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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Interview with Robert Westenberg


Westenberg with Heidi Blickenstaff in The Full Monty
One of the most distinctive voices and dramatic presences in Broadway musicals of the 1980s and '90s was Robert Westenberg. Perhaps best remembered as The Wolf and Cinderella's Prince in the original Broadway cast of Into The Woods and as the controlling Dr. Neville Craven in the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden, he has also delivered notable performances as Nikos in the Anthony Quinn revival of Zorba, the Soldier (and later in the run the title role) in Sunday in the Park with George, and numerous other notable roles in both straight plays and musicals. Robert was last seen on Broadway in the opening cast of the Broadway revival of 1776 and has spent most of this year in the role of Harold Nichols in the North American national tour of Terrence McNally and David Yazbek's hit musical version of The Full Monty. I caught up with Robert via phone, just days before the show opens its Seattle run at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

TB:  It's a pleasure to talk to you, Robert. Is The Full Monty your first time out on the road with a show in a while?

RW:  Yes, the first time in many years. We started rehearsals in L.A. in March, and opened there in April. It's been fine ... of course I miss my family terribly. I have a wife and three kids.

TB:  And your wife is Kim Crosby, who was so wonderful as Cinderella opposite you in the original Into the Woods, right?

RW:  Yes, we live in upper Westchester, New York, and we have three kids.

TB:  Talk about happily ever after, eh?

RW:  That's right.

TB:  The Full Monty is rather different from some of the period piece shows you're famous for. What's it been like doing the show thus far?

RW:  Well, I play one of the six guys, and like you said it is contemporary, which is refreshing to do. It's a fairly well written piece. Terrence McNally wrote it, and he has the daunting task of introducing six major characters, plus their spouses, and developing each of them fully enough so that you get to know them and care about them. I have to say it's a complete pleasure to do. The audience response is sensational! Sometimes it's overwhelming how strong the response is. It's not a masterpiece, but it's a real crowd-pleaser, which is what it should be. It's a blue collar play about blue collar people, and that seems to be where the appeal is. And because Terrence is behind it, it's got a very strong spine to it, and when you get to the end I think it's very satisfying. The audiences just go nuts. And if I have to be on the road and away from my family, I might as well be doing something like this, which is so joyful to do. I could be doing Titanic and blowing my brains out every performance.

TB:  What is your favorite musical moment in the show?

RW:  I only really have one song, a lovely duet called "You Rule My World." Otherwise I sing in ensemble, and the group songs like "Michael Jordan's Ball," and a tiny bit of Jeanette's number, and that's about it until the final strip.

I don't mind letting somebody else carry the vocal load. Of course it depends on the role, but it can be exhausting. When you have to crank out tons of exposition at the top of a show, and you carry the load of most of the book and most of the songs. This show is refreshing. I get to work, and I don't go on stage for 45 minutes. I get a lot done, I read, I do my mail.

TB:  What made you decide to go after the show?

RW:  I hadn't seen it, but I'd heard about it from a lot of my friends. The audition for it was particularly grueling. Jerry Mitchell the choreographer put us through, and I'm not exaggerating, a four hour audition of pure dance. It was a like boot camp, a feeling of separating those who can handle it from those who cannot. Some of us are not as young as we used to be ... but I made it through. After I got the job, and I thought God! What have I gotten myself into? And then I saw the show and what you actually had to do, it was a piece of cake. We did "Michael Jordan's Ball" for like three hours at the audition, and in the show its like seven minutes. That's doable. Even at my age. It's not that heavy of a dance show at all, so I can handle eight shows a week.

TB:  How much longer will you be in the tour?

RW:  I'm locked into it until late March, early April, and then we'll see. It's booked until June, and then I think its going out internationally. I don't know. I'll have to see how I fell, where I am financially, and where I am in terms of missing my family.

TB:  How old are your kids?

RW:  They are ten, nine and three. Two girls and a boy.

TB:  Have they seen Dad in this show?

RW:  None of them have. When we played DC I was staying at my Mom's and they were with me there for a week. The girls came to the theatre, hung out backstage. But no, it's too adult. There are two many explicit references to sexual acts that I didn't want to have to explain to them, so I said "no."

TB:  But they've seen you in other things, like the video of you and Kim in Into The Woods?

RW:  Oh yeah, we do a lot of plays, and they've seen me in several things. Kim and I did My Fair Lady in St. Louis two years ago, playing Eliza and Higgins, at the Muny with like 10,000 seats. We work a lot, and they get to see pretty much everything we do.

TB:  Do you and Kim get to costar often?

RW:  No, that was a pretty unusual situation. And she was phenomenal in it! I know I'm prejudiced but the press went nuts. The place just went crazy. She was perfect; she could act it, dance it, and certainly sing it.

TB:  And Higgins? With your background singing Sondheim, and Les Miz, and the Lucy Simon score for Garden ... the talk-singing must have worked different muscles.

RW:  I've actually done a lot of classical stuff, a lot of Shaw, and a lot of stuff with English accents. I'm not saying it was a natural fit, but I think it worked out rather well.

TB:  Can we time travel a bit and talk about the two shows I've seen you in on stage? Into The Woods is certainly one of the most notable and enduring musicals written in the '80s. What can you tell us about that?

RW:  It was a privilege to do it, certainly. It was my second show with Steve Sondheim, because I played the Soldier in Sunday in the Park, and then I took over as George after Mandy left, for about seven months. So I had worked extensively with Steve and Jim Lapine before. Getting back together with them was fantastic, as was working on a piece as it was still being developed. It was being rewritten even as we were preparing for the Broadway opening. Even after the workshops, they were still not satisfied with it. And every night at the Martin Beck there were rewrites. One night I came in and the Wolf's song was gone, and a scene was put in its place. THAT didn't work. But they tried it, they were very brave. Under the pressure of a Broadway opening with all that money and all the risks involved, to see these men take this kind of chance was thrilling. It finally settled down into what it became, after we delayed it due to their dissatisfaction with their rewrites. And it ended up as the show you know.

TB:  Have you seen the revival?

RW:  No, have you?

TB:  Yes.

RW:  And?

TB:  Let's just say I will always treasure seeing the original version.

RW:  I did not get a positive response from a hundred percent of the people I talked to who had seen it. I know this is going to sound crass, but I didn't want to spend $75 to see a show I'd been in for two years. When it got to New York they very generously offered us tickets, but I wasn't there. Kim saw it, and said it had moments, but that she thinks the first version was better.

And I did do it for two years. I haven't listened to it since. I don't think there is a piece of music written that you can listen to that long without feeling you can go another fifty years without hearing it and be happy. It's just too much.

TB:  And The Secret Garden? Do people still tell you how moved they were hearing you and Mandy sing "In Lily's Eyes"?

RW:  They say it's one of the best male duets ever, and I certainly agree. You don't often get two baritones singing together like that. The compliments are heartwarming, but it's just a great song, a smashing song, so we had that going for us.

TB:  How did you get involved with the show initially?

RW:  During Into The Woods they were doing a workshop of it in upstate New York, and they asked me to do Archie, and Kim was Lily. We were there for two weeks, and Lucy Simon wrote something like fourteen songs during that time. She is just unbelievably prolific. And none of them were bad. Some were mediocre and some were fantastic, as you would expect with that much music. Some of the songs stayed, some didn't, but at that point it was all about trying to shape the show. I think they did another workshop, and then when they cast the show I got Neville ... is that who my character was? Yes, Dr. Craven. I did love The Secret Garden. It's such lush, beautiful, well-crafted music.

TB:  Coming back to The Full Monty, were you familiar with the original film?

RW:  Yes, I saw it when it first came out. I think it translated pretty well into a musical. The film was charming, but it was difficult to understand. The accents were so thick and they spoke so quickly that I missed a third of it, just in terms of comprehension. It was almost like a foreign language film with no subtitles. I liked it, but it was too much work to totally enjoy. I think in the musical, its application in this country, the setting in Buffalo, and the depressed economy is quite valid. And the loss of self respect and integrity that the characters experience in the show is universal. That translates, that's cross cultural, wherever you go. Many in our audiences tell us they like the show much more than the film, and that's unsolicited compliments, coming from a paying audience. And it's more accessible being a musical, I think.

TB:  And I think Yazbek's score is one of the best, and yet most underrated in a way.

RW:  I agree. Everybody who sees it loves the music. It's edgy, quirky, and it tells the story well. That's hard to do. Especially considering that he was a pop writer before he came to this. Because most pop writers, when they write a musical, tend to write in the pop medium, and you get very repetitive songs, sort of explicating an emotion instead of exploring character and situation through the emotion, you know? They tend to just sit there and wallow in it. That may be great for a pop tune, but onstage you've got to move forward. If we sense that we're not getting new information here, or moving things along, then its just a pretty song.

TB:  Speaking of pretty songs, are we ever going to get a Robert Westenberg solo album?

RW:  Oh God, no! Christ, no. Maybe my wife, but ... no. I don't have that kind of a voice, and I don't work at it enough, or have the confidence. I don't even consider myself a singer. It's not comfortable for me. I'm an actor who can sing ... a little bit.

TB:  Well, it will be good to hear you sing, a little bit, and show off your other talents in The Full Monty. Looking forward to it, and thanks for talking to us.

RW:  My pleasure. See you soon.


The Full Monty opens November 20 and runs through December 8, 2002, at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. For further information go to the 5th Avenue's web site at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.




- David-Edward Hughes



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