When J. Robert Spencer's father, a man with 42 years in retail, said to him, "Bobby, to do what you've done in your business, two hits in a row? It's absolutely incredible!," it really hit Spencer how much he has bucked the odds, being a part of two consecutive critical hits. He followed his work as Nick Massi in the Tony-winning Jersey Boys with a 2009 Tony nomination for his performance as a trying-to-cope father in Next to Normal. And, in the future, if you hear Spencer say he feels in his gut a show is going to succeed, you just might want to invest!
Q: Congratulations on your Tony nomination. Is that pretty exciting for you?
Spencer: Thank you, Tom. It is incredibly exciting — such an honor and a blessing. It's been an incredible year for me, so this has been an added smile.
Q: Next to Normal is so emotionally raw in parts, I wonder if you feel like you are acting in it or putting yourself through it.
Spencer: That's why we want to be actors in the first place. I love to take challenges with my emotional journey. Dan is an amazing man to portray. It gives me the depth I've been looking for forever as an artist. The entire cast feels the same way about their characters. Jennifer Damiano [Natalie] said the other day, "I like going there." When you're an actor, it's all about not having inhibitions, and to be that vulnerable and honest onstage, it's the most thrilling thing ever.
Q: Does that take anything out of you?
Spencer: [Laughs.] All six of us, the moment the show starts, we're just in the zone. And the moment the show stops, we all are back to laughing and being goofs. Until this point in my life as an actor, I've never been able to shut the valve on and off, but now I'm at a point in my career where it's working like that. By the end of the night, I've gone through an emotional ringer, but I'm exhilarated. When I get home, that's when the exhaustion kicks in and I collapse!
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Q: Has the dysfunction of the family in the show given you a deeper appreciation for your own family?
Spencer: It has given me a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the words "husband and father." Q: How has it been working with Aaron Tveit, such an amazing presence in this show.
Spencer: He's great. We connect very well on and off the stage. When we were rehearsing, technically everyone has been with the show longer than I have. Since they did it at Second Stage through to now, they've been with it for a year. I've been with it since the middle of last October. I had a lot more to do and a lot less time to do it in. Aaron has always been so supportive. When we got done with the final rehearsal before we moved to the Arena Stage, Aaron came over to me — we'd just gotten through with a very emotional and very successful run-through — and he was wiping tears from his eyes, as I was, and he said, "Bobby, I don't know how you pulled this off in two-and-a-half weeks. I could not do what you've done." He's a beautiful friend, and I love him dearly.
Q: Do you watch your co-star, Alice Ripley, with awe?
Spencer: I do. When I did Side Show with her, I was a swing, so I would watch her from the sidelines, and I was mesmerized by her. The fact that we are working together again is a full-circle kind of thing, and it's so much fun every night. We really have love for each other and trust for each other. Like the other night, she hit me with a fist, not her open hand, but her closed fist, she went, "Bam!" into my chest, really wailed on me, and I grabbed her, but that was Diana and Dan, not Alice and Bobby. That's the trust we have, we can beat each other up onstage.
Q: It's a fact that one of your two children is named for Geddy Lee of the rock band Rush. Was Rush instrumental in getting you to the stage?
Spencer: Their song "Tom Sawyer" really started it for me. I was in fourth grade living in Texas, my mom was driving me to the swimming pool, and I heard that song on the radio. I was just like, "What is this?" We heard the drum solo, and I pretty much said to my mom, "Mom, I want to play drums." I mowed a hell of a lot of lawns, and had a garage sale and sold all my "Star Wars" stuff and bought a drum set, and I see that moment as the beginning of the artistic journey for me. There's no way I would have gotten the shows I've done if I hadn't gotten my start in music at such a young age.
Q: Most drummers often hide behind the kit. You flipped that and became a leading man.
Spencer: Yeah. I played in a rock band, I was always singing and drumming like Phil Collins. In college, I went to Shenandoah Conservatory and met these amazing musicians. We started a band, but the drummer was better than me, so I became the front man. I just always knew I was going to be in some form of entertainment. I didn't know if it was going to be music or acting.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Q: I read another interview you did, and it seemed like you had almost a premonition about Normal coming to Broadway. Did you sense the quality or just feel it in your gut?
Spencer: Exactly what you said. It was a gut instinct and knowing that this is a magical piece. I've done a lot of workshops and a lot of readings of new musicals and plays, and a lot of them had out-of-town tryouts. Every single one of them said, "We're coming back to Broadway!" And they never did for various reasons. When you've been in the game as long as my wife and I have, you know what is special. She came to a rehearsal and she [said], "This is amazing." I said, "It is, isn't it?" And then when they took it to Arena Stage for one final tweak, I knew that [director] Michael Greif was on board with this thing. I knew how passionate David Stone and the rest of the producers were. I knew how amazing Tom Kitt [music] and Brian Yorkey [book and lyrics]'s piece was. I knew it was the right team, and if I didn't jump on board, I would never live it down. I felt, "I have to make the call. I have to get this audition, and I have to land this role because this piece is going to come to Broadway." The first day of rehearsal Alice and I were in a corner talking, and I said, "We're coming to Broadway." And she was like, "Mmm, yeah." And I said, "Listen to me. We. Are. Coming. Back. To. Broadway. I know it." Thank God I was right. Q: How did your gut do regarding Jersey Boys?
Spencer: Same feeling. That's why I knew I wasn't wrong about Normal. I was in L.A., and I got a script for a show called Jersey Boys. I read it, and I called my wife and said, "I am coming back to New York with a lead in a Broadway show." This was before auditions. But I read it, and I said, "This is what I've been waiting for!" I just knew it. And the moment we started rehearsals in La Jolla, I think we all knew it. The same gut feeling as with Next to Normal. So, two in a row, baby!
Q: You need to get your gut to pick stocks or something…
Spencer: [Laughs.] My gut is not good with the lottery, that's for sure.
[Next to Normal is now playing the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. For more information, go to www.nexttonormal.com.]
SESSION WITH NEWMAN
"The Guiding Light" has shot about 15,720 episodes, and Robert Newman has been in about 3,600 of those as the ageless heartthrob Josh Lewis. Since CBS announced the final "GL" episode will air in September, Newman finds himself "freakishly at peace" with the decision — not happy about it, but ready to take whatever new opportunities await. One such opportunity, overlapping with the TV show's final months, is the starring role as the therapist in Albert Tapper's new musical Sessions currently playing the Algonquin Theater. Newman entered the show officially on May 29, and he's looking forward to the run and the possibilities of much more theatrical work to come. Question: I spoke to you at the Broadway Flea Market last year, and you said doing work on stage helps keep you sane.
Robert Newman: More like it keeps me from blowing my brains out.
Q: Have you always made time from your daytime-TV career to do stage work?
Newman: For the most part, yes. I joined "Guiding Light" in October of 1981. I would go away every two years, and I did several shows with my wife at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, where I got my Equity card back in 1981 along with Jonathan Larson, Marin Mazzie and Scott Burkell. A lot of us got our cards that same summer. And I would go back as their marquee person once I was on the soap opera. I did Picnic, Barefoot in the Park, a lot of good shows there. The last musical I had done was The Fantasticks in 1984 at a theatre in Illinois — then I stopped singing for about a decade. Somewhere around the mid-nineties, I started to miss it. I stepped back onstage as Guido in Nine at the North Shore Music Theatre about six years ago. Since then I've taken off one month every year to work on a musical, and it does keep me sane. I also do a lot of play readings.
Q: What is it about theatre that grounds you?
Newman: I so believe in theatre, and I'm concerned right now. I know a lot of theatres around the country are starting to shut down. I did a big fundraiser for North Shore, and I know they've been struggling, same thing with the Barn Theatre. I believe in the need and the value of good theatre. I had a great experience last August as Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, a glorious role in a glorious show. Michigan is really struggling, economically, yet people still came, and there, more than any place I've worked in awhile, you could sense people's need to be entertained and to laugh and see dancing farmers, but also to weep and feel and be challenged. People want to come in for a couple hours and feel something because life is so out-of-control sometimes. Again, it shows the value of live theatre.
|photo by Murray Head|
Q: Tell us about your starring role in Sessions.
Newman: It's a great show, a good role for me. It revolves around a therapist and his patients. It reminds me a bit of Company. It's a very ensemble piece, but my character's journey is informed by his relationship with his patients. It's quite funny in many places, and quite tragic, like life. And God knows I've been through enough therapy in my life, so I've had plenty of research [laughs]. Q: How did you get involved with the show
Newman: It started with a phone call from Ron Raines, who works on our soap and is very active in theatre. He called me three weeks ago, and I was actually on a golf course. He said, "Listen, I saw a show last night. Good cast, good role. I'm not right for this role, but I know who is." The producers contacted me a few days later; I read for them, sang a bit, and they made me an offer. Then I went to see the show [laughs]. Then I just dove in. So, phone call on a golf course, and now I'm going into the show. Q: Is it fun to be working on a newer, original piece?
Newman: It really is. And my mandate from the producers was not just to come in and cover or understudy. It was to come in and reinvent the role, and the cast has been extremely generous. The director's been fantastic. It's an exciting process, a great contrast to what I do for my day job.
Q: Have you had the dream of someday being on Broadway?
Newman: Oh sure. I grew up in L.A. and went to college at Cal State Northridge, and we would come to New York and see five shows in four days. I remember that first season it was stuff like Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin in Evita, and — oh my God — Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd. I saw that and went right back the next day. I wasn't anticipating doing soap operas for 28 years; that's just the way it worked out. Broadway is something I definitely have on my agenda.
Q: I think one of the most fascinating things about theatre is you come together with a group of people for the purpose of a show, and then one day, it ends. You've been getting together for nigh 30 years to work on "Guiding Light," and now that is ending. Have you thought of how that will be?
Newman: What you bring up is by far the most difficult part. Obviously, soaps are a great paycheck for an actor. Everybody knows that, and I'll miss that, but that's just a thing. At the risk of sounding cliché, it's the people. I love these people, and I've been through decades of time with them. Off camera, we've been through births of children and graduations from high school, marriages and divorces. I have tremendous respect for the great actors I've worked with, technicians, directors…great people. "GL" has always been a lovely place to work. I'm going to miss it. I'm freakishly at peace though. I've felt that way since the announcement was made. I don't know what that's about, but I'm trying to just go with it. I'm choosing to view this as an opportunity to go out and do things I've never done as an actor and a vocalist.
Q: Any roles you'd love to play?
Newman: Having done Charlie Anderson in Shenandoah, I tell you, I would do that again anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I did Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and now I'm chomping at the bit to do Frederik. And for every man, Sweeney is in there somewhere.
|photo by Murray Head|
Q: Soaps are such a big part of culture for people looking for acting work in New York. Are you concerned for the future?
Newman: I'm very concerned about the future of soap operas. I'm saddened by it. Not just our show. I think our show is particularly tragic because it is the longest-running show in the history of broadcast. It started on radio in 1937. But CBS feels it's time to put on another talk show or game show…My fear is that one day we'll turn around, and there will be no daytime drama, and it will be all talk shows and game shows and we'll be scratching our heads and thinking, "Why did we think this was a good idea?" I'm concerned that at least three or four other shows are going off, and we might end up with a couple when it's all over. We'll see. I think soaps are a valuable medium. They employ a lot of people on both coasts: all kinds of recurring actors and day players and extras. On any given day "Guiding Light" employs 300 people, and that's going to go away. Q: I always wanted to ask someone in soaps if you ever see old scenes you did years ago and have absolutely no memory of doing them.
Newman: Oh yeah! Maybe ten years ago, they came out with a DVD of scenes with Josh and [longtime paramour] Reva, and they brought me in to do the commentary, set me down in a chair and asked me what I was thinking in this scene or that, and there were a couple times when I said, "I have no memory of this scene or this story line." These days I get calls from soap magazines wanting to know details about scenes I shot six weeks ago, and I can't even remember those!
[Sessions is playing the Algonquin Theater, located at 123 East 24th Street, between Park Avenue South and Lexington Ave. Check out sessionsthemusical.com for info.]
HITHER AND YON
News for "Nudie Musical" fans in Los Angeles: A new musical based on the 1975 cult film and staple of late night '80s cable will have a two-night run June 15 and 16 as part of the LA Festival of New American Musicals. Bruce Kimmel's The First Nudie Musical will be presented at the NoHo Arts Center at 11136 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood. Tickets are free. Call (323) 599-7343 for reservations or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out the festival website for further info: www.lafestival.org . . . . Michael Feinstein and Cheyenne Jackson's show is the big news at Feinstein's June 2-12, but also note Jack Noseworthy will be at the venue on June 29. For ticket reservations and information, call (212) 339-4095 or hit the website at feinsteinsatloewsregency.com . . . . Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch lend their (and Johnny Mercer's) talents to a good cause, the Annual Benefit for Greenwich House Music School on June 15 at the Cherry Lane. Christine Ebersole and Klea Blackhurst will also join in the fun. You'll want to go to www.greenwichhouse.org/rainorshine for details. . . . Michael Barr has passed away. The composer wrote a couple songs ("Try Your Wings" and "Hello Love") on the Blossom Dearie albums I talked about a couple months back. "Where Is The Wonder" from Barbra Streisand's fifth LP is also a Barr composition, as are some songs Joel Grey recorded. You can listen to the Dearie performances as well as Barr himself singing the lovely "Ev'rytime You Smile At Me" at www.myspace.com/michaelprestonbarr. . . . My LP finds of the month: Anyone else have Colpix Records' Bye Bye Birdie album that celebrates the movie yet features the songs as performed by Shelley Fabares, Paul Petersen, James Darren and The Marcels? Rad stuff. And how 'bout this find, from the crates on the floor of my local pawn shop? Original cast album of 110 in the Shade signed by Robert Horton Inga Swenson and Stephen Douglass. All three sigs made out to someone named Harry. Let me know what cool signed cast albums you folks have out there. Happy Tony-ing!
Tom Nondorf can be reached at email@example.com.