Jun 26, 2013

Some Strange Music Drags Me In

Robby in New Orleans: a large spirit and a sense of wonder.
In the summer of 2002, I was heading into what would be, in retrospect, a really rough patch of my life. My mom had died suddenly the previous fall, and also that year I'd broken up my longtime band, Millhouse, though not before recording what would be my first solo record, i hope it's me. A year later both my job as editor of Back Stage West and my first marriage at the time would fall apart. Into the breach came an old friend from film school, Susan Lambert, and an idea I resisted like hell at first: a staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set in Depression-era Appalachia, for which I would put together a live band and write/supervise a score. Thank the gods Susan persisted with me; and indeed I later found out that she had been similarly coaxed over her initial skepticism by the piece's conceiver/adaptor, the large-spirited, childlike-in-wonder Robert L. Williams.

I'm not sure if I first met Robby on the Disney lot in Burbank, but I do remember that because both he and Susan worked for the Mouse, our initial rehearsals took place in one corner of the Disney commissary after hours, from which we cleared out tables and chairs and did our hillbilly Shakespeare thing. The cast, like many an L.A. theater cast, was an extraordinary mix of diverse talents of all levels and backgrounds, though there was a strong contingent of folks acquainted with Robby and/or Susan from their respective theater backgrounds in the South (Robbie, a Gulfport, Miss. native, had worked all over the South, including at Alabama Shakes and Southern Rep).

Robby, in addition to writing the adaptation, played a boisterous but sweet Sir Toby Belch, and his boyfriend Sean Galuszka would play Feste as a flinty, soulful, guitar-toting hobo. Susan and in particular Robby also clued me in to a number of the traditional songs we'd use in the show: We fitted a few of the classics, "Come Away Death" and "O Mistress Mine," to existing blues or folk templates, but otherwise interpolated period songs where appropriate: The show opened with a veritable hootenanny by the little bluegrass/old-time band I'd assembled, into which the Duke, in our rendition a coal mining foreman played by Gerald Hopkins, wandered with his opening lines about the food of love; the drinking song that awakens Malvolio's ire was Uncle Dave Macon's irresistible "Old Plank Road"; and our closer, replacing the "wind and the rain" number, was the Carter family classic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"

I still have some of the CDs Robby eagerly pressed on me for my research: the Harry Smith collection, The Music of Kentucky, and a number of special mixes he made. I'd gone through something of folk phase in high school, but this was a whole 'nother level of steeping in Americana, and its bittersweet grit has never quite worn off. I can hold my own when our little church band goes Southern, for instance, and I've introduced my share of the old, weird America into our services, mostly courtesy of this amazing compilation; and without this string-picking precedent, I doubt very much that I'd have had the skill set or the affinity for another folk-infused musical adaptation, The Devil and Tom Walker, I later did here in New York.

When An Appalachian Twelfth Night opened near the end of the year, it got great reviews--I'd almost forgotten how good until I recently revisited them. Folks really got what we were trying to do--that underneath the play's usual sport and romance, we'd infused a dusty, melancholy, sepia twang. We owe that all to Robby, whose passion for the project inspired Susan and Sean, and in turn me and the whole company. And I especially owe Robby the personal debt of providing me, via this great, quixotic project, an island of joyful and deeply satisfying creative work amid of the shoals of my own gathering troubles--a period I can truly say that was among my happiest as a musician and an artist, and, since those two things mean a lot to me, as a human being.

I recall all this now because of the crushing news, just received yesterday, that Robby died after a week in the hospital following a terrible car accident (he's the 50-year-old West Hollywood man in this harrowing story). I regret that I didn't get to know him well outside that show and a few subsequent gatherings; we never collaborated again, though I've jammed a few times with Sean since, and I'm working on a record of Shakespeare-inspired tunes for kids with Susan.

But Robby and I were in touch occasionally, and just months ago he expressed the wish that there might be some sort of Appalachian Twelfth Night reunion the next time I came back to L.A. Now, in the wake of his hospitalization and passing, Facebook is hosting a kind of virtual reunion, not only of that show's company but of people from all the walks of the wide-ranging life Robby lived. This is hardly the reunion he intended, of course, but it's a reminder of how many lives he touched, and changed, with his humor, his passion, and his love. He certainly touched and changed mine, and I will think of him every time I pick up my Martin and start idly picking "Wildwood Flower" or "The Cuckoo."

Below I've embedded a recording from the cast album I put together, with Robby's boyfriend Sean leading the show's closer, a classic about community mourning and resurrection. But before that, I I'll quote a few lines of Shakespeare's play that weren't said onstage in our Twelfth Night. For Robby:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut the gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.
UPDATE: Robby's official obit.

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