I first interviewed Jeffery Roberson, a.k.a. "Varla Jean Merman" in September 2011 when I saw his show "The Book of Merman" while vacationing in Provincetown. It was a joy to speak to him then and it was just as great to catch up with him now. Since last we spoke, Jeffery has filmed two movies, "Girls Will Be Girls 2012" and "Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads" (now available at www.sethtv.com/varla)
Now Jeffery is returning to the New York Stage to star in Gian Carlo Menotti's musical thriller "The Medium" from October 25-November 11 at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in NYC (10 West 64th Street). Click here for tickets!
1. Last time we spoke, you were starring in "The Book of Merman" at the Art House in Provincetown. Since that time you have completed two films "Girls Will Be Girls 2012" and "Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads." What was the best part about working on these two films? I love working with Clinton Leupp (Miss Coco Peru) and Jack Plotnick (Evie Harris) and Richard Day is such an amazing writer. We all had a great time together. I feel very lucky we were able to do this movie again because all the money was raised on Kickstarter, so the fans are the ones who paid for it, which means so much.
"Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads" was so much fun to do, but I was also the producer of the film, which added a lot of responsibility. On "Girls Will Be Girls," I just had to show up and do my part, but with "Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads," there was much more responsibility with the added title of producer. It was like an obstacle course to get to the end, but we got there.
2. Now, you will be starring in "The Medium," at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in NYC after a successful run this summer in Provincetown at the Art House. What initially attracted you to this show and what has made you want to stay with it? "The Medium" is a short opera, well technically it's a musical thriller because it was originally written for Broadway, but it is an opera in nature, similar to "Sweeney Todd" or "Passion" as it's all sung. It's a beautifully flowing piece with arias in it, but it's not like a typical opera. It's a great piece of theatre. "The Medium" is done in two acts in about an hour and fifteen minutes. It's so amazing what Menotti has put into this short amount of time.
In one respect the show is about death/grieving, but I believe it's about a woman's demise into mental illness. It's a heavy piece, like a melodrama. The story poses a lot of questions. Is "The Medium" providing these people a service or is she not? Is she conning these people, even though she's getting paid for it? In another respect she's also helping these people. Then she starts to hear the voices of the people she's conjuring up, which let just say can drive a lady crazy...hahaha. I sometimes describe it as "Ghost, but without the pottery wheel"...hahahaha.
The other thing I love about this show is the challenge of the acting. I haven't done anything serious, so this was a great opportunity for me. I'm not really a trained opera singer even though I've studied it, but it's still a great piece to sing. I will say, it is hard to be angry in falsetto, the two usually don't go together. It's difficult to try to add weight to the voice, but I just love this challenge. The music is so beautiful and complex, but then you just start to see what a genius Menotti was. It's just a great, great piece and while there are some fun moments, it really is a dark piece.
3. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? I hope they have an appreciation for Menotti besides the one piece they know him for which is "Amahl and the Night Visitors." I also hope people come away feeling this was an amazing piece of theatre, not an opera. Even though the whole show is sung through like an opera, it's really more of a dark theatrical production.
4. What do you identify most with about your character? I've found myself to be pretty mentally sane in my life, but there was this one time in college where I had a lot of anxiety problems and I thought I was losing my mind. The only thing that would calm me down, and I know this is the gayest thing ever, were Barbra Streisand Greatest Hits Volume 1. I listened to that so many times...
I think I was just very depressed and I know I couldn't control the looping of the phrases and thoughts that were causing the panic and anxiety. I identify with the fact that she thinks she has it all together and then one day, whether it's chemical imbalance or the supernatural (which I don't really believe in), things start to happen, and you don't know what is happening in your head. I identify with the fear that you can't control what happens in your head.
5. What excites you about bringing this show to New York? To tell you the truth, it's a little bit terrifying. If there is the one city in the US that knows opera, it would be New York. Even though this is an obscure opera, any regular operagoer knows this piece and it's very, very difficult. Add to the fact that I'm a man and have to sing in falsetto and add anger on top of that, is a very challenging feat. Unlike my own shows, if I don't feel like hitting a note, I'll do what I want, but I can't do that here.
I love working with my fellow cast members, who all reside here. I've done so much comedy that this role and show is a great challenge for me.
Me: It's always great to challenge yourself and do something different than what you normally do.
Jeffery: Oh yes. Even in my comedy stuff, I've gotten to do some characters that are based in some sort of reality. I've gotten to do Charles Busch's "The Divine Sister" in Boston. He's such a great writer, you know he bases all his plots in truth. There were some very sad story lines in "Divine Sister," where I lost a baby, and even though it's very campy, there is a thread of reality in it that you need to play with his stuff. I loved doing that.
6. What do you like about performing in New York as opposed in Provincetown? I haven't performed a lot in NY recently. I did my solo show here and was in "Lucky Guy," which I had a great time doing. Audiences are very smart here, which is great, but it's also scary. They'll know if I don't hit a note. In Provincetown, I was able to get away with it a little bit. That's also why we did a run in Provincetown...it's sort of like a marathon, you have to train for it. I did the training and now it's time to do the race, which is exciting.
7. What do you get from performing as "Varla Jean" that you don’t get from performing as yourself? I've been "Varla" for so long that she sometimes just drives herself and controls my life....hahaha. I have been cast in shows because of "Varla" and that show has a character similar to her. But anytime I'm in a show people do always ask me, "Is "Varla" in this?" and I have to tell them I'm not playing "Varla," I'm playing a character similar to her.
In "Medium," I'm definitely not playing "Varla." My character in this show is a completely different person, a different sound, a different look, etc.
8. What has been your worst on-stage mishap? One time I was singing Diana Ross' "Reach Out and Touch" and I did this thing where I had to pick someone out of the audience I'd been picking on all night and I was singing the song as "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Man." So I found this couple in the audience and then I found one person in the audience who was single and made him touch one of the people in the couple. So, the whole show has been building up to this one moment. I finally went out into the audience to grab this single man to go touch the couple and I look and he didn't have any arms. I couldn't see that he didn't have any arms. I'm singing, "I want you to reach out and touch" and he had no arms. I looked at him and he looked at me and I just picked up and hugged him and then went to use my hand to touch the couple.
Another time I picked somebody to come up on stage and I would sing this song, "You're perfect, except this," then I'd put a wig on them, then I would sing that line again "You're perfect, except this," then I'd put a robe on them and eventually I would dress them up as me. I found this guy, who I could tell didn't want to be on stage, and I was like "Loosen-up, you're in Provincetown, you're on vacation, where do you live?" And he was like, "I live...here." And then it just got worse and this story is why I've never done this since. By the end of the night, he was almost crying and I just felt terrible, but people had told me you can never accept no for an answer if they don't want to come up on stage because if one person doesn't do it, then no one is going to do it. That is sort of true and I had that in my head, but I learned that there is a time when no means no. It was just a terrible moment.
9. What other projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about? I'm going back home to New Orleans to do a Christmas Show that I helped my friend write called "Scrooge and Rouge," which is a three person version of "A Christmas Carol". It's presented as a Victorian Music Hall style show. Then after that I'm doing a show I did a couple of years ago called "Shut Up Sweet Charlotte."
10. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Teleporting myself. I can't get on another airplane. I'm so tired of them.