Interview with Jana Robbins
by Nancy Rosati
Jana Robbins is currently standing by for both Valerie Harper and Michele Lee in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife on Broadway. With a resume that includes seven Broadway shows, numerous films, TV appearances, Off Broadway, and countless regional and tour productions, it's clear that audiences need not be disappointed if they find an insert in their program stating that Jana will appear.
Jana's newest cabaret show, One Hell of a Ride (The Songs of Cy Coleman) has recently been extended at Danny's Skylight Room Cabaret. Performances are April 28, May 5 and May 12 at 8:45 pm.
Nancy Rosati: You have quite an extensive list of credits. Do you have a favorite?
Jana Robbins: My all time favorite show is absolutely Gypsy when I stood by for Tyne Daly as Mama Rose. I think it's one of the best musicals ever written, and Mama Rose is one of the most fabulous roles. You have a woman that goes through such delusion and such transition and growth, with a great book and great music.
The one I'm in now, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, is another favorite, and that's because it's the nicest group of people I've ever worked with. I've felt very appreciated and acknowledged. Many times when you're in a standby or an understudy situation, you never feel totally included, but that has not happened with the people I work with on this show.
NR: How do you manage to cover two such large roles? I would think it's incredibly difficult .
JR: It is a challenge. They're two vastly different roles. One is mysterious and sexy and flamboyant. The other is riddled with misery and doubt.
NR: Does that make it easier to keep it straight in your head?
JR: Yes, in a way. When I do my nightclub act, nobody else is out there on stage with me. I'm out there alone for an hour and 12 minutes. If I don't remember what's next, there's nobody up there who says something to me that keeps me in the scene. In the play, other actors are talking to me. The lines are set for me. By the time I'm done rehearsing, the choices I've made in order to play the characters are so embedded in my thought process and my body, that I rarely have a problem getting it confused.
Having said that, I was on for Valerie Harper this past Friday and I hadn't done the role in four months. The show went really well, but I got confused in a blackout. As the Michele Lee character, I'm supposed to exit stage right. As the Valerie Harper character, which I was playing, I'm supposed to exit upstage left. We went to blackout and I started following Michele out. I caught myself and thought, "This isn't right. I'm Marjorie." Thank goodness I remembered because I have a fast change on the left. Something like that is when I can get confused, but not on the lines.
NR: You're covering famous people and there are obviously audience members who are there specifically to see them. How do you deal with the fact that they're disappointed to see you instead of them. Do you feel you have to win them over?
JR: The answer to that is no. I have to do a good job while people are disappointed, and I am aware of that, but it's not something I can be thinking about. I have to come out there and just do the role well. It's always a thrill at the end of the show when I get a really good applause. Subconsciously I know they would rather see the other woman, but I don't let that bother me. That's the other reason that I'm working in this show - because there are three stars. There's Valerie Harper, there's Michele Lee, and there's Tony Roberts. There was a bigger groan in the house on Gypsy. In that show, I came in from the back of the house yelling, "Sing out, Louise!" Just as the lights were going down they would announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, at this performance the role usually played by Tyne Daly will be played by Jana Robbins" and I would hear a great big groan. I was standing at the back of the house during that. Very few people got out of their seats. I'm sure there was disappointment but I guess they figured they'd paid for the tickets, they'd gotten a babysitter, they might as well sit there and see the show. They were more disappointed in that one because she was the only name above the title. In the show I'm doing now, I get the groan, but it's far less, because there are still two stars on stage.
NR: You've been a standby several times and I'm sure you're thinking that they're more likely to cast you in that position now because you're so good at it and it's a difficult position to fill. Are you hoping to become the "next Brad Oscar?"
JR: I think Brad Oscar is fabulous. I heard he was fabulous in the role. When I read that news, it was just like when Halle Berry accepted her award and said she felt she was beginning to open the door for other black actresses. I thought that finally they were giving the understudy the starring role, simply because he was great in the role. Hallelujah! Maybe he's setting an example. I hope he starts a trend that says it's okay to put a non-star in there who's got the talent, if your show is already a big hit. I was thrilled for him and I was thrilled that the news about Brad was out there so publicly, that his producers had given the understudy the role.
Something similar has already happened to me. We haven't negotiated yet, so it's not set, but I have been offered the Michele Lee role on the National Tour of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife with Valerie Harper. Valerie Harper and Michele Lee will play Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I have been offered the Michele Lee role continuing on from there.
NR: Will you stand by for them in California?
JR: Yes. I would go out to Los Angeles and San Francisco and continue to stand by for the two ladies I've always covered. As I said, we are just beginning the negotiation stage, but if it all works out, I've been offered to do the role on the tour.
NR: You've also done TV and film. Do you have a favorite medium?
JR: Definitely theater. There's no comparison. I don't know how other actors feel but I think we all want to do film and TV because of the exposure. Going back to Gypsy, I played Mama Rose on Broadway 40 performances, which is a decent amount. I did five lines on Cheers when I first went out to L.A. More people called me the night after I did those five lines than any time I played Mama Rose.
On TV you don't get the same kind of satisfaction because you're shooting out of order. You're shooting the same scenes again and again. You never get to be one with the character. I've had some experiences where I managed to creatively enjoy one scene at a time. At the end of the day I could say, "that scene felt good." But then I had to do it again, and I had to do it for the close-up. You never live the character. I would love to do more of it though because of the exposure. I'm very aware of the fact that in order to sell tickets on Broadway, they frequently want somebody who is recognizable from TV and film. But if you throw all of that out, the process of theater is my favorite. It's live, it's immediate, and you get immediate gratification from the audience. You live your character from the beginning to the end and it's different every night. There's something very rewarding about that.
NR: Tell me about your cabaret act. You've done a couple of them now.
JR: Yes I have. As I say in this cabaret act, when I was a little girl I started singing and dancing really early. I think I came out of the womb doing that. I was four years old when I already knew what it was I wanted to be and do, and it is what I'm doing with my life. I'm very grateful to have that opportunity. My dad owned a restaurant called "The Golden Key Restaurant and Lounge" downtown in Johnstown, PA. I used to love to hang around the piano bar in the lounge and sing with the pianist. We did all the standards. When I first came to New York, my plan was not only to work on Broadway, but to follow the careers that Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler had at the time. They were making records and they were known as club singers. That's what I really wanted to do.
It's one of the reasons that I picked Cy Coleman. I worked with him in 1976 in I Love My Wife and I love his material. I love how it sits in my voice. I also picked it because he's one of our composers who wrote jazz standards and songs for the Broadway stage. I'm getting to do a lot of great Broadway songs, but at the same time, I can sing some of his well known jazz standards that just thrill me as a singer.
NR: You tell a little story about Cy in your show that made me cry.
JR: That's the other reason that I'm doing this show. I don't want to give that story away but Cy Coleman made a gesture one evening when I was in his company that was the most generous, and one of the kindest, sweetest things. It was just a matter of acknowledgment, which so often you don't get in this business, and it was probably one of the most loving things that was ever said to me by somebody of his stature. I hope people will come to the club act to hear this story about Cy.
NR: How many other shows have you done?
JR: I did two other nightclub acts while I was doing Gypsy. It's really nice to have a cabaret act going while you're doing something else because it's a way to publicize it. As much as I love doing theater, it's saying somebody else's words and acting somebody else's life. In my cabaret act, I'm singing and I'm presenting the music of Cy Coleman, but I'm very free to be me for over an hour. While I was doing Gypsy I took one of my acts out to California with me. I'm planning to do the same with this show. I'm hoping to book this nightclub act in different cities while I'm on the road.
NR: I have a feeling you need to be really busy.
JR: (laughs) What makes you think that? (another laugh) You bet. When I'm acting a role my mind has to slow down enough to stay in character, but when I'm talking as me, I talk very fast and my words sometimes get ahead of my mind. I have to be careful when I'm telling the name of the song I'm doing, or the name of a show that Cy Coleman wrote. Sometimes I can get ahead of myself and trip over my tongue.
NR: You're doing a wide variety of his music.
JR: Everybody asks me what show each song is from and I'm doing a number of songs that aren't from shows. If you don't know what show the song is from, it's probably a jazz standard written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. People have asked why this or that song isn't in the act and I have to tell them that I would need to do One Hell of a Ride: Cy Coleman, Acts 1, 2 and 3. I could go on forever if I wanted to sing all of his work but I had to pick. That's why I'm still running a bit long. I couldn't throw out any of these numbers. Usually an act is between 55 and 60 minutes. I'm running an hour, 12.
What's funny though is that Cy has written with a lot of people but somewhere along the way I've stuck mostly to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Then I go on to sing songs from Seesaw and from Sweet Charity, which he wrote with Dorothy Fields. I'm also doing two songs from Cy Coleman and David Zippel's show City of Angels.
NR: When you're doing a cabaret show, it's just you out there. I've heard people say that they're not brave enough to do that, or they don't know if audiences are interested enough in them to want to see just them for a whole hour.
JR: I understand that feeling. It could be true. You hope you can take the audience enough different places. You mentioned the story that made you cry. That's what I'm trying to do. I start talking about Cy Coleman and what we have in common. There are places where I talk about my own life, and yet by the end of the show I don't talk at all, and it's my favorite part of the show. I just let one number after the next stand on its own as a little play. I'm almost positive my audience is understanding that I'm singing about my life, but I'm doing it through the works of Cy Coleman. I hope that it's entertaining. I hope that it's funny. I hope that you can just sit back and relax and feel like you're in one of those great lounges hearing some great music. At other times, out of nowhere, I hope I say something and go into a song, and that hopefully it makes you cry and it makes you think about your own life. With the music that Cy's written, and the fabulous lyricists that he has worked with, he's got some incredible material there.
NR: Are you thinking of recording it?
JR: I would love to. As I'm doing it in different places, I would like to make some contacts and generate some interest in getting it recorded in a really good way. I think it needs to be beautifully orchestrated and well produced. I would not want to do a Cy Coleman album of lesser quality than he deserves. We'll see what happens.
The thing I'm really excited about is that the show is picking up momentum, even with the rocky start we had. I originally opened it at Arci's, which I loved. It was so unfortunate that they had to close. That was a landlord problem, not a money problem. People thought that Arci's went bankrupt but that is not the truth. Arci's is going to be opening back up in the summer. It was quite the shock four days after my opening night when they closed their doors. I felt in my heart that just because the club closed, it didn't mean that I had to close. I was so thrilled to move it over to Danny's and keep it alive right now. I finished my original run at Danny's and now we're extending for three more weeks.
NR: As for the future, I know you're keeping your fingers crossed about the Allergist's Wife tour. How long are you going to be in New York before then?
JR: If the tour works out, I'm going to be here through mid June. Assuming it works out, I'm going to be busy with one of the best comedies in town, continuing to do it and to do my nightclub act all over the United States.
NR: It sounds wonderful. I hope it works out for you.
JR: Thank you.
For more information, visit www.janarobbins.net
One Hell Of A Ride (The Songs of Cy Coleman)
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