Mark A. Robinson is a theatre writer and critic. He is the author of The World of Musicals, The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs, and The Disney Song Encyclopedia (with Thomas Hischak). He has also written for Playbill and contributed to liner notes of revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady.
Robinson is currently a contributor to BroadwayDirect and a blogger at his own site, http://www.markrobinsonwrites.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his love of theatre, the 2018 Tony Awards, and the Broadway performance that he would travel through time to see.
Flat Circle: When did you first become a fan of theatre?
Mark Robinson: I think I was a fan of theatre from birth. I have always loved colorful and heightened modes of self-expression, so theatre naturally got my attention at an early age. The first theatre performance I remember attending was when I was 6-years-old. My mother took me to a brilliant marionette show of A Christmas Carol. I was transfixed. I don’t think I was the same after that.
My first Broadway show was in 1988 (I was 15) when we took a school trip to New York City to see 42nd Street toward the end of its original historic run. I know I didn’t breathe through any of it. I still recall the elation that washed over me when the entire company sang and danced “Lullaby of Broadway.” It was at that moment I knew I needed a life in the theatre, whatever that would be. That led to going to school and studying acting, directing, and design.
My love affair with theatre history, however, started earlier, much much earlier. Around the age of 12 I began checking cast albums, scripts and books on musical theatre history out of the library and committing as much as I could to memory. In high school, I remember sitting in Earth Science, ignoring the lesson on rocks and instead writing, and continually rewriting, the cast and creative team of the original 1945 Carousel in my notebook until I had committed it to memory. Then I did the same thing with the lyrics to the songs. Once Carousel was down pat, I moved on to The King and I, then Allegro. This was a better use of my time than learning the difference between igneous and metamorphic rocks. So, you see, I can’t pinpoint it because I believe that love and inspiration was always there.
FC: What aspect of theatre do you most enjoy writing about?
MR: This is an interesting question. In the business and art of writing about theatre, so many people are hyper-focused on their divas and leading men. I have never been much for this brand of star-fuckery, but I do understand why people get caught up in that. Performers are the face of a production. For me, I am far more interested in the book writers and composers, the story about how they craft a piece of musical theatre. These are the stalwart soldiers of the theatre. It is their story and the process by which they create the structure for theatrical magic that intrigues me most. It is, perhaps, why I am so fascinated by the enduring shows, flop and hit, that we return to again and again. What is it exactly about what they do that adds up to success or failure.
FC: The Tony Awards aired earlier this week. What did you think of the awards telecast?
MR: This is a sore subject for me. I want to embrace new works and I want to remain enthusiastic about musical theatre’s future, but I feel that the Tony telecasts have become so commercialized that they truly fail to capture the art form of theatre with authenticity. The evening doesn’t have the reverence or class that it once did, nor is it an elegant celebration of the REAL theatre community. It used to be a reunion of theatre’s greats. It was a familiar collection of those who truly made careers in the theatre. Now it is just a frantic freight train loaded with as many A-List celebrities that will supposedly draw in larger audiences.
How many people tune in to the Tony Awards because this star or that star is presenting Best Orchestrations? It seeks ratings over all else and it has become a requirement that it pander to an audience I don’t I always feel I am a part of anymore. This year’s Tony telecast was indicative of much of what I just expressed. It did, however, have its powerful moments, from the kids singing “Seasons of Love” to the beautifully-executed “In Memoriam” section.
FC: One interesting side show at the Tony Awards was that Bruce Springsteen was given a special Tony for his show Springsteen on Broadway. Did you consider his Broadway run Tony-worthy?
MR: I think Springsteen on Broadway was worthy of being acknowledged in the evening, but I am not really thrilled that he was given so much stage time to monologue and noodle at the piano, when Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who have actually dedicated their lives to the theatre, were given short-shrift in a chaotic mash-up collage of two careers that didn’t fit together in this format.
FC: What did you think of the eventual winners? Was there anyone who you thought was snubbed?
MR: I never like to use the word “snubbed” because I think rewards reflect what they are intended to reflect. Personally, I was surprised by a few wins, but in no way would I try to take away from their glory saying someone else deserved it more. I was, however, rooting for The Band’s Visit, so you can imagine how pleased I was by the results.
FC: One ongoing Broadway trend is turning popular movies (Mean Girls) or music (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) into Broadway shows. There are also renditions of corporate intellectual properties like Harry Potter, The Lion King, and Aladdin. Do you think this glut of preexisting ideas spun into Broadway shows is healthy for theatre?
MR: I think theatre can both entertain and theatre can teach. Some shows are here for mere entertainment reasons, some are offering us an opportunity to evolve, and some manage to do both. I think there is nothing wrong with any kind of musical if it entertains. I, personally, don’t find myself satisfied by jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia, but the money made off of a hit, recognizable film title or song catalogue, can help produce more-daring projects that have deeper, profounder impact. I think a healthy, balanced diet of theatre is the best way to go.
FC: Has there ever been a show of that ilk where you just knew from the outset that it would not translate to the stage?
MR: I’m reticent about everything. I’m a bit of a pessimist and I assume that everything will be bad until I am proven otherwise (which happens often, thankfully). I think I had trouble seeing how 9 to 5 could be a successful musical. It’s a film that I love and know by heart, but there is nothing about it (in my mind) that naturally sings or benefits from being told through song. Song should reveal new layers of the story and characters and augment the plot. I remain unconvinced that 9 to 5 works as a musical for just this reason.
FC: Is there any one film that you would like to see adapted for Broadway?
MR: I am an enormous fan of the Kevin Kline film In & Out and I think it would make a glorious musical comedy. So many fun characters to make up the ensemble (not unlike Fiddler on the Roof is this respect) and so much many layers to the leads to be peeled back through the advent of character songs. If it ever happens, I would love to see what David Yazbek could do with it.
FC: Have you taken in a Broadway performance (either an individual actor or show) that stands out as being the best you have ever seen?
MR: I have to say that Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman was one of the boldest, most-unforgettable experience I have ever had in the theatre. She’s the consummate triple-threat and there is a reason why she has been in a major Broadway musical for every decade since the 1950s. She is a legend and she proved it to me when she sang “Where You Are” in that show.
FC: If you could go back and watch any Broadway show and be in the audience for a particular rendition of a play, what would you want to see?
MR: Opening night of the original Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow. I love the music. I love the message. I love the impish poignancy of anything E.Y. Harburg wrote, but “Finian” is the one that touches my soul the most. How brave it was or them to tell that story in 1947. I wish I could have been there for that.
Feature image photo courtesy of Pixabay.