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Noah Robbins on Grease Live, His First Musical Since High School

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‘When the New York Times published a photograph of the cast of Grease Live this week, Noah Robbins posted it on his Facebook page and noted: “I’m on the far right, apparently practicing my stand-up act while everyone was busy performing the show.” At least he’s in the picture.

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Robbins, who made his Broadway debut straight out of high school as the lead in a Neil Simon revival directed by the much-praised David Cromer, will now be making his live television debut in the revival of the 1972 Broadway musical, which Fox will broadcast this Sunday,  January 31, directed by the much-praised Tommy Kail, best-known for his direction of Hamilton. In a cast that includes Aaron Tveit as bad boy Danny Zuko, Julianne Hough as good girl Sandy, as well as Vanessa Hudgens, Carly Rae Jepson, Mario Lopez, even BoyzIIMen and DNCE, which is fronted by Joe Jonas, Robbins portrays a minor character, the nerd Eugene Florczyk.

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Noah Robbins (rear right) with Aaron Tveit, Elle McLemore and Vanessa Hudgens

In the six years in-between his starring role in Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway and his forthcoming performance on Grease Live on Fox, (besides getting a B.A. in Philosophy from Columbia) Robbins has established himself mainly in two ways:

  1. as a serious New York stage actor, performing in plays by such noted playwrights as Tom Stoppard.

2.as what Lin-Manuel Miranda recently called a “National Twitter treasure.” Robbins has elevated Tweets into a kind of surreal performance art.

Other examples:

As a writer I think the question I’m most interested in exploring is “how am I so poor”

I don’t generally like to get political on Twitter but I think season two of The West Wing is my favorite.

My hope is that there will soon be so many young British movie stars that they all drown in an ocean of each other.

Your struggles are so unique you HAVE to make a web series

My New Year’s resolution is to work “so I says to the guy I says” into at least one conversation.

My New Year’s resolution is to set the bar higher for myself and also light the bar on fire because they still don’t believe I’m over 21.

Recently, he’s understandably been focusing on Grease:

Been in LA for 20 minutes and I’ve already had a conversation about traffic.

Today Channing Tatum showed up on set but the far bigger story is that I ate four granola bars and have no reservations about eating more.

I’m getting nervous, which is oddly my favorite feeling.

I had five Gogurts at craft services today. Showbiz is everything I dreamed it would be.

Q: You made your Broadway debut at age 19. Now, six years later, you’re making your live television debut. How are the experiences similar, and how are they different?

Noah Robbins: One similarity is that my character in Brighton Beach Memoirs and my character in Grease Live are both named Eugene.  But more generally, I feel like in both cases I was simultaneously totally out of my comfort zone, and right at home.  When I did Brighton Beach Memoirs my previous credit was playing Max Bialystock in my high school production of The Producers; in other words, there was a bit of a learning curve.  In a similar vein, I have never done anything remotely like a live TV special.  But at the end of the day, both productions were, and are, made up of extremely passionate, kind, hardworking people trying to create something special, and walking into an environment like that always feels seamless.

So that’s how they’re similar. How are they different? How specifically do the Eugenes differ?

Well, the main goal during rehearsals for Brighton Beach Memoirs was always to make Eugene a real person, to avoid being too jokey.  The director of that show, David Cromer, was incredible at getting me to the point where even the funniest punchline felt like it was coming from a very human place.  I think at the beginning of Grease Live rehearsals, I was still very much in that frame of mind, in that I was trying to play this Eugene as an equally real person.  There was a note that Tommy Kail gave me one day that was a huge help.  (By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to Tommy–he’s a friend and a genius and hilarious and 100% the reason I got this part.)  He told me that Eugene is not so much a real person as he is the idea of a real person.  And I knew exactly what he meant.  Because it’s Grease, there needs to be a certain fun larger-than-life energy to all of the characters, an energy that you probably wouldn’t see walking down the street.  So in a sense, I’ve approached the characters from totally opposite directions.

But even if Brighton Beach Memoir is more realistic, it’s still a Neil Simon comedy. The plays you’ve been in Off-Broadway that I’ve seen, most notably Punk Rock, and your performances on television before this — such as Virginia Johnson’s son in Masters of Sex — have been serious roles. What’s the difference between your comic and your serious roles? Can you think of a specific example to help us understand how you’re able to pull off what I call a Jack Lemmon.

Wow, it’s extremely flattering to be compared to Jack Lemmon!  He’s one of my favorite actors.

It’s funny that you bring up the fact that I’ve mostly done serious roles, because I’ve always felt more at home doing comedy.  In high school I did comedies, in college I was in an improv group, and I always strive to make at least two jokes per minute in my daily life.  So the fact that I’ve done a lot of drama surprises me.  I guess, ultimately, I don’t think of the two as that different.  The best comedy, to me, is the completely naturalistic kind.  Steve Carell is another hero of mine.  When he delivers a joke, it’s hilarious but it doesn’t sound like a zinger, it just sounds like a statement, even with his perfect comic timing.  I think that’s why he’s able to shift so flawlessly between drama and comedy.  I am IN NO WAY comparing myself to Steve Carell, but I try my best to go for the same thing.  Whether it’s serious or funny, the job is to make it seem like it’s really happening.

Is this the first time you’ve been in a musical since high school?

This is indeed, so I figured I’d do it in front of millions of people.  It’s actually been a huge learning experience.  Even though I don’t have any singing solos or crazy dance numbers, it’s been really fun to learn how to embody that energy that’s required when you’re in a musical, or at least a musical like Grease.  And I think it’s made me a more well-rounded actor.

I was one of the few people who actually saw you in Brighton Beach Memoirs, which closed a week after it opened. At least Grease is supposed to last only one performance. (For the record, I thought you and Santino Fontana were terrific.) That must have been terribly disappointing. Were you in shock? How do you look back at that experience now?

I’m glad you got to see it.  That was definitely a shocking and hugely disappointing experience, but I’m absolutely certain that it made me a much better and smarter and more mature person.  Prior to that happening, I knew basically nothing about how hard being an actor could be, since I got that part right out of high school.  So I think I almost needed that experience, or something like it, to teach me about the realities of show business, and how lucky you are just to be working.  I think I have much healthier and more realistic expectations about acting as a result.  It’s made me thankful for any and every opportunity that comes my way, so when something as rare and insanely enjoyable as Grease Live comes along, I really know to count my lucky stars.

What’s it been like on the set of Grease?

My first day of rehearsal was actually three weeks after the lead cast had started rehearsing, and I was a little nervous that I’d feel like an outsider.  That night after rehearsal, we all went to Julianne [Hough}’s house and watched The Apartment (with Jack Lemmon!).  (For the record, I had already seen it.)  Just hanging out with everyone that night, I felt instantly at home, and by the next day, it felt like I had known them for weeks.  It’s a remarkably cohesive and kindhearted group of people, really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  In a cast this big, it’s kind of miraculous that everyone, without exception, is as loving and supportive of each other as they are

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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