From Earl Scruggs to Richard Thompson to Chris Thile, Loudon Wainwright III has worked with some of the top musicians in the business. His one-man show, Loudon Wainwright III's Surviving Twin, runs at People's Light in Malvern from Jan. 21-Feb. 5. In creating it, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter takes an original tack: a posthumous collaboration with his father, the eminent journalist Loudon Wainwright Jr.
"Surviving Twin uses my father's writings and connects it with my songs," Wainwright says. With a mix of drama and humor, the multimedia performance explores aging and mortality and examines the ties that bind (and unravel) among family members, especially the ups and downs of the father-son relationship.
"He was a complicated, creative, tortured guy," Wainwright says by phone of his father. "On a bad day, that sounds like me," he adds with a chuckle.
His father, a longtime editor and columnist for Life magazine, died in December 1988 at age 63. "He loved music. He played piano and wrote a few songs," say Wainwright. Indeed the son adapted one of the father's songs, the somber "A Handful of Dust," and recorded it for his 1992 album History.
Surviving Twin takes its title from a song on Wainwright's 2001 album Last Man on Earth. The lyrics describe the challenges of living up to a famous father:
I learned I had to fight him
My own flesh, blood, bone and kin
But I felt I was just like him
Can a man's son be his twin?
In a review of the show in December, when it played in Los Angeles, Randy Lewis of The Los Angeles Times wrote: "Wainwright is unsparing, of himself and the others he references in this stabbingly funny, deeply moving piece."
Since releasing his first solo album in 1970, Wainwright has released more than two dozen albums on a variety of major and independent labels. "I've never met a label that didn't want to drop me," he cracks.
He had a Top 20 hit with "Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)" in 1972 and has seen his songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, and Mose Allison, among others.
Music, though, hasn't been his sole artistic pursuit. "I had the acting bug early," he recalls. "I studied to be an actor at Carnegie-Mellon and dropped out in the middle of my sophomore year."
A concert in Los Angeles in the early 1970s led to his first television role on M*A*S*H*. Creator Larry Gelbart "saw me perform at the Troubadour and wanted a singing surgeon on the show," Wainwright recalls. Gelbart recruited Wainwright to portray Dr. Calvin Spalding on three shows during the 1974-75 season.
Since then, Wainwright has acted on Broadway in Pump Boys and Dinettes, been a regular on the Fox TV series Undeclared, and appeared in films directed by Martin Scorsese (The Aviator), Judd Apatow (Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and Cameron Crowe (Elizabethtown).
Surviving Twin is the realization of a goal. "I thought it would be fun to create a theatrical show," he says. "I wrote one show myself and a second show with another guy, but I never felt it clicked."
Since debuting the show in 2013, Wainwright has tried out several versions with different directors. The Malvern version is directed by actor Daniel Stern (Diner, City Slickers).
"Danny is a longtime friend. I've known him for 25 years," Wainwright says. "He's more than an actor; he's directed in television."
The current version runs about 90 minutes with 11 songs, eight excerpts of his father's writing, and a six-minute film by Michael Gramaglia. The documentary features Wainwright revisiting St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Del., the boarding school he and his father attended.
"I went back to the dormitory and the athletic fields," says Wainwright, who tells of his school days in the show.
He is looking forward to the residency in Malvern, a reminder of his early touring days, when he played multiple nights in the same city. "It feels right to do the show now," says Wainwright, who turned 70 in September. "I'm doing as much as I can do while I can still do it."