July 20, 2009By Marc Wilkofsky Posted: Jul 20, 2009
I recently spoke with Robert Newman about his other world, the off-Broadway show Sessions (see my review in the previous blog entry, and please note that he won't appear in Wednesday matinees), and about one reason why soap viewers might attend the show: his years as Josh on GUIDING LIGHT.
Soap Opera Weekly: How do you do it, finding the physical and mental energy to pour yourself into both characters, Josh and Peter?
Robert Newman: You know, my whole world right now is about time management. There are times [when] Sessions goes down at about 10:20, 10:30ish. I don't get home until midnight, 12:30ish or even to sleep [until] around 1 o'clock. Several times, I've had to get up at 5 to make my way into Manhattan. And then there are times where I have to plan a 20-minute nap here and a 20-minute nap there. I'm trying to be careful with my diet. I'm trying to stay on my exercise thing, and it's just like this balancing act that I do, because Sessions takes an enormous amount of energy out of me in every performance. It's a very draining role. I hardly ever leave the stage, and it's a real emotional roller coaster of a role, and I just feel completely wiped out afterward. And starving, by the way — [it's an] interesting phenomenon, but I'm famished by the time I'm done with the show. And then Josh, somehow it's worked out fine. In fact, in some ways, I feel a little more energized playing Josh. And I don't know how to explain that, but I love being onstage. I love doing theater work, and I think that informs my work as Josh, as well. That is part of the reason that for the last several years, I've been taking a month off every summer to go away to do some theater so I could go onstage [and] come back re-energized.
Weekly: And as far as exercise, you go out for runs? Or you do things at home?
Newman: Kettlebell, baby! I have one at my dressing room at the theater and I have one at home. Beth Chamberlin (Beth, GL) got me totally hooked on it six months ago. It's changed my body completely and it keeps me going. It's basically a round ball — in my case, 30 pounds with a handle on it — that you throw around, not like a softball, but you throw it around, swing it around, press it and punch it; there are all kinds of things to do with it. It wipes you out in a short amount of time, and it really works. It's improved my golf game and improves flexibility. I'm a big fan.
Weekly: Do you have time to do that in the short intermission? Or do you rest?
Newman: [In the] intermission, no; I barely have time to change my clothes and have a glass of water. But I do it often, in between the matinee and evening performances. I have about a three-hour break in between, so I can do my 45-minute workout and shower up, and have plenty of time to grab a bite to eat, and then do the second performance. I don't think people sometimes realize how difficult the matinee-to-evening thing can be; it's a trick. You have to stay very quiet in between. You can't overdo certain things — you have to get some rest — but at the same time you can't let your body shut down, because you have a whole other show to do. But vocally and in terms of energy, it's tricky.
Weekly: What aspects of Peter and Sessions in general pulled you into the musical?
Newman: You know, it's funny. You know the story that Ron Raines (Alan, GL) called me on the golf course and said, "I just saw the show and I know they're replacing the lead, and I think you'd be very good for this. I told them to contact you." And they did. I got a hold of the script, and at first I met with the producers and director, and we talked over some things, but I still hadn't read the script. I got a hold of the script and read through it, and then I went to see it. I felt like the potential I was seeing for the character I didn't see onstage, and I was really perplexed by it, because I'm drawn to characters, like Joshua, who are broken and at a turning point in their lives, where they are beginning to question who they are and the significance of their life up to that point. And that's exactly where Peter is. He's at a place where he's not sure what he does has value. A part of that is because he's on the brink of having an affair with a younger patient. So his journey kind of informs his patients' journey, and vice versa. One of the things [writer] Albert Tapper was looking for was the idea that we put therapists up on a pedestal, where we expect them to have their lives together. They must know the secret to having a great life. Now, I know several therapists personally, and some of them don't have their lives together. They can be pretty messed up.
Weekly: But they're very good listeners.
Newman: Yeah, which I have to be through a big hunk of this play. So I'm very drawn to that field. I was a psychology major when I began my college career, before I switched over to theater later on. Part of that was because I felt that there was a strong connection between psychology and acting. They're both about understanding human behavior; how screwed-up we are and why we do the things we do. How often we know the best and healthiest choice, but we often choose something else. And we know we're doing it, but we choose it anyway, and we'll have to deal with the consequences. This whole play is about choices and consequences, and trying to understand if there is a value in what I do. This is something that I struggle with on the soap opera all the time. How much value is there in playing a character in a soap opera? And then, every once in a while, you get a glimpse of it from a fan. I met a fan once who was battling cancer and told me, "All throughout chemotherapy, the one thing I was holding onto was your show." And then you say, "Well, I guess there is value." People need to be able to escape to a world like Springfield, like they need medical attention and other things in their lives. They need some sort of place to go that's familiar to them.
Weekly: And a little piece of advice that Josh gives a character may be very inspirational for a viewer?
Newman: Well, hopefully. I mean, you know, I like that we explore all kinds of different issues. You know, I'm not sure that I'd want anyone to pattern their marriage after Josh's nine failed marriages [laughs]. That probably isn't a good idea. But yeah, I think that when we're at our best, people are seeing things familiar to their own lives, and they watch and see how Josh and Reva deal with a particular problem, and hopefully it brings them to a better place.
Weekly: Definitely. So, in Sessions, what is Peter's main problem? Having seen it, I've noticed that he has to do about 10 things at once, but what do you think is his main problem?
Newman: Well, what you see [are] hints of his problems in real life. You see a hint of where his marriage is at, which is stalled. You see that he's questioning the importance of what he does for a living, and if it has value. You see him kind of toying with this woman [Leila] and crossing this line that he shouldn't be crossing, especially for a therapist, because when a therapist gets involved with a patient, it's not just his marriage that's at stake; his entire career is at stake. You can lose your license for getting too heavily involved with a patient. So he's really on the brink of throwing everything away. The way I see the role is that even as he's breaking down and having his own problems, he still somehow manages to be good at what he does. As the second act progresses, he's helping people get through [their hardships], almost in spite of himself. You know, where his life is a mess, but he still has this gift of helping other people, and he does it well.
Weekly: Do you find it funny that Peter, like Josh, loves the wrong woman?
Newman: [laughs] Well, which is the wrong woman [his wife or Leila]? Well, you know people are people, particularly men. Men are stupid [laughs]. You know, we just are. We do stupid things, and we turn to the wrong person for the wrong reasons thinking that there's some sort of answer there. And there really isn't for the most part; 99.9 percent of the time, there isn't. But I think he does redeem himself. I also like the way the play is structured. You know, [in] the first act, you have a lot of comedy, you have a lot of setting up of characters, you kind of get everyone in the right place. The second act actually becomes quite tragic. We've had some really extraordinary reactions. People weeping openly at certain points in the second act, whether it has to do with this married couple struggling in their lives [or] with the woman being abused by her husband.
Weekly: Regarding the performance of "Breathe" with Rachelle Rak (Leila) in the first act, how long did it take you to learn the choreography?
Newman: It took me like five seconds for the one in the first act. It's not that bad. The one that begins the second act takes a little bit longer. Rachelle is a fabulous dancer, and she basically just throws me around, and I'm just there for the ride [laughs]. She always there to make sure that I'm in the right place in the right moment, and we've been having a lot of fun with this piece.
Weekly: A lot of people might not realize that you sing and dance in this show. How would you describe this musical to non-Broadway showgoers?
Newman: Well, to me, it's actually a play. It's a play with music. If you think of something like Cats, that's clearly a musical. To me, there are some spectacular monologues in Sessions and scenes that could hold their own in any non-musical that's out there. To me, it's a play that also happens to be a musical.
Weekly: There are many moments where there is dialogue within the songs. Is that actually more fun than challenging?
Newman: No, they're fun. You know, I'm also an actor who sings. Singing is not my primary thing. It's something I work on diligently all the time; I'm still studying today. I've been studying for years, and to me, it's always a work in progress. But the two big solos that I do — the one at the beginning, and one at the end — they need to be acted. They can't just be sung in a pretty way, note for note. Particularly the first one ("I'm Only Human"), that's such a talky banter song. I had a lot of those when I did Nine, and that's just helping the audience to understand each lyric as it comes by, because they come by so quickly. The one that's later ("This Life of Mine") is really the peak of his emotional breakdown, and if I've done all the work I need to do emotionally up to that point, and taken the journey that Peter takes, and done it successfully, then by the time I sit down and begin to sing that song, I don't have to act at all. It's just where I'm at, and the song just sings itself. Oddly enough, they only put that song in about three weeks before I joined the show. [It's] what they call the 11 o'clock song, the "bring the house down" song late in the show. Before I stepped onstage, I had only listened to the CD once, I had only seen the show twice, and that's all I wanted to see. I did almost all the rehearsals by myself [laughs], downstairs in the theater in one of their rehearsal rooms, occasionally with the director, or with another actor, if I could get the actor. That was maybe a week of work, and then suddenly I was onstage and doing the show. Even what you're seeing right now, several weeks later, it almost feels like previews. And it changes all the time. We're still tweaking it; I know they're going to redo a lot of things in the first 30 minutes of the show. They're working on that right now. It's still a work in progress.
Weekly: Your run continues through August?
Newman: I'm booked through August 30, which is odd, because I won't be on that day, because Kim [Zimmer, Reva] and I are presenting at the Daytime Emmys. The hope is to move it to a bigger house after Labor Day, so we'll probably shut down for a couple of weeks and reblock the show for a bigger stage, and then hopefully be opening up at one of the bigger off-Broadway houses, probably sometime in mid-September.
Weekly: What are your general hopes for what Sessions will accomplish?
Newman: I just want it to be the best it can be. I think it's a story that's worth telling. I think one of the things Albert Tapper has landed on here is that people who are in the audience will relate to at least one story, if not several stories. It's one of those plays that can be done in regional theaters and colleges and universities all around the country one day. So that's my hope for it, is that we continue to fine-tune it, we continue until we get it to a place where eventually it will be put out there for the wider audience. That's my hope for the piece.
Weekly: Now, just some questions about GL; what are your general thoughts about the show ending? Is there anything you'd like to say about the wrap-up on CBS?
Newman: You know, it just is what it is. I've been through several different things emotionally about it, but I knew it was coming. I think some of us believed it was coming more than others, but I've been preparing for it for a long time. You know, I've always thought of it as a gig — it's just a gig. It just happens for me to have lasted 28 years, and I'm sure you've heard me quoted already saying, "I signed a three-year deal 28 years ago, and I don't really have a lot to complain about; I got my three years out of it." There are two areas where I just feel very sad, and one is for the audience. I've had a lot of fans talk to me about this. I did a big appearance down in South Carolina a couple weeks ago, and a lot of fans are really, truly devastated and sad, profoundly sad, and I feel for that, I really do, that this is gonna be done after they spent their whole lives watching and being entertained by these characters and crying with them and laughing with them and feeling with them and hurting with them. They're just gonna be gone — the story is done, it's over, goodbye. And the other thing for us in the studio [is that] I have a lot of friendships here, I have a lot of people that I care about a great deal, that I love, and that's gonna be tough. It's gonna be really tough to say goodbye.
Weekly: Yes. Having watched for about 28 years, I've been depressed. But I've talked to a few fans who have made it clear that while yes, it's like watching your own family, it's also a multigenerational thing. One person said his grandmother, who passed away, used to watch it with him.
Newman: I hear that all the time. "My mom and I used to watch the show and it was the only thing we ever talked about; we couldn't talk about other things." As you said to me the other night at the theater, I've had a lot of people saying to me that they feel like right now the show is in better shape than it's been in a while and it's very watchable. There's a lot of stories being told right now. It's sort of sad that this is the time that CBS decided to put an end to it. But change happens, and change can be a very powerful thing. It can be scary and weird and frightening and all those things, but it's also an opportunity to move forward and to do other things. I don't know if I'm talking to the fans now or talking to myself, quite frankly. But the only thing constant is change, and I think that [the viewers are] going to have to move on with their lives and find other sources of entertainment and storytelling.
Weekly: Definitely. And they can still watch a few GL actors on other shows.
Newman: That's true. Follow the other actors where their careers take them; that's true.
For more info on Sessions, please check out www.sessionsthemusical.com.