This Spotlight focuses on Robert Yacko, one of the busiest triple-threat performers in Los Angeles, whose musical theatre skills constantly bring magic to the stage.
Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?
Robert Yacko (Robert): I’ve been around a long time, a native Philadelphian who cut his teeth on theater in high school after being a musician for a few years. I was pulled into the love of dance by a choreographer who saw potential in me. My brilliant acting teacher at Temple University, Joel Friedman, then gave me the tools that got me into the Juilliard Drama Division and things took off from there. My Broadway debut was in Fiddler on the Roof with Herschel Bernardi, directed by Jerome Robbins himself, assisted by Ruth Mitchell and Tommy Abbot. The subsequent National Tours we did brought me to LA twice, and after having the privilege of dancing with the legendary Cyd Charisse in summer stock, LA was beckoning.
I was quickly welcomed in the City of Angels with two back-to-back seasons in the Mark Taper Rep, soon followed by one of the highlights of my career - starring in the Los Angeles Premiere of Sunday in the Park With George, with Pamela Myers (the original Marta from Company) as my brilliant Dot and Marie. We had the Broadway sets and costumes and a director chosen by Sondheim and Lapine, the wonderful Fran Soeder.
From that flowed lots of amazing opportunities, many of them in Sondheim musicals, which was a gift, since his work was the very reason I longed to do musicals. Highlights of my Los Angeles Theater work include Into the Woods with Leslie Uggams, Company with Carol Burnett and Patrick Cassidy, Chess with Jodi Benson, A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia with Cathy Rigby, The Donmar Warehouse production of Parade at the Mark Taper (which began my association with Jason Robert Brown), and more recently, Annie at the Hollywood Bowl with Lea Salonga, Megan Hilty, Anna Gasteyer, David Alan Grier, and Steven Weber.
As many singing actors do, I have also branched out into the LA Cabaret scene in the last decade, aided and guided by my inspiring friend, Bruce Kimmel. To say I have been blessed over the years, especially in this city, is an understatement!
(SB): I have seen many of the shows you mentioned, but were you involved with any productions when word went out to immediately postpone or cancel them?
(Robert): I had two corporate shows scheduled in late March, one of which was cancelled, one postponed. I have been working with my corporate event company for 17 years and those were the first to go, as they are highly attended events. And I was slated to do the second in a series of Concerts at the Wallis Annenberg on April 1st, organized by the outgoing Mayor of Beverly Hills with Richard Sherman’s son, Greg. The first Concert of this series we did on February 26th, which was an evening of Tom Lehrer and Stephen Sondheim as a partial sing-along. The April concert was to be in a Hollywood Musicals theme, but this event was cancelled.
I was due to perform in the April and May Kritzerland Cabarets at Vitello’s, the second of which would coincide with our Director/Producer Bruce Kimmel’s new book Simply, A Lifetime of Lyrics being published, and would highlight his songs. The April 5th event had to be cancelled. However, the May Concert went online on May 3rd on Facebook Live and YouTube Live with a theme change.
The biggest event of mine that got postponed, first from March 30th to June 1st, and now to a TBD date, was the 2nd Benefit for Musical Theatre Guild’s Educational Outreach, an event called Rewind2: By Request at the Rockwell. I was honored to be directing this benefit show and we had been working hard on its planning, built with music from audience-requested musicals from MTG’s archives, using 25 of LA’s best musical theater actors. I’d been working closely with Kristi Holden (producer / organizer) and our Musical Director, Dan Redfeld, since late January and we had a stellar lineup of songs and MTG members to perform them. We were about to have our first rehearsals when everything shut down. This was the toughest one to lose, even temporarily, but I do know that it will get done when we can do so safely.
(SB): That was a lot of changes in such a short time. How were the shutdowns communicated with the cast and production teams?
(Robert): With the corporates, our manager let us know via group email as soon as things changed. With Kritzerland, I spoke to Bruce Kimmel as things unfolded, and at the point where Shelter in Place went through April 15th, we knew we had to cancel April 5th. Then in mid-April, I got a message that we might try and do a Kritzerland online. The Wallis concert word came in a group email from our vocal director Carly Bracco, who had already put a ton of work into the event. It was heartbreaking for many, as this one is lost for good.
Finally, the MTG Benefit word came through back and forth messages with our brilliant coordinator Kristi, who at first tried to have us keep our March rehearsal schedule and get tracks to the singers for the June date. At the same time, MTG was still trying to plan for Kismet on May 3rd and a Glendale Arts event immediately after, which I was asked to direct as well. We soon realized that putting 20+ singers in among some of our elders was not prudent, considering how COVID news was darkening daily. It was first shared privately among the production staff and performers, then the date changes were announced publicly.
(SB): Are plans in place for any of those productions to be done at a future date?
(Robert): One corporate event may be done in October. The Wallis concerts are gone permanently. Krtizerland went on Facebook Live and YouTube Live, with guest star Liz Calloway contributing from NY. The MTG Benefit will happen at a TBD date. It will be a great show for a worthy cause, to support and inspire the next generation of Musical Theater Artists.
(SB): I have to say, you are one of the busiest stage actors I know. What future productions on your schedule are also being affected by the shutdown?
(Robert): I worked last November for the first time with David Green’s Musical Theatre University in Palm Desert doing Gypsy with a dear friend from NY, Alix Corey, who teaches there. Their program is extraordinary and so are the students involved. David and I talked about future productions (among them, JRB’s Honeymoon in Vegas), and in truth, I am not certain how this affects the program’s schedule. I was to be a guest star at the group’s last (of 6) cabaret shows on March 19th, but that of course was cancelled. I will indeed work with this group again when it is safe to do so.
There were some play readings I was to do with the gifted writer/director Suse Sternkopf (who took my great Cabaret headshot photo), with the ultimate design to create a new theater company. That is off the table until we can reconvene, as her two plays require a real intimate emotional connection which is hard to make with semi-strangers on Zoom.
Other than the MTG Benefit and their Glendale Arts show at the Americana being delayed to indeterminate dates, what is mostly affected is the ability to audition for future work, which is huge. Since no one knows exactly when and if productions can be done, no one is auditioning for anything of note. Of course, that will delay the start of productions at theaters across the board when they can re-open.
(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(Robert): Since I work a lot, the initial shock of having my entire work schedule vanish in the course of two days, topped by the ever-frightening tone of the news, caused me first to reach for humor, rather than panic. It was partly to keep things light and probably partially due to disbelief and denial. So, in the first 9 days of Shelter at Home, I started posting parodies of Musical Theater Posters, as if these were the only shows we could do now: things like Sunday in the Park Without George and No Company. I posted a dozen on Facebook the first day and people clamored for more, as everyone needed a way to laugh off the shock of this new normal in which we were suddenly living. I began posting every day on Facebook and Instagram, and in 9 days, I had created 101 mocked up posters of “Quarantined Musicals.”
A friend asked me to make a book of them for her as a cheer-up and a funny memento, so I went into iPhoto and created one, and sent copies to friends to keep them smiling in the moment and to keep as a funny memory once the plague has passed.
Just 10 days ago, I submitted my vocal-part video for a virtual choir, in which I was asked to participate by Jeff Rizzo and Eric Andrist. It is an 8-part SATB 1 & 2 choir version of a well-known pop song from the 70’s, which I cannot mention until it is ready. Fifty great LA singers sent in vocal/visual tracks to be edited together by David Engel. It should be ready soon.
As mentioned, I was shooting 3 songs for Sunday’s Krtizerland show, from composers Randy Newman, Cole Porter, and Noel Coward. And I am redesigning my professional website. It’s time and I have the time now.
Otherwise, like so many, I am eagerly watching the online concert events like Sondheim’s 90th Celebration and Jason Robert Brown’s Subculture show, highlights of the last 2 days (as I write this). And I am trying to stay in touch with my friends in our circle to make sure everyone is okay.
(SB): Are there any other thoughts would you like to share with the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?
(Robert): Be Kind - to yourself first and to everyone around you, friends, family, and strangers alike. There is no roadmap for this current madness, but we as artists are more used to the kind of uncertainty that everyone is experiencing right now, and are suited to help however we can. This time is a reminder of the Native American adage that “No one wins unless the whole tribe wins.” We are all part of a tribe, both in the theater world and the rest of the world. No one is safe unless everyone is, and kindness goes a long way in making someone’s day, and in relieving some of the stress that breaks down immune systems. The smallest gestures make an enormous difference.
(SB): I so agree with you on bringing kindness into the world. Before the pandemic at the opening night of Daniel's Husband at the Fountain Theatre, director Simon Levy gave me a badge that says “Make America Kind Again” which I proudly wear every day. I wish I had hundreds of them so I could give one to each person who has reacted so positively to its message.
(Robert): I also encourage everyone to mine your solitude for its gifts of self-learning and resting, which is something we don’t do enough of when the wheels are turning full-speed. The digital world has made resting and recharging a forgotten art, one we all need to do to create our best work and, of course, to stay healthy.
You can find me by name on Facebook and Instagram. You can also watch some great videos of my many Cabaret performances on my self-named YouTube Channel, as well as a few bootlegged videos from productions of Company, Chess and Sunday in the Park With George, plus a recording of some unsung Sherman Brothers.
This article first appeared on Broadway World.