David Robertson: My first experience in a play was in the tenth grade in The Merchant of Venice. My older sister was Portia, and I got to be the Page. It was a very small role, but I also got to write and play the music. That was where I first put music and theater together. The next year I was Touchstone in As You Like It. And this is where you can see that the two coincide. In addition to playing Touchstone, I also wrote the incidental music and organized the ensemble that played it. Then in my senior year, which was the bicentennial year, 1976, in addition to composing and conducting the music for The Taming of the Shrew, I was cast as Harold Hill in The Music Man. It was a very large production, with a cast of about 250. The nicest compliment I got was when Meredith Willson [the show's composer-author] came and said to the director, "This is a great production, but why did you have to get a professional to play Harold Hill?"
I was also a very thin Colonel Purdy in The Teahouse of the August Moon. I was Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind. I wore the padding and learned the hard way that if you use the restroom when you're in padding, you have to be very careful when you come back onstage that you're zipped. But in addition to theater, I was also focused on my music. As a high school student, when I would study my scores I began to realize that there were all sorts of cues in the narrative of a symphony or an overture or a tone poem or concerto where the parallels and the analogies could be mapped directly onto learning a character. What is the motivation of the character to say this? What is the motivation of this phrase to rise rather than fall?
Right at the time that I was graduating high school, I had the first major decision of my life, which was: Do I pursue theater as a career, or do I pursue music? As in [Robert] Frost's poem of two roads diverging in a wood, I perhaps took the road less traveled, certainly in Los Angeles. And not only has that made all the difference, but it means that you constantly wonder what was on the other road.
Dennis Brown: You left home to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. While you were there, did you have time to attend the theater?
After seeing four to five concerts a week in my first several months in London, I thought I should go to some theater as well. By my second year, I was going to as many theater productions as concerts. Mostly I was a National Theater junkie, because it was affordable. And it was great to see some of these magnificent actors, who I only knew from film, onstage. I saw the first production of Amadeus with Paul Scofield, which was terribly exciting. I especially recall the Peter Hall production of Julius Caesar. [John] Gielgud played Caesar. Man, oh man! Right before the stabbing scene when Gielgud did the speech that builds up to "And that I am he," it was like a musical score. It was amazing to hear the way that he spoke it.
I sense that you miss acting. When you conduct the symphony, how much of Harold Hill walks out on the stage with you?
I like to think of myself as being able to incarnate whatever role is necessary. So for example, if I go out to perform a profound work by Mahler, there's no Harold Hill anywhere in the building. But if I perform the overture to Bernstein's Candide, a great deal of Harold Hill walks out with me, because you need to get the audience to come along and fall for certain bait. This has nothing to do with European versus American music, because believe me, if you conduct Offenbach, and you don't emanate a little Harold Hill, you've missed the point, which is that an Offenbach opera strives to delight the audience in precisely the same way that "cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks" entertains an audience in The Music Man.
What is it about that show that so resonates with you?
One of the things that makes The Music Man so satisfying is that Meredith Willson intimately knew music. He played flute in Toscanini's NBC orchestra. So there's a crossing of cultures in that show. There was a time in this country when there was a natural flow between opera and musical theater. You'd get a piece like The Threepenny Opera, which is a very sophisticated way of putting things together, or Gershwin with Porgy and Bess. But what happened, especially after World War II, was that productions like these became landmarks on a trail that peters out into various different kinds of screed. Now you get something by Andrew Lloyd Webber that has the trappings of great opera, but it's been watered down in order to make it palatable for a large number of people.
I find this schism between opera and musicals to be very sad, because there's not just one way of expressing life. Guys and Dolls is the perfect example. "I've got the horse right here/His name is Paul Revere." How can you capture that in an opera without making it sound silly? At the same time, John Adams has done a really good job in serious opera of managing to incorporate the best elements of music theater. Stephen Sondheim does it from the other direction. But their productions end up being like that marvelous shot at the beginning of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories. They're like people on different subway trains looking at each other through the window, and the trains are never going to be on the same track.
What's the last show you saw that knocked you out?
Arguably the greatest evening of theater that I have ever known was Bob Wilson's King Lear in Frankfurt. An 80-year-old actress, Marianne Hoppe, played the title role. Sadly, it did not tour, so few people saw it. But that was 1990. More recently [a long thoughtful pause] — the truth is that I have a problem with theater as most people know it nowadays, because I can't stand the amplification. I actually go with earplugs. And it's not only the musicals, but even standard theater, which feels like it's being done for the hearing impaired.
Given that caveat, I suppose the last thing that really blew me away was last summer when I saw The Merchant of Venice outdoors at the Globe in London. Although the cast was uneven, because the Globe is a kind of training ground for younger actors, when they got to Lorenzo's fifth-act speech "In such a night as this," the entire audience looked up at the stars. It's not as if Shakespeare didn't already have enough going for him as a writer. You could almost hear him saying, "I also have God as my divine designer, so I'm going to make a reference." Until that night, it had never dawned on me how often Shakespeare's characters refer to the heavens in ways that will get us to look up at the cosmos.