The great William Shatner opens his aptly named one-man show, Shatner's World: We Just Live in It, on Valentine's Day at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. After a three-week run, he'll hit the road for more shows, with stops in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and several other cities. The 80-year-old actor, best known as Star Trek's Captain Kirk, starred most recently in the short-lived sitcom based on the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says. Shatner was in typically good humor on the eve of his flight to New York to begin rehearsals, talking at length about his recent space-themed covers album, Seeking Major Tom, and his well-known history of reciting popular song lyrics as poetry.
Tell me about the show. What exactly will you be doing?
Well, the difficulty is it's a one-man play, so everything I say will sound egotistical and self-serving. On the other hand, I guess that's what it is. I'm going on stage to entertain you, to tell stories about my life that are funny, touching, insightful. I'm making a journey of discovery, if you will, about my life. I ask questions about who I am, what I am, why am I here. I have no answers whatsoever. And I'll see if I can get some commentary from the audience – when you leave the theater, what is the taste in your mouth? Hopefully, it's dark chocolate.
Other performers have done one-man shows about their lives and careers. Were you inspired by anybody in particular?
I loved Billy Crystal's show [700 Sundays]. I remember being touched by it and going backstage and telling him it was wonderful. I hope I'm in the same ballpark.
Does the idea for your show go back to that?
No. I was asked to do a one-man show in Australia several months ago, and I did five shows in five cities. Great response from the audience and the press. Then Canada heard about it, and I did all the major cities in Canada just recently. Again, great response. New York, I knew, is a different standard, though I gotta tell you, Toronto, for a Canadian like myself, is as high a hurdle. We passed that test in Toronto, and I was gratified. And I've sharpened the show since. My anxieties are all about, "I hope it's good enough for New York."
Are you doing any of your spoken-word stuff?
Well, we play five excerpts from an album I did called Has Been. Brad Paisley wrote a song for me called "Real," with the key line "I'm an entertainer, and that's all," and I finish with that song.
How much do you talk about the reception you've gotten for reciting song lyrics? It's been wildly mixed, right? People liked it, then they thought it was strange, then, after another ten or 20 years, they thought, "OK, maybe it's strange, but we love it."
[laughs] That has a happy ending. In the show, I describe the Tonight Show, as I'm attempting vainly to do a number without context, and Johnny Carson is mouthing the words "What the fuck?" That set the tenor of the reception for quite a while. I tried to do a whole cut from the album Transformed Man , which sought to link literature with lyrics of songs. I did Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, with the line "I may climb perhaps to no great height, but I will climb alone," then segued to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which is about a drug addict who can't do it alone. It made sense to me. But when [Tonight Show producer] Freddy DeCordova said you can only do one part, I said, well, the song is sexier. I looked over, and Carson's going, "What the fuck?" [laughs]
Steve Allen famously recited the lyrics of "Tutti Frutti" on his show.
I'm glad we found a show I can say was before my time! I did that on talk shows for the longest time. It was what I did. I like the musicality of the spoken word, and I saw no reason why the lyric itself wasn't poetical enough to stand on its own. And many of those songs did.
The Beat generation didn't seem like ancient history then.
I sought inspiration from [Allen] Ginsberg. I'm trained to scour a word for its musicality, and when I found lyrics I could do, the melody carried me. I did the National Anthem, and why not? "Oh! Say . . . can you see?" Seems to me, in the present tense, a really good idea.
Mitt Romney is reciting patriotic lyrics on the campaign trail.
I know, but not only does he have no musicality in the speaking – his singing voice is a caterwaul.
Maybe we ought to get him to come see the show.
If he wants to learn how to do lyrics, have him get in touch with me.
You've had so many contemporary musicians step up to help with your last few albums. Did you say, "Gee, I'd love to have Sheryl Crow and Peter Frampton on my record"?
About half and half. I asked Sheryl and Peter, because I knew them. The other half heard about the project and wanted to be a part of it. Some of those numbers, I think, are fantastic musically.
It's been a number of years since you first started working with Ben Folds. Was he the guy who said you've got to do this stuff again?
Yes, and the story I tell in the show, he actually called me when a couple of guys who wanted me to do a record were in my office. I said, "Would you take Ben Folds as the producer?" Later, I called him back – "They want to mock me." They were Golden Throats people. "What are we gonna do?" And he said the key words: "Tell the truth." We met some months later in Nashville, where we wrote and produced Has Been, which was very well received. I'd worked with him on Fear of Pop, and we'd become buddies.
You're usually working as part of team, whether you're making a film or Star Trek or a sitcom. Doing a one-man show must feel like, "Hey, whether I get it right for every audience member, I'm following my own heart."
Absolutely. The problem for an entertainer is, how do I write or perform something that will please you? I don't know you. All any artist can do is please themselves. It's like, how do you deliver a laugh line? Somebody might say it's not funny that way – well, I think it is. Not until a collective group of people tell you if it's good or bad will you know. That's the anxiety opening night presents.
I'm going to guess that whenever you've had a dispute about delivering a laugh line, more often than not your take has been the right one.
Well, I hope so, but if I'm a hired hand, I make every attempt to please the director. There's never any one way to do something. I'm always open to the possibility that somebody's got a better idea than I have. It happens with some frequency.