Interview with Robert Picardo
Though Robert Picardo, is perhaps best known for his television work on series like The Wonder Years, China Beach, and Star Trek: Voyager, he's no stranger to the stage, having appeared on Broadway in plays like Gemini and Tribute (with Jack Lemmon). Now appearing as Ed Kleban in A Class Act at the Pasadena Playhouse, he took some time out from preparing a barbecue for his follow cast members to talk about his career and the show.
Matthew Murray: How did you get started in theatre? What sort of theatre training did you have?
Robert Picardo: After being a biology major for nearly two years at Yale, I switched to the undergraduate theatre major and graduated Yale at 20 with a theatre degree, moved to New York and studied for two years in a professional workshop called Circle in the Square, in conjunction with the Broadway theatre of the same name.
It was a professional training program, not a degree program, but it was one of the only acting schools where you were allowed, at the time, to work professionally while you were enrolled, and that's one of the reasons why I studied there because I got my first professional job during my second year there. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but other training programs don't allow you to work professionally while you're training.
I had made a little pact with my mother who was a little disappointed she wasn't getting the doctor that she'd grown up hoping she was going to have in her fourth child, and I made a pledge to my mom I'd decide by 25 what I was going to do with my life. And by 25, I was playing my second lead on Broadway, opposite Jack Lemmon (Jud in Tribute), a beloved movie star who remained a friend of mine through the rest of his life and was a great influence as well as a friend to me. So, at 25 I was doing pretty well.
I guess the other turning point in deciding to be an actor was when I was in a production of Bernstein's Mass at Yale in my sophomore year, conducted by John Mauceri who was then the conductor of the Yale symphony orchestra and is now the conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. I had a very significant and flashy role in that, and this was the first time the Mass had been produced after its having been commissioned for the Kennedy Center opening in '71. We did it at Yale a year later and Mr. Bernstein came up to see it and was so impressed with our production that he made some changes and brought us to Europe to premiere the work in Vienna.
So I had this sort of quasi-professional experience at 19, and one of my mother's idols, Leonard Bernstein, looked my mother in the eye and said, "I think your son is talented. He should consider performing for a living," so that also helped keep me out of medical school. And then having played a television doctor for eleven years is also like having an honorary degree in a way. I give medical advice freely now.
I think, in looking back, that experience at Yale, in the Mass, and then having had such good fortune playing the lead in an Albert Innaurato play, Gemini, for about a year on Broadway, and then segueing into Bernard Slade's Tribute with Jack Lemmon, it gave me a really great kick-off to being a good professional actor. Then, for better or for worse, I went to California to recreate my Tribute role and I stayed out here and worked regularly in the theatre, primarily in television, a couple dozen movies, but at this stage of my life, I really long to return to the American theatre Mecca and work on Broadway again soon. I guess doing a transplanted Broadway musical is the vicarious giving of that fulfillment, and I hope the real one is not too far behind.
M.M.: Did you know anything about Ed Kleban's work before starting this?
R.P.: No. I, of course, saw the original production of A Chorus Line, probably within its first year on Broadway. The kind of odd and memorable connection I had with the original workshop production of A Chorus Line is through a friend from Yale, a fellow named Pete Glazer. He went on to become a very successful stage manager, but back then he was living along with me and another friend from Yale in an apartment down in the Village, and his job at the Public Theater was running a follow spot for this little workshop about dancers, and he kept coming back saying, "You know, I think this show is going to be really good. It's kind of cool, you know. This director is really interesting and they're using mirrors onstage!" And, of course, I was too stupid to go see it.
He'd say, "Gee, I think I can get you in." I don't know if I was working at the time or just working at my job job, but I didn't make it, and I kicked myself forever after that I hadn't seen it workshopped but I waited till it went to Broadway. And, of course, I was there in New York for the incredible phenomenon that A Chorus Line was. It literally took Broadway, took the whole theatre scene, by storm.
So I saw the connection in that respect, and certainly I always admired stage dancing, show dancing and people who do it, because it's something that I cannot do, cannot do at all. I might as well say at this point that Marguerite Derricks (Choreographer) and her assistant Jennifer Hamilton showed incredible patience with me. I said, "I will get the dance stuff, but it will take me ten times as long as anyone else," and I think I underestimated that amount of time. But I got it, and now that I got it, I can do it! But they were very patient with me.
So, I did not know who Ed Kleban was, but I was basically there when A Chorus Line created that sensation when it won every award that a show could possibly win, though I never met him, unfortunately. You know how it is when you study someone and try to get inside their head and read about them and learn their lyrics and learn something about their work and their lives. I was part of that scene, then. I could easily have been in a room with him and not met him.
M.M.: Did you know anything about the show before you started working on it?
R.P.: No. I hadn't seen it. I hadn't seen a Broadway show since Copenhagen.
The times I've come to New York have been so brief that it's probably the driest spell I've had with Broadway theatre. I did see Kiss Me, Kate. So, I hadn't seen A Class Act, but I read the script and liked it very much. I found it moving on paper, even not knowing what any of the music was, just reading through the lyrics and reading the scenes, and then when I went to audition they asked me to learn one of the songs, so I went and got the CD and listened to all the music and liked it very much. But I didn't see myself in the lead role. I went in and read for Lehman Engel! The whole Hollywood and television thing is if you're going to play a character who's 45 years old, of course, you have to actually be 35! It's sort of the opposite of the theatre thing. You're made to feel old in California as soon as you hit 39 when, in fact, you can have a life playing great roles onstage long after that. Just not on the WB!
M.M.: How did you go about working on the role?
R.P.: Basically, it all happened so fast that I listened to whatever clues and information in the text itself of the book that Lonny and Linda wrote, and whatever clues I could glean from the lyrics, plus all of the background information that Lonny gave me. There was literally no time to do any research. In order to master all the dialogue, all the music, and all the dancing in three weeks, I didn't have time to go out and read biographical material on A Chorus Line.
I also thought that less than a thousandth of a percent of my audience would be comprised of people who knew him. My responsibility was to bring this story, as it was, to life. Not create Ed Kleban himself with any verisimilitude, that's the way I felt, anyway. The fact that I see pictures of him, and I look a good deal like him, you know, he was certainly a little greyer in the beard and a little rounder of face than me, but basically we look very similar, and of course, our extraordinary impact over the opposite sex we have in common as well, he said with a grin in his voice.
There were so many technical challenges. The sheer amount of singing. Some of the singing is high in my register, I'm singing songs that are more challenging than I ever have before, I was afraid that I might not have the high range to pull it off, and we had a couple of the songs transposed a step lower, but it wasn't necessary by the time I got to performance, I was able to do them all in the original keys.
M.M.: Do you happen to have a favorite song in the score?
R.P.: Yes, “Paris Through the Window,” a very beautiful and moving song, and the most difficult for me to sing, I must say. I'm a baritone, and the songs are really written for a lyric baritone, and it's a little high for me, but I love the song and am so moved by it, that I think that whatever I might lack vocally I like to think that I make for it in passion and commitment. How's that for a lame answer? I am so moved by that song.
M.M.: What were some other challenges?
R.P.: I think I just did as much I could to protect my voice, not doing lengthy interviews, for example, with a performance at night, he said, again with a grin in his voice.
In trying to keep myself as relaxed vocally as possible, and warmed up, and the hardest thing, of course, is getting through that five performance weekend. I'm doing twelve and a half hours of singing out of forty-nine and a half hours of life. That's one out of four hours! You're singing a lot. But, so far, I'm weathering it quite well. I don't think I could ever do a four to six month run the way Lonny did, but who knows?
I hope to do the role again. There's some talk of other major cities, major regional theaters expressing interest. The audience just adores the show, I've never seen people more uniformly smiling, but with moist eyes when they come backstage. They've been crying and now they're smiling and happy backstage talking about it. So that's been very gratifying with the material that's as moving as it is and that I've been so well accepted in the role.
I'm sure that Lonny is a very charming performer and I know that I worked at maintaining the character's likeability, even though he is a very difficult person, you know, he's a maddeningly irritating person at times. He has to still be likable so that the audience cares about not only his creativity, but the obstacles he places in front of his own creativity or seeing him reach it, finally. He places these tremendous personal obstacles that may have come from a good source, he was certainly a perfectionist, but he was apparently very difficult to work with, especially in his later years.
I heard that he sort of micromanaged so much during the workshop of Gallery - after A Chorus Line was a success - Joe Papp gave him a workshop of his life-work, which was a musical that took place in an art gallery and all of the different songs are by inspired particular painters and particular paintings, which is remarkably prescient, I suppose, as far as Sunday in the Park with George being a later success of Stephen Sondheim. I understand the actors just sort of walked out of the workshop because they just couldn't stand being told where to breathe in every song. I may be misquoting someone, but the actors basically voted not to continue with the workshop because it was a joyless experience.
So, he could be very difficult, and I think very controlling, and, of course, to make the character remain appealing to the audience, I'm sure we have lightened up certain aspects of his story and his personality.
All of the songs that are in the show were sitting in a drawer for over twenty years, and now they've been taken out and orchestrated and are being performed and are moving people 3000 miles away from where Ed Kleban lived, at the moment, here in Pasadena. That says something about what art is. You don't have to be a popular success. If the work exists, if you've done the work and you've worked at it every day and you've created as perfect a piece of work as you can, then it exists forever, and it remains a work of art even if it's not popularized or indeed heard at all until years after your death.
M.M.: What sort of relationship did you have with Lonny Price?
R.P.: I don't think I ever would have taken on this role had it not been for someone with Lonny's incredibly supportive temperament. But also someone who's played the role himself and knew the demands and the pitfalls and he had so much advice to give me that I could never have learned this material in the three week and two day rehearsal period had I not been working with someone who knew the role inside and out and who was also completely supportive of my own interpretation as well.
It was a dream experience. Had it been a director who simply thought I could pull this off, but hadn't played the role himself, I don't know that I would necessarily have placed as much trust in him, because I was taking on a very unusual challenge for me, to play the lead in a musical having not been in a musical for a long time, having never done this much singing in a show and having not danced onstage for eighteen years. I really needed someone to say, "I know you can do this and I have complete faith in you," and that gave me the faith in myself to pull it off.
Lonny helped me add up to more than the sum of my parts. He brings out the best in you. In addition to a great director, he's a great emotional cheerleader. He makes you want to come up with your best and extend your limits. I really hope I have the chance to work with him again.
M.M.: Had you ever worked with him before?
R.P.: Nope. No, but he and I were contemporaries in the New York theatre in the late '70s, when I did my two leading roles on Broadway, Gemini in '77-'78 and then Tribute, the second half of 1978. Lonny was a working actor, although he was a few years younger than me, in fact he began my audition by saying that he wanted my role in Tribute, as did many young actors, so he was very gracious about that and remembered me from then. That was some time ago. Even though I've been pursuing my career in California a number of years, he was someone who knew me as a theatre actor and indeed a Broadway actor although I'd been away for a while and was willing to bring me back or at least have me play the lead in a Broadway show, even if it were in Pasadena.
M.M.: Do you find it difficult to deal with people who might be going to see you because they know you as a television performer?
R.P.: You know, I'm actually delighted with people who are familiar with me from Star Trek coming to see me. First of all, Star Trek fans, as much as they're poked fun of in the media, have a real interest in the actors who play their favorite Star Trek characters. I'm going to make a terrible generality, but there are as devoted fans in the world of soap opera. But I think that soap opera fans really are fans of your character, whereas true Star Trek fans, the ones who come to the personal appearances, are interested in the actor who played the character. Yes, they loved the character, and that's their first interest in the actor's work, but then they love to see everything else you've done, and they're very loyal people. Kate Mulgrew just played Katharine Hepburn ...
M.M.: ...in Tea at Five at Hartford Stages...
R.P.: I flew across the country for the day to see it. I'm never shocked at how good Kate is. She's an extraordinary talent, but even I was amazed 60 seconds into the show that I had no awareness that I was watching anyone other than Katharine Hepburn in her late 70s. It didn't occur to me that it was my friend playing it anymore. That's about the best compliment you can pay to anyone. I was so utterly immersed in her characterization.
My point is that Star Trek fans flew in from Europe to see Kate; they are quite devoted. I had a friend from Germany who surprised me at the show last night. So I think the avid Doctor fans from the Voyager series are delighted to come and see me in the show. I sang a number of times on Star Trek so that's the most immediate similarity, that they're seeing me sing again. But they are delighted and moved by the production and I don't think any of them are the slightest bit disappointed that I'm not jumping around in a spacesuit in the twenty-fourth century, which of course would cause Paramount to sue me. For anyone who lives within easy travel distance to Los Angeles who happen to be Star Trek fans, I am confident they will be completely delighted if they come see the show, and I hope they will take advantage of the last three weeks of our run. It only happens now till Father's Day. We crossover between theatregoers and Star Trek.
There's a theatricality to Star Trek that often appeals to people, and there's also a reason why trained theatre actors like Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Rene Auberjonais, and I will modestly include myself in that category, a lot of Star Trek actors are experienced theatregoers before they come to the Star Trek franchise. The material demands a certain size, a certain confidence, a use of your voice, an ease with your body that may not be required in other kinds of television. So I think that Star Trek and the theatre have a symbiotic relationship.
M.M.: What can you tell me about the rest of the cast?
R.P.: The cast members, across the board, are so wonderful in their roles, such multitalented individuals and so pleasant to work with. I had a certain anxiety coming in, having been offstage for eight years, having been away from musicals for eighteen years, that I would experience some sort of trepidation or even attitude from fellow cast members going, "Who is this guy? Who is he kidding?"
They were, from the moment we read through the script, so supportive and complimentary of me, and I needed that, frankly. There was a tenuous period during the middle weeks of rehearsals when I felt I was having so much thrown at me that to have their constant, unquestioning support, in addition to their talent surrounding me, was such a wonderful feeling, and reminded me of all the positive things about the community and the theatre experience that I missed, and they have been nothing but delightful and are all so good. I said to them the first day we sang through the score, "I do ten times the singing of all of you guys and you all sing ten times as well as me," which I still believe to be true. Fortunately, that says something more positive about them than negative about me.
My singing is perfectly fine in the show, they're just all terrific. Every other character has a major moment or more when they step forward and take over the show, and they're each wonderful in their own way. And I, of course, get to be kissed by three extraordinarily talented and beautiful women, which is the way I select any role. I don't know how the fourth one got away from me, but three of the four women kiss me onstage and are involved with me in one way or another. I thought, on paper, it was not clear whether or not he had an affair with Felicia as well, but Nikki Crawford very clearly is having too much fun intimidating and manipulating me to actually have sex with me, so it's clear from her performance that she's enjoying her power trip. She's a bit of a dominatrix, but only in a platonic way. She's wonderful, too, and has a huge voice, which is just a pleasure. When she opens up, she just wails and she's great.
Michelle Duffy, who sings Mona, is sublimely sexy, and I'm the envy of every man in the theater when she's singing her little seduction number to me. And Donna Bullock, who plays Lucy the woman that Ed ends up with, is so loving and supportive, and you see why he needs someone like that who will basically weather his storms and be there for him through his impossible times. She recognizes the gold amidst all the dross and his neuroses and just weathers it all for what she gets from him.
And then, finally, Luba who plays Sophie, I have just a wonderful rapport with her onstage. When she sings "The Next Best Thing to Love," I think it is the single greatest moment in the entire evening. She has a glorious voice and is just a really big talent.
Among the men in the show, Lenny Wolpe, who needs no introduction to theatre audiences, is one of the most charming performers on the globe, plays Lehman Engel and sings "Charm Songs," one of the great numbers in the show. Then, both Will Jude and Andrew Palermo each play two completely different characters with completely different demands. They're unrecognizable from one role to the other, and they're equally wonderful in each of their two roles. Both very funny. Andrew is a terrific dancer, Will is a great comedian. When he plays Marvin Hamlisch, he is hilarious.
It's a terrific cast. It's been a dream experience. For someone who, two weeks into rehearsal, was panicked and ready to quit, I can't tell you how happy I am that I stuck it out and reached the other end of the mountain.
M.M.: Do you plan to do more theatre soon?
R.P.: Absolutely! Are you kidding? I got one of those "musical theatre star is born" reviews in the L.A. Times. I know it's a long way from here to Broadway, but I've played leading roles on Broadway before, I've kept my theatre skills up, and now that I've shown myself to be a credible musical performer carrying a major Broadway musical out here in California, I'm hoping word will seep back to the east and I'll have the opportunity to fulfill a life's dream and be in a Broadway musical.
M.M.: Anything else you want to say?
R.P.: To any of the people involved in the New York theatre scene, I hope I have the opportunity to perform in New York again soon, now that I've gotten rebitten by the bug.