Director Michael J. Bobbitt and Producer Laurie Levy Issembert on The Musical Theater Center’s The Stephen Schwartz Project, and Michael Robinson and Parker Drown on playing Collins and Angel in Keegan Theatre’s RENT.
The Stephen Schwartz Project, originally seen at MetroStage in 2008, has been revised and restaged for the young performers of The Musical Theater Center (MTC), and is getting ready to open for 4 performances only at the Olney Theatre Center this weekend. Directing once again is its co-creator Michael J. Bobbitt.
He’s one of the busiest men in town, managing Adventure Theatre, and directing and choreographing musicals.
Joel: What is The Stephen Schwartz Project?
Michael: The Stephen Schwartz Project is a new musical revue of Stephen Schwartz songs. Mostly, this revue is his hit songs, with a few of his lesser know pop songs. The main premise behind the show is that you’ll hear some of your favorite hit songs re-imagined, which I think is a great way to celebrate Stephen Schwartz.
Joel: How did The Musical Theater Center get the opportunity to produce The Stephen Schwartz Project?
Michael: Through a generous grant from the NEA and the cooperation of Disney, Cherry Lane Productions, and Stephen Schwartz – who own the rights to all the songs in the show.
Joel: Why did you want to work with The Musical Theater Center?
Michael: Musical theatre is my favorite kind of theatre. There is something so intoxicating about music, singing, and dancing that I loooove. MTC trains musical theatre performers – The Stephen Schwartz Project is a revue for young kids to perform. It was serendipity!!! This weekend, you’ll see some of our area’s most talented young performers, singing, dancing and showing you every bit of their talent! Additionally, Stephen, myself, and my collaborator (John Cornelius) will do a workshop where performers get to sing songs, and then they get feedback from us!
Joel: Who’s in this cast?
Michael: I think the age range is 14-18 years old. MTC held an open call. These youngsters come from all over the metropolitan area. You might recognize Max Talisman, who had a lead role in Studio Theatre’s Production of Caroline, or Change, and most recently in Lost in Yonkers, at Theater J.
Joel: Stephen Schwartz will be at The Olney Center for a “Meet and Greet” before the Friday night, January 15th 7:30 performance of The Stephen Schwartz Project. Tell us about that.
Michael: Yes, though I think it’s a ticketed event. Come – because all the sales go to help MTC – a tremendous organization. Stephen is a kind and gracious man, who will pose for a million pictures and sign a ton of stuff for you. He’s very cool. This is the 5th time around for this project, and Stephen has been there every step of the way.
Joel: When did you first bring your concept to composer Stephen Schwartz?
Michael: I think it must have been about 5 years ago. Right before Wicked opened. I remember – because after Wicked opened – I really wanting to add songs to the revue from the show, and I don’t think they were available just yet. We sat in DC at a café and chatted about “what makes a good revue”. Luckily, we were on the same page. Answer: a show that celebrates the music of the composer, meaning that we aren’t performing the songs as they were written for the show, but we are having fun with them.
Joel: What has been Stephen’s involvement in the show?
Michael: He’s seen every production from the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival, to the workshop at Theatre Under The Stars in Texas, to the World Premiere professional production at MetroStage, to a production at Clater Kaye Productions in Hickory NC. Each time, we have a jam session to talk about what worked and what didn’t. Usually, I walk away clearer about the show, and John and I will have an average of 10 or so notes from him. Again, Stephen is extremely generous.
Joel: What changes have been made since you directed the MetroStage production?
Michael: After MetroStage, Stephen thought that it would be really cool to add something from “Enchanted”, so John and I brainstormed, and thought it would be great to mix “Popular” from Wicked with “True Loves Kiss” from “Enchanted” and do it in a sort of Andrew Sisters style. So, you’ll hear the 2 songs mixed with 3 girls and 3 boys singing very cool tight harmonies. It’s darling, and one of my favorite numbers in the show.
Joel: You have had a busy year as the Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre, and working on several new musicals-in-the-making. Bring us up to date.
Michael: Uuuggghhh…where do I start? Adventure Theatre is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the most rewarding. One: I get to hire artists, and that makes me happy, and two: I get to entertain kids. We have been steady at AT- solid productions and maintaining good books. What’s been very exciting is that we’ve had giants in the theatre working on our shows – like Jerry Whiddon and Jeremy Skidmore, who both cut their teeth in children’s theatre at Adventure Theatre. Both were AMAZING productions. We are planning for next season and there are a number of amazing things that I can’t give you specifics on, but will be soooo cool….like a production of a PD Eastman book about dogs that might travel the country…a favorite holiday clay-mation movie about a reindeer with a funny nose…and a partnership with DC’s most known black theatre company. Happy days!
I had fun working on The Helen Hayes Awards show last year, and a holiday concert at Strathmore. I also got to write and direct Arena Stage’s benefit concert. I directed a chamber opera for the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society about Marion Anderson, and I worked for the first time with Rorschach Theatre Company. I was also appointed to the Theatre For Young Audiences national Board of Directors, and the DC Arts and Humanities Education Collab. John Cornelius and I got the stage rights to adapt popular Hollywood movie and novel called “THE BINGO LONG TRAVELLING ALL-STARS AND MOTOR KINGS” by William Brashler. This fantastic story – about a fictional Negro baseball team – will have its world premiere at Howard University in March. John Cornelius composed the music and wrote the lyrics. All really really cool things.
Joel: What’s next for The Stephen Schwartz Project?
Michael: We are hoping that we will be finished. Hopefully, we will get the show published. There as some talk about an all-star cast recording. Stephen agreed to produce it, if I find the money.
Joel: Why did MTC and you want to produce The Stephen Schwartz Project?
Laurie: The Musical Theater Center had been wanting to get Michael Bobbitt to direct something for us for quite a while. He had choreographed some numbers in our Spotlight on Broadway, but his schedule was always too busy to block out time for a whole production. Michael suggested that he could remount The Stephen Schwartz Project, which he had done a first reading with Lisa Carrier (on our staff), at MetroStage (with former MTC student Florrie Bagel), then in Houston, and in North Carolina.
I do know that the artistic feeling was to stick with students as the performers. MTC had never applied for an NEA grant before, and this seemed the perfect vehicle. Because Michael knew from working with Stephen that he is very generous with his time in mentoring and helping non profits and other musical theater groups, the proposal included Stephen’s involvement.
So Stephen is coming to meet with the cast and review work before the performance, and then party with us on Friday night after the show. Of course, he will be meeting with Michael and John Cornelius about subsequent reworking. Saturday, he will be on a panel with Michael, and John and Barry Hamilton will accompany the audition workshop.
The Stephen Schwartz Project plays this weekend – Fridy, January 15th at 7:30 PM, Saturday, January 16th at 2 & 7:30 PM, and Sunday, January 17th at 2 PM, at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at The Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, Maryland. Tickets may be purchased by calling MTC (301) 251-5766. For more information, click here.
Last week, I wrote about the cast and creative team behind Keegan Theatre’s intimate yet powerful production of Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning musical RENT. Here we get to meet Michael Robinson who plays Collins and revisit with Parker Drown who plays his love, Angel.
Michael: I am originally from Detroit, Michigan. I started singing at a young age and always kept a passion for it. As fortune would have it – I sang with a pretty strong high school chorus and was blessed to earn a scholarship to Morgan State University. Upon graduating, I branched into musical theatre and have never looked back. It’s one of the only mediums that lets you express who you are – while being someone totally different. You can give so much to an audience and yet take so much into your own life as well.
Joel: What does RENT mean to you?
Michael: RENT to me is a celebration of our differences, and how that combined difference can be the tie that binds us all together.
Joel: Why did you want to play Collins?
Michael: Collins is such a caring individual. He seems so selfless and giving. I see a distinct and unique relationship between him and all of the other characters. He just seems so honest and pure. I continually strive to be that type of person.
I wanted to make Collins very real. I wanted to really focus on more than just his relationship with Angel. I think he is just as conflicted about many things in his life as all the other characters. I wanted to show different sides and dimensions of him.
Joel: Talk about your audition and callback process.
Michael: I sang an excerpt from “You’ll See” for my auditions, and an excerpt from “I’ll Cover You Reprise” for my callback. Preparation for this particular call was very intense. Since I knew this was the first locally produced professional production of RENT, I knew it would bring out the best and brightest this area has to offer. I was actually feeling pretty stoked and vocally fit for the audition, so that was a good sign. From the moment I walked in – you could hear the strong voices coming through the door! It was definitely intense to say the least. It made you feel as if you had to bring your best from the first audition to the last callback.
Joel: When did you receive the call that you had the role of Collins?
Michael: I can still remember when I received the call saying that I got the part of Collins. I was heading home from an original stage play I was performing for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival back in August – when I got the call about RENT.
It was so surreal. It took about a week or so before it really set in. I was not only grateful for the opportunity, but very focused to make to most out of it. I felt as if I had all of those who played the role before me counting on me to keep the legacy going.
Joel: How would you both describe Angel and Collins’ relationship?
Parker: Angel is naturally a nurturer and when they meet Angel is helping Collins (a complete stranger) get back on his feet. They introduce themselves to each other and part of what they say is that they are each living with AIDS, which is completely honest and open. The two of them build such strength in this relationship, and I believe this allows Collins to become the nurturer in the end and be there completely for Angel. Also, getting into the relationship they know what they are in for and the hardships that they will face, but I do think its love at first sight for them and the moment they meet and look into each others eyes there is comfort, love, and a weight lifted off of the two of them because they don’t have to be alone anymore.
Joel: What advice did directors Mark and Susan Rhea give you on developing the chemistry between you and Michael?
Michael: Always remember that you’re acting :-). No, seriously Mark said it best, “No matter what your sexual preference is, love is love. Tell the audience a genuine story of love from one person to another and they will appreciate it.”
Parker: Just being real with it and the honest about the weight of their struggles. We’ve built in these ‘organic’ moments into the show, which do happen differently every night, but the truth behind them is there and always at the core. For example, looking into his eyes for the first time is not choreographed to a specific word (which can make the moment go stale). It happens ‘organically’ on a different line or word every night, but when it does happen – the truth and emotions we have all discussed come through.
Joel: What’s it been like working with each other?
Michael: Parker is hilarious in rehearsals, there truly is never a dull moment with him around.
Parker: I’m never 100% satisfied with my work…I’m a perfectionist, (what can I say?), but I think this allows me to never stop exploring and Michael has been wonderful to work with. We’re always finding new moments with each other on stage and having fun doing it too. I remember a point when both of us felt like we were hitting a wall with the characters and the story – and so much else was going on around us at rehearsals that when we looked at each other and we just started talking through ideas that we wanted to try, and how we could go about them. (i.e. how he holds me during “Without You”, or where we see each other for the first time, or what ridiculous things we can do in “La Vie Boheme”). These moments, I think, have strengthened our chemistry too, because we came up with them together, and it allowed us to trust each other even more.
Joel: Was the chemistry between you and Michael there from the beginning of rehearsals, and has it grown?
Michael: I met Parker briefly a couple of times before the show, and the chemistry was there the first day we met, and it has grown even more.
Parker: I agree. It’s definitely been there from the beginning and not hard to find. But especially with a relationship like this, we both were timid in the beginning. However, as the rehearsal process went along and our relationship grew, it definitely strengthened the chemistry between us on stage.
Joel: Talk about your big numbers in the show.
Michael: “Santa Fe” happens after Collins, Angel, and Mark are reminded of just how rough life in New York can be. They have a run in with a dirty cop and a cranky camera shy hobo. The song begins a carefree wish to leave behind the world they are apart of for a utopia of sorts. The song shows the bond and shared dream they all have of achieving something better than the situation they are currently in. I think this is a dream we all share.
“I’ll Cover You” is yet another moment we see Collins’ compassionate side. He is finally alone with is new love Angel and their true feelings for each other are realized. “I’ve longed to discover something as true as this is” is one particular line from this song, and in it we see exactly how strong and deep the bond for these two is. I, like so many others, can appreciate and understand this lyric in the song. Finding true love isn’t easy, but once you have found it, it is unlike any feeling imaginable. It completes a piece of you that you never even knew was missing! It is so heartbreaking when he sings the same song at Angel’s funeral. To have such a profound love within your grasp and then it slip away from you – is so tragic.
Parker: I believe this song shows not only how much they want to be with each other, but also how much they need each other and want to be there for each other. They’ve met only about 2 hours prior and are already confessing their love for each other. They know how truly lucky they are to have found each other, and neither one of them is willing to let that go. All they want from each other is love and “a thousand sweet kisses”. How can it get any better than that?
Joel: “Without You”, and “I’ll Cover You” (after Angel dies) are the “tear jerking” songs of RENT. How difficult is it to get through this scene and song without breaking down?
Michael: VERY!!! We have all spent many rehearsals tearing up during these numbers. I think anyone who has experienced loosing someone dear to them can relate to the emotion these songs pull out of you. “I’ll Cover You” (Reprise) in particular reminds me of so many loved ones that are no longer here and stirs up so many nostalgic emotions and memories of them. Love is a powerful feeling and it truly never dies.
Parker: Well every day is different, but this “I’ll Cover You” is a hard one for me. I was most nervous for this number and the end of “Contact”, just because of the message of the show and the struggle that surrounds Angel. It’s not fiction and it isn’t anything to take lightly. AIDS is still a huge epidemic – and I knew that I couldn’t feel comfortable doing this if I didn’t find a way to keep it truthful and respectful to those who have suffered. We ask the audience to “Act Up! Fight AIDS!” and this is the moment in the show where they see the weight of the battle not being won. Sometimes, I do break down a bit on stage, but I think that it’s completely warranted and appropriate. Trying to feel and convey the physical and emotional pain that they would have gone through is not really something you can smile through. But more than anything I wanted to make sure that our show could honor and respect those who have gone through this.
Mark and Susan wanted us to come up with 3 to 4 strong moments throughout the whole song, which Michael and I have then connected together. Among them are the way he holds me/joins me on the bed, carrying me out of the hospital, and the final embrace. These moments are the ones that I anchor to every night and hopefully build up to throughout the song. And then by staying true to the moments and the lyrics that Emily is beautifully singing – I think we get a connective thread that is present until the last moment.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Church Street Theatre after watching RENT?
Michael: I want the audience to walk away simply with a greater appreciation for this precious gift we call life, and all the intricacies and nuances that come along with it.
Parker: I want them to leave the show thinking – thinking about each other, acceptance, and about what we can do as a community to help each other. The show is about love and I would like the audience to be reminded of the power that love has.
Keegan Theatre’s RENT plays through January 30, 2010 at Church Street Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.