One generation of filmgoers knows Robby Benson for his work in The Chosen, Ode to Billy Joe, and Running Brave. A younger generation knows him as the voice of the title character in Disney's Beauty and the Beast -- the big, hairy creature, not the bookish young woman. It's been years since Benson performed on stage in New York, as a child in Zelda (1969) and The Rothschilds (1970) and as a young adult in the famous Public Theater production of The Pirates of Penzance (1981). But now he's back with a highly personal project: Open Heart, a new musical that he wrote himself and in which he stars with Karla DeVito (his wife) and Stan Brown (an old friend and colleague).
"It's going well," Benson told me during a recent interview at the Cherry Lane. "We are exactly in the right place for where we should be. Karla, Stan, and I have been working on this show together for four years." How does Brown fit into the picture? "Stan was my student in 1988, when I was teaching at the university of South Carolina," Benson explains. "I recognized that he was probably one of the most talented people I had ever been in the same room with. He's now a professor at the University of Nebraska."
DeVito and Brown play multiple roles in the show but, says Benson, "I play one character -- a guy named Jimmy. It's really important to know that the show is fictional, even though there's a lot of truth in it. The main impetus for the show was that, ever since Karla and I met on Broadway in The Pirates of Penzance, I've always wanted to write a musical for her. The other thing is that we really believe in the subject matter. Karla and I have been married for 22 years and we have a remarkable vulnerability with one another -- what we've always called an 'open heart.' We don't have that with any other people in our lives until they've proven that we can let them in because we've been stung many times in the business and so we keep our true emotions within our family.
"Open Heart is about a love that's eternal," Benson continues. "The framing of it and the double entendre of the title is the open-heart surgery that I had. I think most people who have faced life-and-death situations have a pretty good sense of humor -- because you have to." I ask Benson when he had his surgery and he replies, "Which one?" It seems he has a congenital heart defect that has required two separate operations: "I had my first one about 20 years ago and my second one in '98," he tells me.
In recent years, Benson has been active as a TV director, helming episodes of Friends and other sitcoms. "I shot the last two episodes of John Ritter's show [Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter] and I fell in love with him," says Benson. But he and his wife enjoy a very non-Hollywood lifestyle in North Carolina, where he has "a wonderful teaching job" at Appalachian State University. The couple has two children: a 20-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. It's obvious that Benson's family is far more important to him than his career, and he seems genuinely awed when he recounts how he came to meet and fall in love with DeVito during The Pirates of Penzance.
"Joe Papp tried to get me to do the show in the Park," Benson recalls, "but I had just been offered The Chosen and there was no way I could not do that movie. After Pirates moved to Broadway, I got another call from Joe and he said, 'Look, will you reconsider and come into the show now?' My first thought was, 'If I'm not going to originate a part, I don't want to do this.' Also, I had an opportunity to direct my first film. But then I thought, 'Wait a minute. This is the hottest ticket in New York.' So I went to see the show and I was mesmerized. I thought, 'This is a great opportunity. Screw the film!" And that's what led me into the same room with Karla DeVito -- the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my life. So I'll always thank Mr. Papp for that."
SILENTS IS GOLDEN
Ken Jennings has had major roles in such dark shows as Sweeney Todd and Side Show, but "make 'em laugh" seems to be his motto these days. Having played two featured roles throughout the entire Broadway run of Urinetown, Jennings is continuing in a comic vein as a member of the ensemble cast of Silent Laughter, the new show at the Lamb's Theatre.
"I was in Urinetown from the beginning until the last performance on January 18," says Jennings, "and we started rehearsals for Silent Laughter on February 19. It's a unique show; it's completely silent. Because of that, the rehearsals have had an almost churchlike quality to them. Since there's no talking, we're cautioned to keep our footfalls light and our breathing not too heavy. They want it to be REALLY quiet. You get so used to it that you find yourself whispering even when you're offstage. It's so strange!"
The show is described as a silent movie onstage. "There's this tramp character and he falls in love with a rich girl," Jennings tells me, "but there's a villain who gets in their way. I play four characters: the girl's father, the villain's henchman, a maitre'd, and a newsboy. The costume changes are lightning-fast." Though the show hasn't even opened yet, there's already been lots of buzz -- and a New York Times article -- about its pie fight sequence. "It's amazing," says Jennings. "I'd never seen an actual pie fight before and at first I thought, 'Is this going to be too juvenile for my taste?' But the first time one actor shoved a pie in another one's face, it was really funny!"
Comedy is a universal language; even so, steps are being taken to make sure that Silent Laughter appeals to audiences of all types. "There are titles in the show, projected above the stage," says Jennings. "And I hear that they're going to have the titles in different languages at certain performances. They're talking about having them in Spanish, Japanese -- even in Yiddish! The show really does have the feel of a silent movie. It has organ accompaniment and they're apparently going to be selling popcorn and stuff during the show. I can see families and kids really loving this."
LuPONE IN LOVE
I didn't get to see Patti LuPone's Matters of the Heart concert when she did it at Lincoln Center in 2000, so I was thrilled to score press tickets for her recent reprise of the program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Friday, March 12. It's no secret that LuPone is one of my all-time favorite performers and it's always a pleasure to see her in any context, but her NJPAC concert was especially thrilling because it was all Patti, all the time -- with more than a little help from her musical director-pianist Dick Gallagher and a wonderful string quartet (Rick Dolan on first violin, Rob Taylor on second violin, Richard Brice on viola, and Arthur Fiacco on cello.)
Aside from some spotty execution of lighting cues and a couple of flubbed lyrics by Miss Patti, Friday's show was flawless. Worthy of special praise is the work of sound designer Mark Fiore, who was smart enough to realize that LuPone's phenomenal voice needed to be amplified only slightly in order for her sound to fill NJPAC's grand Prudential Hall. During the applause that followed LuPone's belting of one particularly awesome note, my companion remarked, "It's incredible how much horsepower she has in that voice." Ain't it the truth!
Of course, this being a program of love songs, LuPone offered lots of lovely, sensitive, intimate singing to go along with those hair-raising belt tones. The program began with a lilting rendition of "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" (from Bob Merrill's Carnival) and proceeded from highlight to highlight. The song stack was exactly, or almost exactly, the same as that of the 2000 Lincoln Center concert as reported in a TheaterMania review at the time. Along with persuasive performances of pop items ranging from "Alone Again, Naturally," "Another Auld Lang Syne," and "Air That I Breathe," LuPone brought her inimitable voice and personality to great musical theater songs by Stephen Sondheim ("Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along, "Being Alive" from Company), Rodgers & Hammerstein ("A Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific), MacDermot, Ragni, & Rado ("Easy to be Hard" from Hair), and Ahrens & Flaherty ("Back to Before" from Ragtime). A definite standout was a doo-wop version of Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight," with Gallagher and the string quartet guys singing backup to LuPone's lead vocal.
Matters of the Heart was conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, who certainly knows how to show off this great star to her best advantage. Long may they collaborate!
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