As we approach the two week mark from the release of my album The Pirates of Penzance: Revamped and Revisited, I invite you sit back with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoy this delightful conversation I had with Robby Benson--the voice behind The Beast from Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast--and his lovely wife, singer and actress Karla DeVito. I came to know these two wonderful people, first through the mutual acquaintanceship of Kaye Ballard's agent Mark Sendroff who first suggested I speak with them, and then of course through Kaye and others' insistence on me interviewing them about their memories of Penzance, which I summarily pursued.
The two were staying in Hawaii a few weeks ago when I called. Shortly after the interview, they trekked to sunny Florida in time for Robby's appearance at Disney Candlelight in Epcot. Robby and Karla have been busy promoting the highly anticipated 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast reboot, but they were so gracious to offer their help to promote my album as well. Without further ado, here is the text of our delightful interview.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
How did you become involved with music in the first place?
ROBBY BENSON: Karla, you go first.
KARLA DEVITO: No, you go. Your career started before mine.
ROBBY: Okay. Music has always been a part of my life, before I even had any memory of my life. My parents were musicians. My father was a composer and lyricist. My mom was a singer and performer. By the time I was eight, I was on stage in The King and I, and I guess by ten I played Oliver! for the first time. I did Peter Pan in college. I was even in the Broadway musical The Rothschilds. Open Heart is my musical on Off-Broadway at Cherry Lane. I’m also working on my second Broadway show right now. I came to New York to perform in a program, but once that closed, there really were not many other opportunities for people in my age group, so that’s when I auditioned for some of the up-and-coming bands of the day.
My desire was always to be in the orchestra pit, however, so I started writing music with my father when I was very young, like when I was twelve or fourteen. I would write the music and he would write the lyrics. I would play on The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. They’d always ask me to sing an original piece whenever I was promoting something. I would also play session guitar locally in New York.
I played for Joe Brooks. He was kind of wild, but he would hire me to play for a lot of his sessions. After we’d play, I would sing with all the singers. Every time we doubled ourselves or sang harmonies, we would get paid double or triple. Even for a young man, to go downstairs to the mailbox and see it stuffed with nothing but checks for commercials and jingles was so exciting for me because I knew I was participating in something in the real world. But what ended up happening, people wanted me to sing songs that I thought were silly bubblegum pieces, so I went on my merry way because I was composer and a writer and I wanted to do my stuff. The stuff that was pop, I didn’t want to sing. My background was very much the New York Philharmonic and very much Broadway oriented. My foundation really is Gilbert & Sullivan and Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Music is a great way to meditate, and everything is good. I’d have to say to our president-elect, don’t take away those programs. They are important. I was very lucky in my youth, because I worked with some of the most professional musicians and singers in the jingles. But I’ll be honest, I’ve never sung with anyone who was as amazing and versatile as Karla. It’s almost like the musical gods touched me on the head and said, “Do what you can!” And then they touched Karla, and said, “You have all the talent!”
KARLA: Thanks, Robby!
ROBBY: If it were up to me, Karla would sing on any and every project I have anything to do with. Now, Karla, I think it’s your turn.
KARLA: Well, you know, I was not a musician. I grew up in a home where music was everything. My mother had that HiFi stereo. Barbra Streisand’s first album was a mainstay, and so were The Beatles. The thing that was so important to me is that I had an amazing music teacher in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade. She was the first person to expose me to Gilbert & Sullivan. In the eighth grade, we did The Mikado. That teacher was Sharon Conley. What she demanded from these little students in the Midwest was incredible. My math teachers and music teachers scared me the most. There was a phenomenal man named Tom Olson. When I sang “Poor Wandering One” on The Today Show, I gave him a shout-out and my mom told him to watch it. If I had not had that training in grade school, I never would have known what opportunities lay out there. My mother always sang at the house. The first ingénue role I had was in The Pirates. I actually loved singing the harmonies.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
Considering your backgrounds in the genre of pop music, how did you end up in a production of The Pirates?
KARLA: Robby was supposed to do Fred in the park, but he turned it down because he was busy filming a movie called The Chosen. Jim Steinman wrote Bat Out of Hell, Meatloaf’s album, and I originated the live theatrical role of the female in the world tour. The wife of one of Jim’s good friends was the second pianist for Pirates of Penzance, so she played for my audition. Originally, I was considered for the role of one of the sisters for the version in the park, but I did not want to be one because by that time I had my own record in the can. I was then offered another role in which I was guaranteed to make my Broadway debut. I went into Epic Records, asked the general manager to delay the release of my album, and he allowed for it.
I got to go on for Linda when she was sick. I went on the week of press revues without a single dress rehearsal or even a costume, because Linda had it in her contract that she owned all her costumes. They had to run down to a bridal store and find this white dress to stick me in. I had a vocal rehearsal with the assistant, but no physical rehearsal with the other cast.
ROBBY: I was fortunate to get another phone call from Mr. Papp asking me to come and be in the show. I was an elitist. I had originated two parts in two different Broadway productions. I was kind of a snob. I didn’t replace anyone, I originated. All my friends in New York were all gone, so I had nothing to do when Joe Papp invited me to see the show. It was one of the best shows I had ever seen. Except for one thing. I became furious with the way the person playing Fred was competing with Kevin Klein instead of helping him set up his comedy. I suddenly went, I got to do this because I knew the Frederic performance being played was not the way I felt it should be done.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
What were your impressions of your fellow cast members?
KARLA: We always describe The Pirates of Penzance as a perfect wedding cake of a show. George Rose, Tony Azito, and all the women were phenomenal. I loved Tony Azito. He became one of my dear friends.
ROBBY: Kaye came in when I came in. She was so incredible. In fact, he was in a movie that I directed, and to this day we consider her family. Mark Sendroff, her agent-of-sorts, is one of my best friends on the face of the earth.
KARLA: It was like magic. And back to funny, Robby and I came up with all these comedic bits. Wilford was wild about what we did, and we love Wilford because he was so darling. Wilford’s genius was casting. I think Wilford’s beautiful talent was finding incredible people and letting them run with their talent. Graciella Danielle understood my sense of humor. She allowed me to so many things when Wilford wasn’t there, and then Wilford loved what she helped us do.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
According to various sources, you two met and fell in love in real life through the on-stage chemistry shared by Frederic and Mabel. Is this even a little bit true?
KARLA: Yes, it’s true. We credit Joseph Papp for bringing us together. Dan Burlinghoff, our director, he was our best man. Two weeks after Robby met me, he told Dan that he was going to marry me.
Robby was not in the show yet when I started. They said that he was coming after Joe Papp had given me the role and everything. I couldn’t wait, because there was no real rehearsal even I after I took the role. When they said this person named Robby Benson was going to do it, I had no idea who he was, but I just heard everyone talk about his sterling reputation, so I was thrilled that somebody like him was coming.
Robby and I first met in the basement of the theater with Wilford Leach. I was on vocal rest at the time, and Robby had been sick too. That first night, Wilford told us both to mime through our parts.
ROBBY: I close my eyes right now, and when I do, I can see Karla and I can remember her when I saw her for the very first time. She is so selfless and so remarkably talented on stage. She is the best person I have ever met in my life. I remember when I went down to the basement and I saw Karla, I fell in love with her immediately. [pause] I don’t know if you believe in the theory of sliding doors, but a door was open that night—and there was Karla. She was the most talented person I had ever met, but she had absolutely no ego.
You see, mostly, in the film world, you fight for the opportunities to do what you like to do, but you’re usually knocking heads with other actors trying to get something done. I clearly remember the first time I went on stage with Karla. The role of Fred is a thankless role. It’s the workhorse. I had a lot of information to process. Also, I’m a bass, not even a baritone, yet in The Pirates I had to perform a tenor role. I remember I took Karla’s hand in mine, and all the sudden, she walked me to the mark where I was supposed to be because I had forgotten where I was supposed to be. That was the most selfless act I had experienced to that date, because that’s just not something you experience in the world of Hollywood. I played Frederic the way I felt that he was supposed to be played: that Fred was mesmerized by Mabel’s voice. That’s when I created the bit of falling to my knees.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
What are your favorite songs from The Pirates?
KARLA: “Leave Me Not to Pine.” When we performed together at Cherry Lane Theater, they asked us to sing whatever we wanted to sing, so we sang “Leave Me Not” and “Here is Love.”
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
What outstanding memories do you have from the show?
Any bloopers or gaffes?
ROBBY: One night, the Pirate King forgot his lines during the patter song, so I took my sword and pointed at the orchestra director and started singing, “What Is This.”
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
What is your impression of the music of Gilbert & Sullivan? Would you recommend it to the next generation of listeners?
ROBBY: Absolutely we would encourage it. I was a college professor for twenty-eight years teaching film production, and I can tell you that I always looked for those gems. What I would do for younger people is I would have a Q&A after every show. If there were Wednesday and Sunday matinees where young people could come in groups to see Broadway where it is affordable, I would say let’s have a Q&A for the young people who are so smart. I would like for them to see how way back when how these men made their audiences think and laugh. I think young people would absolutely adore a new version but not one that much different from what Wilford did. I wish you had the luxury of speaking to George Rose and Tony Azito. Those two men were absolutely remarkable in the show.
ADRIAN D. HOLMES
Any final thoughts on The Pirates?
ROBBY: The stage hands that helped move us to the Uris Theater, they took this one little spot with the red line where Mabel and Fred kissed every night, when they took down the show, they shipped that piece of the stage to us. We both feel very lucky because through the show we found our true soul mates. And the only thing I wish in the world of bootleg, lots of people got copies of the two of us singing.
I believe Gilbert & Sullivan were two of the greatest minds in history. Their music and the libretto is so timely.
KARLA: I grew up in this tiny little town called Mokena, Illinois. I saw Iolanthe, Yeoman of the Guard, and others. I think Gilbert & Sullivan works are really a great way for people to experience musical theater and do it. Also, I admire Linda Rondstadt because she broke barriers for other pop singers on Broadway. It was a terrific thing for her to do that. She was my inspiration growing up.
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