Bandleader, playwright, and troubadour Ethan Lipton is a one-man Marx Brothers, equal parts acid humorist, zany performer, impish wordsmith, and (lest we forget Zeppo) openhearted crooner.
I first fell for Lipton back in the early aughts when I heard him gigging around downtown as an extremely funny, smartly dressed vaudevillian songwriter; too disjointed to be a stand-up but too louche for a run-of-the-mill folk singer. Lipton’s songs from this period – “No Place to Go”, “Let’s Go to Mars,” “You Were Right and It’s Okay”– form the yolk of his most successful theater works: the Obie Award–winning No Place to Go (2012) and its sequel, The Outer Space (2017). Both pieces focus on his gently engaging recitation of an evening-length, magical-realist monologue about the vicissitudes of employment, community, and urban life, punctuated by catchy musical interludes from Lipton and his onstage three-piece orchestra.
Lipton’s newest work, freshly premiered at the New York Public Library, follows the same vein of presentation as his earlier orchestra shows, but centers on the essays of European intellectual Adam Phillips. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lipton about his process, influences, upcoming projects, and favorite sandwich.
What Should We Do: When did you make the transition from songwriter to playwright?
Ethan Lipton: Well, actually, I started as a playwright. My first piece was produced when I was fresh out of college, by pals from UCLA. Songwriting was a secret then. I didn’t start singing in public until after I moved to New York, when I was around 30. I kept playwriting and music separate for a long time—I liked taking refuge from one in the other—but when Shanta Thake at Joe’s Pub asked me to write a narrative evening of music for its New York Voices commission, I set out to make a theatrical piece that would include my band. No Place to Go came out of that. Since then, I’ve increasingly blurred the lines between music and theater, hopefully for the better.
As a writer, you get anxious about how the text will be received, but as a performer you can raise more of a middle finger.
WSWD: Do you consider yourself more a writer who performs or a performer who writes?
Lipton: I think of myself as a writer. I love playing with my band and I like performing in general; it’s scary and gets me out of my head. But I need to write.
WSWD: How different is the onstage Ethan Lipton from who you are on a day-to-day basis?
Lipton: I’m allowed to be less polite onstage than in real life, which is fun. As a writer, you get anxious about how the text will be received, but as a performer you can raise more of a middle finger.
WSWD: Perhaps due to your storytelling, I’ve heard your performance style compared to Leon Redbone and Mose Allison.
Lipton: I never wanted to channel any artists in particular, but I certainly grew up bewitched by singer-songwriters, especially the ones with a sense of humor: Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, John Prine, Hoagy Carmichael, Jonathan Richman, George Jones, Tom Waits, Redbone, Allison, plenty more. I thought Leonard Cohen was very, very funny. I try to be frank when I sing. I’m not a vocal acrobat, so I just allow the lyrics to do the work and let the audience figure out what to feel.
WSWD: Your relationship with your band seems to be a deeply integral part of your creative process.
Lipton: When I first started performing, I’d sing solo a cappella at little variety shows around the city. I didn’t play any instruments, but I eventually tricked some musicians into playing with me. For around the past 13 years, Eben Levy, Ian Riggs, Vito Dieterle, and I have been a quartet. I write lyrics and melody, and we arrange the songs as a band. Their influence on my songwriting has been profound. We share a deep and silly connection, and I couldn’t ask for better bandmates.
All ideas for a third show are bad until the good idea makes its case.
WSWD: No Place to Go and The Outer Space nicely capture a sort of self-conscious, middle-class fear of being lost and disconnected: from purpose, from neighbors, from work, from art, and from country. Both were written prior to the Trump era. How well do you think those plays’ themes have held up in 2019?
Lipton: Actually, The Outer Space was produced post-Trump and reflects a bit of that consciousness…but you’re right, those pieces are mostly responding to other, different times. It’s been exciting through the years to see how different aspects of those shows pop in the context of new places and times. We’re about to do No Place to Go near L.A. and will do The Outer Space this spring in San Francisco. My philosophy is that as long as a song or play is engaging earnestly with the moment it was made in, it has a chance of having something valid to say, even later on. It’s OK if the things it’s saying change shape.
WSWD: Can you see turning the No Place to Go/The Outer Space story into a trilogy?
Lipton: No timeline. All ideas for a third show are bad until the good idea makes its case.
WSWD: Tell me a bit about your newest work with the band, In Praise of the Unlived Life.
Lipton: That’s a show we created for the series Live From the New York Public Library. It’s a musical response to Missing Out, a book of philosophical essays written by British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. I was interested in expanding the scope of what the band and I could create in this oddball format we work in, mixing music and storytelling, and dialoguing with a collection of outside ideas sounded exciting.
WSWD: That’s a pretty highbrow source.
Lipton: The book is very provocative; it set off a lot of thought bombs. I also figured the world didn’t have enough songs inspired by essays, so I wanted to help remedy that.
My recent Spotify mix is a cliché of aging-hipster interests: The XX, Philip Glass, Mills Brothers, St. Vincent. I’m also strangely intrigued by Post Malone.
WSWD: Who are some musicians whom you think everyone should be listening to and some other playwrights we should be looking out for?
Lipton: Speaking of middle-aged white guys, my recent Spotify mix is a cliché of aging-hipster interests: The XX, Philip Glass, Mills Brothers, St. Vincent. I’m also strangely intrigued by Post Malone.
Playwright-wise, I thought Angela Hanks’s Wilder Gone, produced last summer by Clubbed Thumb, was really interesting. Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu is a work that people will be doing for a long time.
WSWD: Any words of advice for someone trying to make it as a young creative person in the city today?
Lipton: Follow your nose. It always knows.
WSWD: What else are you currently working on?
Lipton: I’ve got a musical in the works for the Public—got my hard hat on with that one and am plugging away until it’s a thing. I recently finished a play about the Bernoullis, who were a family of 17th-century Swiss mathematicians. And I’m always playing out with my band.
WSWD: If you were a sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you be?
Lipton: The Nicky Special at Defonte’s in Red Hook. Look it up.