Why Tony and Emmy Winner Lily Tomlin Insisted on Producing Her Own Broadway Play

From the Archives   Why Tony and Emmy Winner Lily Tomlin Insisted on Producing Her Own Broadway Play In this 1985 interview, Tomlin and her now-wife then-writer/co-producer Jane Wagner, talk about bringing The Search for Intelligent Signs of Life in the Universe to Broadway.
Lily Tomlin in<i> Grace and Frankie</i>
Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie Netflix

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.

In 1985, actor Lily Tomlin brought The Search for Intelligent Signs of Life in the Universe to Broadway for the first time. (She later revived it in 2000.) Written by her now-wife Jane Wagner, the satire of contemporary American culture won Tomlin a 1986 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award; the show also won a Drama Desk for Unique Theatrical Experience. Now, 32 years later, Tomlin is nominated for her 24th Primetime Emmy for her work on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, the comedy about two older women—and polar opposites—co-habiting after their husbands divorce them to marry each other. In the below interview from the December 1985 Playbill, Tomlin and Wagner demonstrate the organic nature of their collaboration, the parade of characters Tomlin played in the show, and the magic of Broadway.

Lily Tomlin in <i>The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe</i>
Lily Tomlin in The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Annie Leibovitz

Broadway loves Lily, and the feeling is mutual—so much so that she confesses she cried when she went onstage at the Plymouth for the first time. “We were doing the sound check,” she says, “and I was so moved that we had made it and were going to open in a few days. I had always wanted to play the Plymouth because it’s on 45th Street and it’s such a beautiful little theatre. I saw Equus at the Plymouth, and The Real Thing…even now, it’s strange sometimes because I know I’m on that stage, and yet I can’t quite translate the feeling I had as a member of the audience. I think that if it really clicked in, I’d be terrified.”

Tomlin shows no signs of fear as she takes her audience on a comic search with a gallery of characters including a crazy yet sensible bag lady, a cynical socialite, a pair of savvy streetwalkers, and a teenage punk rocker and her bewildered grandparents. In varying degrees, their stories are linked with those of three feminist friends who spend the ’70s sampling self-help regimens and struggling to “have it all.” Jane Wagner’s script manages to uncover great measure of humanity—as well as side-splitting humor—in those often misguided people. And Lily brings the entire crew to life using only her endlessly pliable voice and tremendous physical agility.

“To me, it’s just basically loving,” Tomlin says of the show. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an edge. But the whole theme of it is forgiveness for being alive, and that everybody is in this together. Trudy [the bag lady] makes one of the central points when she says, ‘You’d think by now evolution could have evolved us to the place where we could change ourselves.’”

“In saying that,” adds Wagner, “you also have to mention the things that we should change—all the fads and the kitsch part of our culture. You can’t say something positive until you’ve dealt with the silly side of things.”

After almost 15 years as professional collaborators and friends, Tomlin and Wagner obviously share a vision of life’s silly side. In a joint interview, they feed each other straight lines, finish each other’s sentences and elaborate on each other’s thoughts. Yet their personalities seem quite different. Jane Wagner, in a stylishly baggy pants outfit, exudes warmth and concern for everyone’s comfort, especially Lily’s. Tomlin, looking terrific in an aqua leather jumpsuit, is as animated as one would expect, but also a bit wary.

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“I create the order,” says Tomlin of their partnership. “Jane had no compunction about giving me 20 or 30 pages of single-spaced material that’s scratched through and penciled and that might take me three or four days to retype.”

“Yeah,” says Wagner, “she’ll grab those pages before I’m ready to give them to her.”

“And yet,” says Tomlin, “talk about order—here’s a person who can sit down at a typewriter and turn out a huge monologue or huge section of a show, and then continue to enrich it! Where does that come from? Sometimes when I’m begging her to rewrite something, she’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ve just come up with a different thing.’ And it’s totally different.”

“That’s infuriating to you, too, I’m sure,” Wagner says soothingly.

“I’ve lived through it,” Tomlin replies with a smile.

Watching their exchange, one wonders if Tomlin, obviously an exacting performer, is difficult to work with. After all, aren’t all big stars temperamental?

“She’s bombastic in the most superficial ways,” says Wagner, “but in the really important things, she has enormous patience and understanding. It’s taken me years to see this, because she may fly off the handle at something trivial, but when it’s something that no one else would have the patience for—like taking 30 pages of Agnus [the punk rocker] and actually reading every page at a work show—she has incredible endurance. I’ve learned to expect her to do things that I could never do. If something isn’t working for me, I’m willing to give up, but Lily won’t.”

“She hates to rewrite after a certain point,” Tomlin interjects.

“Like after the first draft,” Wagner agrees.

Tomlin and Wagner teamed up after Lily read and loved Jane’s Peabody Award-winning script for J. T., a 1969 TV movie about a black boy growing up in Harlem. “It was naturalistic and yet it had a kind of heightened realism that was poetic and lyrical and terribly inventive,” Tomlin recalls. The two women found that they shared a Southern, working-class background (Wagner is from Morristown, Tennessee; Tomlin’s parents moved to Detroit from Paducah, Kentucky) and, as Wagner puts it, “an appreciation for the eccentricities of the people we grew up around.”

Together, they have created three Grammy-nominated comedy albums, four Emmy-winning television specials, and Lily’s 1977 Broadway one-woman hit Appearing Nitely. Wagner also wrote the script for Tomlin’s 1980 film The Incredible Shrinking Woman and wrote and directed the now legendary Tomlin-John Travolta movie flop Moment by Moment in 1978.

“After Moment,” Wagner says, “Lily could have never wanted to work with me again, but she did. That was really courageous.”

“It wasn’t courageous from my point of view,” Tomlin retorts. “Nobody could write for me like Jane could.”

Having survived a very public failure, Tomlin was determined that Wagner share the glory of Search. “In the past, even with our biggest successes, I was given all the credit and the glory,” she notes. “I didn’t think there should be any question about how this project evolved.”

In fact, it evolved in a series of low-budget work shows in cities like Seattle, Santa Fe, Denver, and Atlanta and in a pre-Broadway run in Boston. “I can travel so easily,” Tomlin explains, “with just my sound person, stage manager, and company manager, and I’m not afraid to play just about anywhere. We’d rarely advertise, just hand out leaflets, because we wanted to create a grass-roots audience. Naturally our leaflets said ‘Genuine Fan Torture.’”

“They came in droves,” says Wagner, “and some in leather.”

Read More: HOW GRACE AND FRANKIE’S LILIY TOMLIN CHANGED THE FACE OF COMEDY ON BROADWAY

At first, Lily resisted Jane’s notion of weaving together the various sketches and characters. “She kept saying she couldn’t see it,” says Wagner. “It seemed too tenuous. That’s why it was so good to get the audience feedback on the road because they adored those little connections. It was as if they’d gotten a clue in a mystery.”

“Every time we’d add a new one, the response was real joyful,” Tomlin agrees.

Both women seemed amazed at the depth of response generated by the show. “I’ve never gotten mail like this on any other project,” Tomlin marvels. “Not just regular fan mail—smart, thoughtful, sensitive letters from people who have really been affected by the show. In the beginning, when we were working on the ’70s piece, we though men might not relate to it, yet we’ve gotten our best letter from men.”

“It’s interesting that people tune in to different layers in it,” says Wagner.

Feminists, the object of many amusing satirical jabs in the second act, have expressed no discontent with the show, says Tomlin. “Believe me, they usually write or come to me immediately. Gloria, Bella, and Betty Friedan came to my opening night and have been totally supportive. I wouldn’t expect feminists to dislike it.”

To ensure total artistic control, Wagner and Tomlin chose to act as their own producers. “There are a lot of risks if it doesn’t do well,” Wagner notes. “Financial ruin is the most succinct way to put it, which scared me.”

“On the other hand, if someone else was producing, they might not understand our desire to get the perfect waterbed sound effect,” says Tomlin. “The sound became a major part of the evolution of the show, and we were so excited about inventing it, we didn’t notice the money. We were just concerned about fulfilling the vision we had.”

Despite Tomlin’s great success as an actress in movies such as All of Me, 9 to 5, The Late Show and Nashville, she obviously feels most comfortable onstage, where she alone is responsible for what the audience sees. “In the few movies I’ve done, I work and work with the people involved until I feel the balance tip to the positive side, and then I commit [to star in the films],” she says.

“Even then, you just have to close your eyes and jump,” says Wagner. “At that point, nobody knows whether or not a movie is going to be great. It’s a miracle to me that there are as many good movies as there are.”

“Part of the thrill of a live performance is the uniqueness of each time,” Tomlin says enthusiastically. “You never know whether you’re going to have that goose-bump experience. I have had it in the theatre, that incredible love affair, a feeling of absolute elation.”

“It’s a one-to-one thing, a challenge you either meet each night or you don’t,” adds Wagner. “I’ve seen your excitement, your energy,” she says to Tomlin, “and that’s never there when you go to a movie set.”

“Oh, no,” Tomlin agrees.

Lily declines to say exactly how long she’ll be staying at the Plymouth, but she and Jane clearly are savoring their enthusiastic welcome.

“There’s something about Broadway that’s very warm and family-like,” Wagner muses.

“It’s almost like a little village,” says Tomlin. “Just walking down the street every day, I get stopped by at least two or three people who tell me they saw the show.”

“I don’t care how many bad things were said about last season, Broadway still has a mystique,” Wagner declares. “People want it to be kept alive—we want it to have that romance.”

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