Search Through the Skies
That's Where Composer Allen Robertson and the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Are Headed With the New Musical 'Jouét'
Allen Robertson and I are on our way to lunch. As usual, he's driving, and as he guides his RAV 4 away from the curb, he punches a button on the CD player. He has something he wants me to hear. It's a novelty number called "Egyptian Ella," about a, shall we say, bounteous belly dancer. The song bears more than a passing resemblance to "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," with a tune that's rowdier than Harold Arlen's but boasts the same breezy melodic charm and the same giddy wordplay found in "Yip" Harbug's lyrics. The character of the recording, however, is pure Spike Jones in all his madcap glory, with toolshed instrumentation and sound-effects commentary irreverently punctuating every musical phrase. It's goofy and fun and produced to a fare-thee-well, with sound so crisp that it recalls some pristine oddity out of the vaults of Dr. Demento. Where did he get it?
The man did it himself. Wrote the thing for the zanies at Esther's Follies, then recorded it at his home with his friends Jerome Schoolar and Suzanne Abbott contributing vocals. The rest is him, doing backup vocals and playing pretty much all the instruments, which he digitally layered in himself.
That's the way it is with Allen Robertson. He doesn't just listen to music and admire it; he absorbs it into his bloodstream, music of all styles and eras. And he finds a way to play it himself, in all those diverse styles and on all manner of instruments, even if he has to teach himself how to play them. And he gets how the music works, comprehending it from the inside so he can mold and shape it through orchestration and never lose the authenticity of the original sound or so he can help others learn to perform it with a maximum of feeling and power. And he channels that music into music that he composes himself, sometimes evoking an established style with uncanny precision, sometimes creating a musical sound that is utterly distinctive. And he records this music, setting it down with rigorous attention to detail. And finally, he shares these creations with folks he believes will appreciate them. Over the past few years, he's played something for me almost every time we've gotten together. It's something I've come to look forward to.
It's also led me to associate Robertson with music and motion. His songs belong to the road, to being on the move. They're deeply interwoven with journeys. And journeys are important to Robertson. They feature prominently in his musicals, such as The Bremen Town Musicians and The Steadfast Tin Soldier, where the leading characters are travelers, literally moving from one place to another. Robertson even has one musical -- the one he wrote for his thesis when he was getting his masters in children's theatre at UT -- that is titled The Journey. And now his latest musical, which premieres this week at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, tells the story of a woman who has been on the move from the moment she was born, coming into the world aboard a flight across the Atlantic Ocean and ceaselessly crossing the face of the Earth ever since, first with a mother who roamed from country to country, then on her own as a globally renowned pop star. In Jouét, the title character tells her story in a concert before boarding a plane to live the rest of her life in the air above the Earth, in perpetual motion.
The journey of Jouét may well be the most fascinating trip that Robertson has taken an audience on, but it is only one of the journeys connected to this show. Jouét is also about the journey of Robertson himself, as the composer and musical theatre artist takes his artistry to a new level, and about the journey of the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, which with Jouét moves from being a venue for mounting musicals that have been produced previously to one that premieres original work.
The first time I heard a part of Jouét was in Robertson's SUV. It was the summer of 1999, and he and I were on our way to a movie when he punched the "Play" button to give me a listen to a song called "Uncle Nikki." It was something he had just worked up for a cabaret act he wanted to do in the "Z Cabaret" series that Zach was producing then. The act would be built around his then-wife Meredith (they have since divorced), who would play a cabaret performer singing songs about her life traveling the globe. The title of this number referred to an elderly Russian with whom the singer's mother had carried on an affair over several summers in Florida. "Nikki" was none other than former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and in the song the old Cold Warrior gives his "niece" life lessons shaded by realpolitik: "Bang a shoe, girl/It's what you do, girl/When you're through with making sense."
The song was genuinely witty, with lyrics that deftly blended history, social commentary, and character in humorous and even touching ways, and music, which employed accordion and tambourine and Eastern European rhythms to playfully elicit Uncle Nikki's homeland. But it took me somewhat by surprise; I knew Robertson's work through some of his other musicals -- the family-friendly pieces The Bremen Town Musicians and The Steadfast Tin Soldier -- and this seemed a distinct departure. While his all-ages material was never emotionally or intellectually simplistic, never written down to a juvenile audience, this had a more sophisticated humor and point of view, had more complexity and ambiguity in the character. It was entertaining and intriguing, and I looked forward to hearing more.
Unfortunately, the "Z Cabaret" series folded, and Robertson lost his forum for presenting the work. But the piece had already taken hold of his imagination, and it was the first sustained writing he had done in two years, so he continued to develop it, eventually working up a complete script with 10 songs, which, of course, he recorded. When it was finished, he mentioned the piece to Zach Artistic Director Dave Steakley -- not to find out if the theatre could produce it but because he and Steakley had developed a close working relationship and friendship and, well, he wanted to share it with someone he felt would appreciate it.
"Allen had told me some about the piece but not very much in terms of the story," Steakley remembers. "He wasn't pitching it as a Zach thing at all. We set up an appointment and he came over to my house one day, and he had this CD which was just so produced -- which is very much Allen, in terms of having it in such a great form. I think about the number of demo musicals I get that people send out as pretty finished in their mind, which are like this crappy acoustic piano and either singers who aren't so hot, and then Allen comes in with this slick CD. And Allen had a script for me of what Jouét was at that time, and he was sort of reading the text, but his nerves were making him rush through it: 'This'll happen and that'll happen and da da da da da.' It made me think of Laura Petrie on Dick Van Dyke, that episode where they're putting on the community concert, and Laura says, 'Well, I'll do like a little thuh and a thih, and a mmm, and I'll go around and ... big finish.' Well Allen has doing that, this apologetic thing, and I was like, 'Slow down, slow down. Lemme read, lemme read!'"
Now, by this point, Steakley and Robertson had been collaborating together for six years, with Robertson serving as musical director to Steakley's director on more than a dozen musicals as varied as Forever Plaid, The Gospel at Colonus, The Who's Tommy, and Blues in the Night. And he had heard his share of Robertson's original music. In short, he knew what Robertson was capable of. But Steakley was caught off guard by Jouét. "It was like nothing I had heard Allen write before," he says. "He captured so many musical styles that had this Euro blend, so many ethnic styles. I couldn't believe that Allen had written it. I didn't see how this story and these songs could possibly have come out of him -- at least what I knew about him at that time. Now, I completely get it, but then it was a huge revelation about him personally." Steakley draws a comparison from a play recently produced by Zach: the comedy Art, in which a white-on-white painting inspires three friends to look at each other in new ways. "It's the Art thing of: 'Oh, that's in you? To be that and to think that way and create that way?'" Steakley says. "Your relationship with that person changes because they've acknowledged that you know that's in them. It's the doubled-edged great thing: There's this great work of art, but there's a whole new appreciation of who Allen is, too."
For most Austinites, the impression of Robertson as a composer has been shaped by his desire to work in children's theatre and work with stories that would relate to a broad range of ages. Most of his original work that has been produced in Austin has been family-oriented material produced by a family-oriented company, Second Youth Repertory Family Theatre. Even though the work itself -- original adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Beauty and the Beast, as well as The Bremen Town Musicians and The Steadfast Tin Soldier -- shows Robertson working at an advanced level and dealing with themes of identity and image, trust and sacrifice, characters who are trying to establish who they are, on a journey to find their place in the world, the perception of the form as work "for kids" is enough to stigmatize Robertson as a composer of major musical work. If for no other reason, Jouét is a breakthrough project for Robertson because its setting and approach move him out of the family-theatre ghetto.
But Robertson is doing more with Jouét than creating what some will see as his first "musical for grownups." He's exploring some of those pet themes from what Dave Steakley calls "a very personal place." According to Steakley, the writing of Jouét came during a period when Robertson was facing questions about his own identity on both a personal and professional level, questions such as: What does it mean to do fulfilling work as a composer and musical director in Austin, Texas, when Radio City Music Hall wants you to work on its Christmas Spectacular? "Allen had taken the gig to do the Radio City show, and it was one of the few things that got acceptance or interest from his parents because they know what that is," says Steakley. "But the reality of it was that it was a high-pressure gig with very low artistry, had no contribution artistically from Allen, [who was] teaching Rockettes to sing who weren't really going to sing, so it was very unsatisfying to him as a person, yet people that he mentioned it to said, 'Allen's going somewhere, he's doing something.'" It eclipsed all this work he had been doing in Austin that was much more meaningful to him, "like writing out that score for The Gospel at Colonus and making that musically so fabulous," says Steakley. "So I think it was coming to terms with some of that 'Who am I? Who will you be?' Those questions are asked repeatedly in the show: 'Who will you be, Jouét? Who will you be?'"
At the same time, Robertson's father became ill and that raised even more strongly questions of identity in relationship to family, what they give to you and what you make of it. Steakley observes that another big issue in Jouét is "this inheritance. Allen has so much admiration for his dad that he doesn't want to disappoint him, and he has an enormous sense of responsibility. Allen feels like he's a person who has inherited this good life and loving parents and a good situation, and if you're in that setting that can feel comfortable, then what do you do with that? How do you respond to people around you or circumstances that are less fortunate? Do you just take it on as guilt and think about it a lot and not activate? Or do you find one way that you can contribute to something? I think it's those personal struggles that led to" his writing this particular piece.
"I don't know, the timing is really interesting," Steakley notes. "I think Allen would agree that there are things that he knew that he didn't know," ideas and feelings that he was not aware of in his conscious life but which bubbled up from his subconscious and came out through "themes and lyrics and actions that are so telling." It's part of what makes Jouét feel different from Robertson's other work and no doubt adds to the power that led Steakley to produce its world premiere.
"I think it took me about a week from that first hearing of it" to decide to put it on the season, Steakley says. "It happened much faster than almost anything that I ever read or considered for the season, in terms of saying, 'Let's do this.' I loved it instantly, thought the work was excellent." It might have happened even more quickly, he adds, but "there was just that self-doubt thing of we had never produced an original musical -- hell, we hadn't been producing any original work." Indeed, even though under Steakley's leadership, Zach had produced a notable string of contemporary musicals, from the pioneering pop revue Beehive and its successors Forever Plaid and The Taffetas to rock musicals such as The Who's Tommy and Love, Janis to narrative works that drew on an astonishing range of pop musical styles -- Dreamgirls, Das Barbecü, Avenue X, Ruthless! The Musical, The Rocky Horror Show, and The Gospel at Colonus, to name just a few -- the closest the theatre had come to generating an original piece was Rockin' Christmas Party, a pop revue inspired by Zach's success with Beehive and modeled roughly on that earlier work. Given Steakley's commitment to the form and the ongoing success he had had with it -- both artistically and with its acceptance by Zach's audience -- producing an original musical seemed to be the next logical step forward for the theatre.
Steakley knew this; still, it was a very large step. A full production. On the Zach mainstage. With a six-week run. There's a lot of risk there for a nonprofit theatre -- the difference between a healthy season and a disaster. But even with that weighing in the balance, Steakley kept finding reasons to make Jouét happen. "It does fit into the vernacular of people's expectations of Zach, the kind of work we do," he reasoned. "It would not feel foreign to our audience." Then there was the advice that Chinese-American playwright Chay Yew had given Steakley a few months before: "Find that local voice, find that person that makes sense in your community, that's telling the stories that have access to your audience." And finally, Steakley says, "the competitive side of me that began to close in on the end of that week was not wanting anybody else on that work. I wanted us to present it."
That final, compelling reason is further testament to the journey Zach has made since Steakley came on board. He has cultivated relationships with a core group of theatre artists -- among them, designers Michael Raiford and Leslie Bonnell, performer Meredith McCall, and Robertson -- who not only deliver consistently exciting work but are in sync creatively. They understand each other's aesthetic, can communicate, cooperate, inspire each other. And each knows the others will deliver. Steakley says that when he asks Allen to re-orchestrate a piece, he doesn't "even have to think about it twice or worry about it because I know it will be exactly what I have in mind, that we will be on the same page. And that's how it is with Raiford and Leslie. We can talk about the ending of Jouét and I know that when we get there, we're going to be looking at the same images that were in our heads."
For that reason, it's been important to Steakley to have these artists on the team for Jouét. "I think all the artists there have a desire to participate in something new, to create something that nobody has seen yet, so that becomes the next artistic step that makes sense, and that's where we turn. Michael [Raiford] is involved, Leslie's involved, we want that team that we've been on this journey with where there's the shorthand in place. You're trying to think to the next level of how something might operate in this space. Because these people have been working in the same space together, everybody goes in with the same challenge: We want this to feel different, we want this to look different, we want it to seem different from our other projects."
The perspective from where Robertson sits is identical, and it's made the production of Jouét a smooth process. "Dave has a relationship with Meredith and a relationship with me as far as a collaborative setting, so it's three people in the room who all trust each other, know each other, can be honest and try things. The same thing with the design team and with the musicians. It's all very family-oriented, people who know each other. So it's been very relaxed."
That was certainly the mood at the production's technical rehearsal the Sunday before opening. Despite the complicated set-up of lights and video, the first-time appearance of costumes, and the myriad other details that caused the run-through to take four and a half hours to complete, the mood was light. Jokes were cracked, compliments proffered, spontaneous applause erupted. The long journey to opening night seemed to be drawing to a close with an uncommon calm.
But if Dave Steakley has his way, the end of this journey for Jouét will be the start of a new journey. He talks about wanting "Jouét in every regional theatre in the country ... because I think the work needs to be seen in that way." Robertson is typically modest about the show's prospects; he's happy to be getting the production he's getting. "I am interested in Jouét [having a life beyond this production], but I also don't expect it to, I guess," he says. "Any time you write something that's current, it has a short shelf life. And [Jouét] does have a short shelf life. It needs to be happening in the present, it needs to be happening tonight, yet it's on a very specific historic timeline. One of the first lyrics in the show is "Midnight, early September, 1965" -- which is Meredith's birthday -- so you're on a timeline of a 36-year-old woman performing the show, and the things she encounters happen on that timeline. [Having a life beyond this production is] so far beyond my expectations -- you know, two weeks self-produced in the Arena was my goal. That's why I'm calm. It's so much better than what it was written to be."
Whether or not you'll be seeing Jouét elsewhere after its world premiere run, you can count on seeing more musicals from Robertson on the theatre's mainstage. "With Allen, I feel like this is the beginning," Steakley says. "I think there will be several Allen Robertson projects at Zach over the years, and this is just where we've started. And that's exciting, and it just makes complete sense to me in regard to Zach, Austin, and who he is. It's recognition I feel like he deserves."
Jouét runs April 5-May 13 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside. Call 476-0541 for information.