BY CARY GINELL
In Jack Lemmon Remembers, now playing at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, music plays a key role in Chris Lemmon’s performance. Music is featured throughout the show, as Chris uses the piano to represent the emotional connection in the special synergy he had with his father, Jack. In the second part of our talk with Chris, held after a performance in the Rubicon’s green room, we talked about the importance music played, not just in the show, but in their lives as father and son.
VCOS: Tell me about the piano playing part of your relationship with your father.
CHRIS: In the end, it was actually music that bound us back together. That was the catalyst that brought us back. There was golf, there was fishing, and there was the piano. We were pulled apart when I was at a very early age and spent decades apart. I was always like a big puppy dog, a little bit like him, but even more so, just like a big golden retriever. And I was a real late bloomer. My head was up in the clouds up through my mid-twenties. I was a nice kid, but I was like my father – I’d trip headfirst over the finish line in order to win the race. But suddenly, around that time, we both sort of looked at each other and went, “Gosh, you know, you’re kind of fun to be with.” So then we started hangin’. We did these fishing trips to Alaska, I started playing golf – we spent a lot of time together on the golf course – and over a period of another ten years or so, into my thirties, we both looked at each other and went, “Wow, you’re all SORTS of fun to be with! I really like hanging out with you!” And by the time I was into my thirties and had established my own career – I was doing a wonderful series for Fox called Duet, which was a big hit at the time and we were all having a ball – that was when we finally came all the way back together.
But – during that time, the real catalyst…was music. We LOVED to play music and we LOVED to play music together, specifically, the blues. We loved to play the blues and we would jam…and I would get bored playing the blues for more than ten minutes, but I could sit next to him for hours.
VCOS: I have his record album that he made for Epic called A Twist of Lemmon.
CHRIS: That’s what I named my book after. That is what I listened to when I started writing the book. I ended up listening to Brahms, I gotta be honest with you on that. Sorry, Pop. (laughs) But the four Brahms symphonies sort of put that VROOM! into it, you know. But when I started out listening to A Twist of Lemmon, I changed the name of the book. It was originally called “The Lemmon Tree,” which is a more appropriate title for the book, but I had to name it after the album. And the music that you hear at the end of the show is from A Twist of Lemmon.
VCOS: You use Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin'” prominently in the show. Was that a favorite of your father’s?
CHRIS: That was out of desperation.
VCOS: Oh, really?
CHRIS: You want to know the honest truth? We had two Gershwin songs in there and we couldn’t get the rights. So it was a licensing issue. The show came of age when we played the Broad last month. There was a massive rewrite when I was flying into Los Angeles. Two days before opening. Hershey called me and said, “Here’s our situation. We can’t any Gershwin. What do you think? You’ve always wanted to play that lullaby of yours.” And I thought, “Oh…wow….Yeah…Yeah!” So the Gershwin lawyers actually did us a big favor. That just made the show infinitely better and so much more appropriate and so much more What-The-Show-Is-All-About, because we were using a piece that I wrote. It’s a little waltz that I play all the way through the show, the thematic piece. I wrote it for my kid, Sydney, who is it at the Yale School of Drama right now, getting her master’s degree. And she’ll be here next week.
There was no way to put into words what it was like to see my three children born and what that meant to me, so I wrote three waltzes and turned them into a little sonatina. This one is the first movement, which is the one that I play throughout the show. It’s called Lullaby for a Little Lemmon.
VCOS: Did your father achieve everything that he wanted to during his lifetime?
CHRIS: He didn’t make the cut at Pebble Beach, did he?
VCOS: That’s number one on the list?
CHRIS: That’s number one on the list, because he pretty much did everything else.
VCOS: Did he ever play a concert?
CHRIS: Oh sure. Not a concerto or anything like that, he was not a classically trained pianist. But he certainly was a fabulous, extremely talented pianist, by ear. I was an ear-taught pianist as well and I got into Cal Arts and actually learned some stuff, but I always wanted to be a classical pianist. As my father used to say, [in Jack’s voice] “It’s in the genes!” My youngest has really got an ear for it and is quite good. Sydney’s got a beautiful voice and she picks around at the guitar a little bit, and I think I can talk her into taking some piano. The middle boy? I don’t think it’s going to be for him, Chris Jr.
VCOS: Are there any plans for turning this show into a film, either theatrical or for TV?
CHRIS: I’d love to. I think that it would translate extremely well to a screenplay rather than a teleplay. I’ve written the first few beats, maybe twenty pages or so. Which is entirely different, but we would pull some of the material from it. I’d also love to film what I do here as a special for television, so we’ll see. We’re still brand new – we only started January 5th. We did Chicago for a bit, we played the Laguna Playhouse and I’d do it here-and-there as one night stands. But that big rewrite that I did somewhere over Missouri, 32,000 feet in the air… By the time I showed up the next morning, it was a whole new script. That was when we found our sea legs, the one that you saw today. That’s the show that ended up happening over Missouri. We did it for the first time at the Broad and had a wonderful run there, and here we are, a month later, at this magnificent theater with these fantastic people. I’m absolutely in love with this place. It’s like a living being. It’s so warm and inviting, I just adore getting out on that stage.
VCOS: Do you have a closing line for this – something your father might say?
CHRIS: Something my father might say? [As Jack} May the wind at your back never be your own!
Chris Lemmon in Jack Lemmon Returns plays through March 29 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the theater, visit the VC On Stage Calendar. See our review of the show at https://vconstage.com/chris-lemmon-walking-in-the-footsteps-of-a-giant/