience roared with laughter. I finished the stanza, and as their extended applause washed over me, my mind drifted back to that night in Central Park two years before when I had blindsided the crowd at the Delacorte Theater with rhymes.
, I thought. This is going to be fun.
÷ ÷ ÷
is an award-winning actor with two Tonys, six Emmys, and two Golden Globes to his name. He has also been nominated for two Oscars and four Grammys. Lithgow has starred in numerous hit TV series including 3rd Rock From the Sun
, The Crown
, How I Met Your Mother
, and Dexter
, and in beloved films like The World According to Garp
, and Terms of Endearment
. He has received high praise for his star roles on Broadway and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Lithgow is also the bestselling author of a series of children's books and was the voice in the digital audio version of John Oliver's A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
. Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse
is his latest book.