No Rest

Composer Allen Robertson Keeps the Beat

by Robert Faires There's busy, and there's Allen Robertson. Most theatre artists are lucky to fit four shows in a season. Robertson does a dozen. At least, that's what this man squeezed into the past 12 months. Since last September, the versatile artist has: been musical director for no fewer than seven productions (six locally, plus one in Grinnell, Iowa); written an instrumental score for Live Oak Theatre's production of An Asian Jockey in Our Midst; scored and co-written The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Merry Tales of the Madmen of Gotham; contributed music and lyrics to Morning Song, a musical produced in Dallas in April; and had his musical The Bremen Town Musicians revived by Second Youth. Oh yes, he also composed a ballet, The Secret Garden, on a commission from the Austin Contemporary Ballet, which makes his efforts this year more a baker's dozen.

It's a staggering body of work for a single year, especially considering that many of the projects required Robertson's presence not only at rehearsals but at every performance. For She Loves Me last fall, Robertson was on the podium every night, conducting the orchestra, and he's currently doing the same every night for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Zilker Hillside. For the first few months of the run of Forever Plaid, Robertson was the onstage pianist, a gig which called on him to provide comedic shtick in the show, as well as accompany the pop quartet. For Pump Boys and Dinettes, he was a full member of the ensemble, lending a droll comic touch to the proceedings five times a week as the laconic, gum-popping, Dolly-loving L. M.

Robertson's output isn't impressive simply for its quantity, however; its quality is equally remarkable, if not more so. No matter the area in which he's working - composition, direction, or performance - Robertson's contributions are never less than polished, and the trace of his keen ear and sensitive touch is evident. The shows for which he served as musical director all pulsed with elegant and powerful musical performances, performances which succeeded in no small part because of Robertson's skill at shaping and refining the talents involved. The shows he scored surged with melodies both buoyant and wistful, lyrics which balanced youthful innocence with seasoned experience. They revealed a deep comprehension of both the child's hopefulness and the adult's regret and a masterful sense of how to express them in song.

Not surprisingly, when the Austin Circle of Theatres released its nominations for the 1994-95 B. Iden Payne Awards this week, there was Robertson's name, four times in the category of musical direction (for Dreamgirls, Forever Plaid, She Loves Me, and The Steadfast Tin Soldier) and once in the area of original script, for his and Christopher Boyd's The Steadfast Tin Soldier. He has been recognized by the Austin Theatre Critics' Table for these same projects and by the Austin Circle of Theatres membership with an award last year for his performance in another show he co-wrote, Duet.

Ask Robertson how he does it, and his inclination is to defer to others. "I surround myself with good people" is one answer he modestly tosses out. It is one of Robertson's most appealing characteristics, an eagerness to acknowledge the contributions of his colleagues, and it no doubt figures into the eagerness of his colleagues to work with him again and again. Robertson suggests as much when he discusses how he got his start in Austin theatre. He had come to Austin with his wife Meredith in the fall of 1989 to obtain a masters degree in children's theatre at UT. He wanted to work, and one person took a chance on him.

"Rod Caspers," says Robertson. "He was directing Pippin at UT. He gave me the opportunity [to be the musical director for that show], and then when he was doing Nine at Live Oak, he asked me to do that, and then when he did Once on This Island at Zach Scott, he asked me to join that. And I think both Live Oak and Zach Scott were like, `Who is this?' and `Are you sure we want to give this project to that person?' - and they should have been that way - but he stood up for me and said, `This is the guy I want to work with.' So then, once I got my foot in the door, things began to work out very nicely. I've been incredibly fortunate about people providing me with opportunities. I can't say that enough. Everybody's been so great."

What Robertson is perhaps too humble to say but makes clear with his work is that he takes those opportunities and makes the most of them, investing his full energies into them and doing whatever it takes. He comes close to saying this as he tries to define just what a musical director does: "It changes radically with different projects - as I think it should. If you're dealing with a very musical director - which I am right now with all the directors I'm working with: Bil Pfuderer and Dave Steakley and Joe York - he might come in and go, `Actually, why don't we try to really slow that down?' and say musical things like, `Can you go a little bluesier with that?' and I try to incorporate that. There are other directors who have no idea. `The music is yours. Do whatever you want,' even to the point of `You can coach the acting,' which I've done. I always try to make the connection between the music and the acting, try to get that clear to the actor, when the underscoring is trying to support the subtext, how to use it, that kind of thing. I do a lot of coaching that way. And some places just want a piano player. They would just as soon people learn it off their CDs, and if you try to give them any more than that, they say `Hey, I'm the director.' For Joseph, we re-arranged a lot of stuff, re-orchestrated most of it. The way they send it out right now, it's scored for nine pieces and this orchestration was done in the Seventies. I think they wanted to update that a little bit, change some dated references, and then beef it up for the outdoors.

"You get a good arrangement, get a good cast, it makes your job a whole lot easier. On Forever Plaid, I had both. You couldn't have asked for better singers. That one, I was probably the most specific I've ever been as a musical director. We'd come in for one song. I made everyone a tape that had everybody else on the left channel, and then their part plunked out on the right channel, so they just listen to their part or just listen to everybody else without their part or a mixture of both. So they did a lot of work on their own, getting notes. From day one, we were saying, `We've got to get beyond just everyone singing the same notes.' It was taking, `Okay, here's two bars. Do you get louder together or do you get softer? Okay, then we're singing unison, everybody match exactly what Joe sounds like or exactly what Steven sounds like. You need to sound like one big voice there.' It was breaking those songs down, to where every breath went.

"And then you work with a Jacqui Cross on Dreamgirls... This guy ain't gonna teach you how to sing! I can joke about it: `Yeah, she was tone-deaf when she came to me, but I taught her a gospel lick or two.' But really, she was great. I was not going to tell her how to sing that role. I was just going to tell her, `Well, here's where the orchestra's getting faster; does that work for you?' And a lot of the singers in that show, they were so instinctual. And that was what that show needed. Their singing instincts were more dead-on than what I would have brought to it. My job was just as an editor. And that's what a director does a lot of times, too. You get the right person in the right role, and they bring so much to it. You get the luxury of not feeding her everything but just editing.

"I always try to do some kind of warm-up routine, really just to get people focused. More than the physical benefits of it - people debate that; `Oh, I can't warm up, I'll wear myself out,' and some people, `I've got to have a 15-minute warm-up or I'm dead;' that's different from singer to singer - I try to do something to give people focus, to say `Hey, this what we're here to do. We're here to sing. Let's leave whatever at the door and get some work done."

These days, work for Robertson means not one, not two, but three projects. In addition to conducting at the performances of the Zilker Summer Musical, Robertson is in the thick of rehearsals for Live Oak's production of the Kander & Ebb classic Cabaret, opening September 1, and for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's production of the a cappella doo-wop musical Avenue X, opening later in the month. When asked how he can manage three such demanding projects at once, Robertson is, again, almost impossibly gracious. "It's a very busy time right now," he says with a laugh. "Because both Joe York and Dave Steakley are very nice people," he offers; he can do it. It does, however, make for some long Saturdays, though. "Over at Live Oak, I'll go 10 'til four o'clock, then I'll go over to Zach from four 'til about 6:30, then I'll just drive right out to the Park."

If you're wondering when he gets to see, say, his wife, the obvious answer is... at rehearsals. Meredith Robertson has been almost as busy as her husband for the past two years, performing almost non-stop in one musical after another, from Beauty and the Beast to Falsettos to She Loves Me to The Steadfast Tin Soldier to The Bremen Town Musicians to Pump Boys and Dinettes to the most recent revival of Beehive to the upcoming Avenue X. Fortunately, many of these projects are ones with which Allen has also been involved, so at least it allows them the two of them to spend time together, even if it is work. Of course, that's not always the best arrangement. As Allen notes, "When you're taking your work home, you're both taking it home together." But they have had ample time to adjust to it; they met in the theatre and have had 10 years' worth of doing shows together. And Allen, in his characteristically generous way, notes that "It's an honor to have Meredith in the cast" of a show he's working on. "She's so good."

As might be expected, Robertson is not one to sit still for long. Even as he juggles three productions with the fury of a carnival clown, he's looking ahead to what's next. He hands me a list of possible projects for the coming year. There are 11 titles on it, including two original musicals. "Right now I'm working on The Land of Counterpane, based on the Robert Louis Stevenson poems in A Child's Garden of Verses. And I'm working on Little Women. Mike Cantrell and I are talking about doing Duet again. We both have a huge affinity for New Vaudevillians, Bill Irwin, even Victor Borge, and then all the music stuff. When we can put all that stuff together, we have so much fun." He's doing it again: putting himself with somebody else and with music. No doubt it will be fun. And he won't be the only one having it. n

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