Last time John Lithgow appeared at the Academy of Music Anniversary concert, in 2007, he had a little competition for the spotlight.
“It was the 150th anniversary, a big gala with Prince Charles, Rod Stewart and me, and I had lousy billing,” says Lithgow jokingly.
On Saturday, Jan. 25, Lithgow returns, but this time as host and headliner for the annual white-tie concert and ball, which tips its black top hat to the Academy’s 163rd year.
Lithgow — who acts, sings, writes, and has become perhaps the most winsome political observer among a largely acerbic pack — says he’s enjoyed figuring out exactly what he’ll be doing on stage alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra and merry music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
“It’s been fantastic conceiving how much fun the Philadelphia Orchestra is capable of having along with being one of our greatest classical music institutions. They also told me Helen Mirren did it” — last year — “and, well, that is an easy act to follow.”
Lithgow also has a peripheral connection to this orchestra that is not widely known.
“My first wife’s father, my ex father-in-law, was the librarian for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jesse Taynton. He was a bass player and then became librarian. When I was in my 20s I must have seen 10 concerts of the orchestra and we always went backstage to chat with Maestro Ormandy, who knew my ex-wife when she was a little girl. I even visited the orchestra in Saratoga.”
The Academy he recalls as a wonderful hall. “I will never forget hearing the great Philadelphia Sound in the Academy of Music. It was really something.”
Philadelphians can remind themselves of that sound the same weekend as the Academy gala when the orchestra returns to its old home for the first run of subscription concerts since moving into Verizon Hall in 2001. Pianist Yefim Bronfman joins the orchestra for three concerts featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.
Lithgow, 74, has enough range as an entertainer that no one will be surprised by whatever he ends up doing on the Academy stage. In The World According to Garp, he took a secondary character, tight-end-turned-transsexual woman Roberta Muldoon, and raised the role to that of sympathetic philosopher. This was in 1982, making the actor something of a social pioneer decades before the current era of wider gender-nuance literacy.
He starred, of course, in 3rd Rock From the Sun. He is Winston Churchill in The Crown. To children, he is the rollicking guide to big-band sounds and silly songs in his 1999 album Singin’ in the Bathtub.
He is also author of the book Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse, published last year, and complained in a New York Times piece that “as bad a president as Mr. Trump has been, he’s an even worse entertainer. He reads scripted lines like a panic-stricken schoolboy at a middle school assembly.”
Lithgow calls the book a collection of “satirical doggerel.” It begins with this:
Trumpty Dumpty wanted a wall
To stir up a rabid political brawl.
His Republican rivals, both feckless and stodgy,
Succumbed in the end to his rank demagogy.
Why does the actor dip into political commentary?
“Well, I don’t know, it sort of caught up with me. I haven’t pursued it. At a certain point you can’t help respond, and because I am an entertainer I respond in an entertaining mode. There is nothing grave or somber about my political activism. It’s more like, ‘God, things are crazy.’”
His performance at the Academy promises something more harmonious. He’s coy about what he’ll be doing, but it will involve song, and he is threatening audience participation.
Lithgow says he’s never learned to read music himself, but “taught myself how to play the guitar just to play silly songs for my kids when they were little.”
At home, it's classical music that's on. "It’s mainly baroque and classical," he says. "I love Handel and Haydn and Bach, and love chamber music. String quartets and Beethoven and the romantics. Mozart, of course."
It’s actually because of his children’s songs that Lithgow has now worked with about a dozen major orchestras.
“I would do one of those [concerts] with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the drop of a hat. I just love working with orchestras,” he says. “I hang out with artists and work with musicians, like the best musicians in the country, and it’s an amazing privilege and I don’t do it often enough. I did the part of Voltaire/Pangloss in Candide working with some of the great singers, like Erin Morley. I was like, how did they let me in here? I am so lucky even to be asked.”
And what is it like standing in front of a great orchestra?
“I compare it to running in front of a speeding locomotive. You trip and they just run right over you. It’s terrifying. But I embrace terror.”
The Academy of Music 163rd Anniversary Concert and Ball, which benefits the orchestra and restoration of the Academy of Music, is slated for Jan. 25. Tickets to the concert-only portion of the evening are $75 (215-893-1999), with tickets to the concert and ball ranging from $350 to $2,150 (215-893-1978). philorch.org.