What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Robby Benson
By Beth Herstein
Robby Benson has been a performer for most of his 48 years. He is perhaps most famous for the movies he made in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he was a teen idol. These include 1977's One on One, which he co-authored with his father, Jerry Segal; the romantic drama Ice Castles, in 1979; and The Chosen, the 1981 critical and popular success based on Chaim Potok's classic novel.
Benson has been far from idle in the ensuing years. A younger generation has come to know and love him as the voice of the Beast in Disney's animated film, Beauty and the Beast, first released in 1991. He has also written songs for his wife, singer/actor Karla DeVito, and for other performers including Diana Ross, garnering two gold records for his work. He has directed numerous television shows; he has taught theater, screenwriting and filmmaking at the University of South Carolina and UCLA; and, currently, he is the artist-in-residence at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Benson is also a veteran stage performer, having first appeared on Broadway when he was 12 in the short-lived comedy Zelda, followed by roles in The Rothschilds in 1970 and, a decade later, in The Pirates of Penzance, where he met his wife.
Additionally, Benson - who underwent two open heart surgeries by the time he was 42 - is active in philanthropy. He has received a Heart of a Child Award from the foundation of the same name, which researches in the area of congenital heart defects, and he spoke on behalf of the American Heart Association in support of the successful bill to ban the promotion of cigarettes to minors. ("I've always refused to smoke in movies," he told me during our conversation.) His experiences as a heart patient and his desire to perform with his wife combined to inspire Benson to write his latest work, the musical Open Heart, which is currently in previews at New York's Cherry Lane Theater.
I recently spoke with Benson about Open Heart. Sitting upstairs in the Cherry Lane theater, while he took a break from rehearsals, we began by talking about the revisions he'd been making to the show during the preview period.
Talkin' Broadway: How do you make adjustments to the show?
Robby Benson: The show has been five years in the making. There are certain things that you hold onto for a long time because you are so attached to them. But, as time goes on, you have to learn to let them go. Eventually, there are no more excuses. There's nothing you can do or say; it's just not right for the show.
TB: How did the episodes in Open Heart come about?
RB: The episodes came from the experiences I had during my open heart surgeries. There was one time especially when I heard them say, "I think we're losing him" ...
TB: You actually heard that?
RB: Yeah. And it was so different than anything I had ever felt before. But, what I remember about it is that I didn't see things that you see in the movies. I didn't see Thanksgiving dinner or anything like that. I saw really absurd things that had been haunting me, things I'd felt really guilty about. They can be so small but they raise so many issues from your life. I also noticed how good it felt to be in that place. And, then I thought - wait, I should make an effort to fight back. At the same time, I wondered why. Why do you fight back? Because every time you fight back, you stop feeling really good and you start feeling the pain. I made the decision to fight back for Karla and my family. There used to be a line in the show that said by saving yourself, you're saving those close to you. That sums up a lot of how it felt.
TB: But, implicitly, it's still in the show.
TB: There is a debate in the show about the direction of the tv show your character Jimmy writes. Your character doesn't want to exploit the burgeoning sexuality of one of the actors ... the values that Jimmy is trying to fight for are the values you promote in Open Heart.
RB: Exactly. And the values he's fighting for are values that he believes he has at home. And, because he doesn't, he's thrown all of his passion and his efforts into his work. So his family at work becomes a replacement for the family that he's lost.
TB: You're such a multi-tasker. In addition to being in theater, teaching, acting, directing - you directed six episodes of Friends and an entire season of Ellen, and you're in American Dreams?
RB: I did an arc in American Dreams. I played a professor because they thought it was cool that I actually was a professor.
TB: How much can you relate to Jimmy's workaholic character? How much do you have to struggle to maintain a balance?
RB: That's something that Karla and I have been talking about and discovering since the day that we met. I love to be as artistic as I possibly can, and I am always so happy when I am involved in a project. But Karla and I came to a conclusion very, very early, that what mattered for our family was being together. So, our family has always stayed together. No matter where one of us goes to work, we all go. My son is here. My daughter is in college, but she'll be here with us over spring break.
TB: Has your son seen the show?
RB: Oh, yeah. He loves the show. He gives me notes about it [with great suggestions]. He's incredibly bright, and he probably has the best sense of humor around, because he has an abstract sense of humor, which you don't usually find in a kid that age (11).
TB: Can you talk a little more about the process of developing Open Heart?
TB: I know that you have worked together a few times.
RB: Every time I can. Because he's so remarkably talented.
TB: Looking at your resume, I noticed that you return to direct a lot of same shows again, you work with the same collaborators regularly, and in general you seem to like that kind of ensemble feel.
RB: I love going back to places where I respect the people I'm working with, and where the people I'm working with are smarter than I am. That way, there's an education with your craft. No one is doing it for the money, no one's doing it just to get it over with. Everyone's doing it, it seems - and maybe this is naive - but everyone is doing it to get better at the craft. That's why I do it.
TB: You commented that you wanted to write a show for your wife. And, Open Heart does showcase her and her vocal strengths. But, it also centers around your character, Jimmy, and around the characters played by Stan Brown.
RB: That was my dilemma. How do I make this a show for Karla and Stan, who are great in every way? The way to do that is to have one character who goes on this journey and encounters the other characters who take the main character to a place of revelation and epiphany in the end, where he learns what everything is all about. Which comes down to something as simple as eternal love. There are a lot of cynics who might find that "icky," but I think they'd actually like the show because it doesn't preach, it's never maudlin, it's very bawdy, and it's fun. Everyone comes in with a blank canvas and can paint their own picture at the end.
TB: It's not entirely predictable either, at the end.
RB: Thank you. And, yes, Jimmy is still flawed at the end but he learns such basic things. He has learned the importance of eternal love. And, he has been changed.
TB: You're a native New Yorker. You went to school at the Lincoln Square Academy.
RB: I went to school at P.S.199, then I.S.44. But, then, when no public school would take me anymore because I was always working, I went to a sister school of the Professional Children's School, called the Lincoln Square Academy. I was hardly in school, though, because I was always on the road. It was very odd, but wonderful in a way, my childhood.
TB: Despite your work, you managed to finish at the top of your class.
RB: I learned how to teach myself. That was a huge turning point in my life. Instead of saying, "There's a teacher over there and for 45 minutes we're going to learn a subject," I said, "I'm going to take responsibility for learning whether it takes me 45 minutes or 4 hours. And, if it interests me, I'm going to take it to all of the splintered roads that it goes. So, then I truly gained a foundation of knowledge, rather than just from page 49-72 like the other kids in the class. That was the wonderful thing about it.
What wasn't wonderful was that there was no social interaction whatsoever. I was never in school. I was always around adults. Basically, I guess you could say I was anti-social. Not in a bad way; I was just shy and frightened. Once I got to work - once there was this thing I had to do and I knew how to do it - there was no problem. On the other hand, if somebody said, "Let's go to the wrap party," I would break out in a cold sweat. I would never show up.
TB: How did you break yourself of that?
TB: I guess that's what a good relationship can do, for both sides. What role has she played in the development of the show?
RB: Ever since we've been married, no matter what I do, I try to include her. There are two reasons for that. One, it's really not fulfilling to have any kind of success unless it's shared with her. But, also, there's a lot to learn from failure. To hold hands and fail together is a very healthy thing; so we've worked together a lot. We've written songs together, we've written scripts together, we've made movies together. I would say that in this particular process, she has been the voice of reason.
TB: How so?
RB: There have been good times and bad times, and in both of those areas she has always been the voice of reason. She says, "You know, this is a great time we're having. What more do you want?" And, I'll say, "Oh, you're right. I guess we are." Because I'm always very focused on the work. And, then, when we get into the very rough times, she'll say, "Lighten up. I know you can do this."
Really, until about a year ago, there was no one behind Open Heart. Then, Angelina Fiordellisi from the Cherry Lane Theatre saw it and got behind it and we got Matt Williams to direct it. Since then, it's been one of the most remarkable situations I've ever had in show business.
All of the people involved care [about the project], and they see things the same way I do. Karla and I said something the other day. We said that we're just old enough now that we know how lucky we are. We're so fortunate to be able to work here and to work with these people.
TB: The plaque outside the theater lists of all the shows that have been performed here. The Cherry Lane has such a great history. And now, you're part of that tradition.
RB: It's fantastic. It's very exciting. Especially for my university, Appalachian State University. One of my students is an intern working on the show. Appalachian State is so devoted to the arts that it has a loft here in New York. So, hopefully, if the show is successful, I'll be able to give workshops.
TB: You'll be able to stay here with the show and still teach?
RB: Yes, until someone else comes in and hopefully takes my place. This is a show for actors who want to dig their teeth into the parts. In that sense, it's similar to Love Letters. You could always find two actors who wanted to get in there and do their thing. Regional theaters, I hope, will want to jump all over it.
TB: You've worked with a lot of great talents. Paul Newman, Kevin Kline . . .
RB: Yes, but also the people that you don't know about, you don't hear about. Like Michael Chapman, who's a camera operator and [was nominated for an] Academy Award for Raging Bull. Geoffrey Unsworth, one of the greatest D.P.s to ever walk the earth. Don Thorn. And Donald McAlpine. People might make a joke about a grip - "What's a grip?" But, actually, a grip can be one of the most imaginative problem solvers on any set. I've worked with some of the best.
TB: What does a grip do?
RB: Well, you usually think of a grip as someone who hauls heavy equipment around. But, on Ice Castles for example, there were shots the director wanted, and he tried to explain it to the crew. What the grip did was - he mounted the camera on a hockey stick and then underneath the hockey stick he put two hockey pucks so it would glide without being bumped. So, the camera stayed on the ice with someone skating backwards and keeping the camera on the young lady who was doing all the ice skating. That was brilliant, and a grip came up with that. As you go along you learn that it's all about problem solving.
TB: And collaboration.
RB: Problem solving, collaboration. And, no ego whatsoever. That's when you get into trouble.
TB: While I was watching the show, I couldn't help but think of the movie All That Jazz, with its hallucinatory sequences - or A New Brain by William Finn. Did you think of either of these works while you wrote Open Heart, or did any other shows influence or inspire you?
RB: No. I have had people come up to me and reference All that Jazz or A New Brain. And, I'm actually very glad that I haven't seen them. I've always believed that you get into trouble when you mimic or try to craft something around something else. I always have had my best successes when I write as if I'm the audience and ask myself, "What would I want to see here? If I were sitting in the audience, what would I want them to say?" And, whenever I take that position, I think my work is at its most honest.
TB: I want to go back to your work on Beauty and the Beast for a moment. I heard an interview with Nathan Lane in which he said that children always recognize him because of his work in The Lion King. Does that happen to you? Do they recognize your voice?
RB: Disney's been very successful in promoting and cross promoting. In the last 10 years of Beauty and the Beast, there's been the initial Beauty and the Beast release, the 7 year release, the Imax, and of course the Broadway show. Disney works very hard to keep the excitement up. They're brilliant at marketing there. So, that's why kids recognize us. Sometimes, before there was caller ID, I'd call up a pizza place when I was on the road and the person on the other end would say, "Is this Robby Benson?" What that does is, it doesn't allow you to be cranky. (Laughs) You've always got to be nice. You can't say, "You sent us pepperoni and we asked for vegetarian!" You just forget it and eat the pepperoni.
TB: Or, the next day it could be in the paper.
RB: There's not a second when you're not on the stage. It's a bizarre thing.
TB: In preparing for this interview, I did a Google search of your name and got 20,000 hits right off the bat. You've been in the public eye for so long. What's that like? How do you manage to keep your life private?
RB: In general, when people do approach me, they are always decent. But, the way we live right now, we manage to be pretty private, pretty intimate.
TB: You have the reputation for being - and you seem to be - such a nice guy. Open Heart promotes such good values. Sometimes, there's a backlash against such decency. How do you react to that?
RB: I have to do the work for myself, write what rings true to me. I can't worry about whether my message or my work is in fashion, whether it's out of fashion. If you don't write for yourself, and stay true to yourself, then it's not going to be relevant in the end, anyway.
Open Heart, starring Robby Benson, Karla DeVito, and Stan Brown, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street (off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker). For performance and ticket information, visit Telecharge.com.
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