Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Hand-drawn map to Broadway’s best musical includes Green Bay

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Liam Robinson

Liam Robinson and Anais Mitchell, creator of “Hadestown,” the 2019 Tony Award-winning Best Musical. (New York Theatre Workshop)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

Whatever image you have of someone in the best musical on a Broadway is, it’s different in reality.

And one of the most different realities is that of Liam Robinson, whose path in life includes significant formative time in Green Bay.

AND, Liam Robinson makes it sound like The Great White Way is a way station in his plans.

His true passion: The life of a troubadour. He writes and performs with Jean Rohe in their Americana duo, Robinson & Rohe.

Troubabourin’ is on hold for the time being.

Liam Robinson is music director, sings and plays piano and accordion in “Hadestown,” which recently won a hefty eight Tony Awards.

Liam Robinson is more than in the show. He helped make it as part of the creative team, writing the vocal arrangements.

“Hadestown” taps into the ancient Grecian myth about hell and the romance of Orpheus and Eurydice – don’t look back, Orpheus! – so Liam Robinson got a chance to be part of molding new shapes on something ageless.

Not bad for a 2001 graduate of Green Bay Preble High School.

“It’s a fun challenge,” Liam Robinson said of writing for those important voices in a Greek tragedy, the know-it-all haunting chorus.

Liam Robinson is the son of Jane Blaumeiser and Brock Robinson, today residents of Duluth, Minn.

In a 2011 interview, Liam Robinson’s mother said he is basically a musician first.

That started with classical piano lessons.

“I wasn’t very good and always just wanted to be improvising,” Liam Robinson told me in 2011. “I switched to studying jazz with Christine Salerno through middle and high school. She really encouraged my compositional and improvisational voice.”

Salerno continues to teach and perform, notably with her Brazilian-flavored ZIJI.

Robinson attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire before studying at the Manhattan School of Music.

According to a feature story, “The Making of ‘Hadestown’” by New York Theatre Workshop, “Hadestown” author Anais Mitchell chose Liam Robinson for his versatility in his theatrical experience of being in “War Horse” on Broadway for a year and his grounding in traditional folk music.

Anais Mitchell won the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Liam Robinson’s first involvement in the project was in 2015. The long process included stages of development in New York, Canada and London.

“One of the orchestrators, Todd Sickafoose, was someone who I worked with,” Laim Robinson said in a telephone interview from New York. “My sweetheart and frequent collaborator, Jean Rohe, and I were working at producing her record, and we contacted Todd about mixing it, and we became friends and hit it off. Two or three years later, he recommended me for the music director job on ‘Hadestown’ as it was moving into an Off-Broadway production in New York City at the New York Theatre Workshop. They were looking for a music director, and they weren’t quite finding the right fit with the kind of artistic goal with musical theater people. I come primarily from the music world and songwriting world, and that seemed to work.”

Todd Sickafoose shares a Tony Award with Michael Chorney for Best Orchestrations for “Hadestown.”

As for the vocal arrangements, Liam Robinson said, “The piece has more group singing that most pieces of musical theater. There are five principals with soloist voices, and then there’s a trio of women who are the Fates, and so their stuff is always in trio… And then there is a group of five who served as a chorus who are called the Workers (and more)…

“Whenever new material would be developed, Anais was just constant throughout the process. Ansis is very much a generative artist. She’s a re-writer. She has changed quite a bit in the last three years, mostly in terms of generating new stuff.

“So it would always be a process, taking the melody and text and then arranging it for whatever grouping that needed to be arranged for within the ensemble. There was quite a bit of divided choral parts, from three to six divisions of choral singing. That does happen in other musical theater pieces, but it might be a rare moment when that occurs. But this is scattered throughout the piece with a lot participation, singing on the choruses of songs, backing up a solo. It’s a big sound, the sound of everybody singing.”

This might sound like the career path for someone on a superhighway. But Liam Robinson’s path looks like something hand drawn by the guy you ask directions of at a roadside stand who says under his breath, “You can’t get there from here.” The path is not what Liam Robinson envisioned when he went to New York.

“I really didn’t know,” Liam Robinson said.

“I was still in school then. I went to Eau Claire for a couple years. A lot of people were studying education there. It’s a really good school for people studying to be band teachers. I knew that’s not where I was headed.

“When we got to New York, I was still searching for what I wanted, and I ended up at the Manhattan School of Music studying classical composition. I was kind of on a long road to a bachelor’s degree, but I found a good fit there and just got skills that I wanted in terms of orchestration and counterpoint – just some good hard skills. I wasn’t going to be a concert composer, although I’ve done that.

“It’s been, over the years, just a piecing together a lot of disparate musical skills and then finding the situations in which a lot of those disparate skills come to bear. I found they keep coming back around, like feeling a situation in which I’m most useful.

“For example, working in the theater brings a lot of different skills to bear in terms of leadership, in terms of musicianship.

“Whatever the situation is, whether it is producing records or working in the theater, I find it’s about bringing a whole bunch of different skills to bear.”

Liam Robinson said he has a commitment to “Hadestown,” performing and training new arrivals and the sort, for the immediate future. But then it’s back to the guy at the roadside stand to draw the map.

“I’m interested in collaboration,” Liam Robinson said. “I’m certainly not a career music theater director. It’s not my path. I don’t feel I need to keep taking that work. It really depends on the material. I would do it if it was something that I love, but it’s not something I feel I need to just keep doing for its own sake. There is plenty of musical theater that doesn’t float my boat.”

High on his mind is recording project for Robinson & Rohe.

“We’re in the early stages,” Liam Robinson said. “We have a lot of new writing. As Robinson and Rohe, we did some serious writing time last year, knowing that I would be tied up for part of this year. We wanted to get the foundation laid so we would be ready.

“We’ve done a lot of touring. Jean Rohe and I both write for the project. In the past two years, we’ve been on the road quite a bit. Our last album is called ‘Hunger.’ We toured that record for about a year and a half when that phase wrapped up.

“In a way, having a job in New York City provides me a home base to regroup, to get back into recording and writing and rehearsing and hoping that some time next year we put out a new record and we’ll get back out on the road.

“Definitely one of my passions is of having a troubadour life, which is different than the Broadway life.”

The guy at the roadside stand may be sketching maps to coffeehouses and regional folk festivals and small rooms. “The folk world has a structure that is good for us,” Liam Robinson said.

Robinson & Rohe songs have been on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Simply Folk” a few times.

“I have friends all over Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, so they are favorite places to get back to, and I would make a point to get back to Green Bay,” Liam Robinson said.

Jean Rohe is essential.

“It’s always good to have partnership,” Liam Robinson said. “Jean’s a long-time collaborator. I’ve produced records with her and for her. She has her own band that goes under her name that plays really great stuff. That’s how I met Todd Sickafoose, who brought me into the fold of ‘Hadestown.’ Jean’s a close companion and my sweetheart and my editor and all those things.”

Meantime, there’s “Hadestown,” where folks are feeling mighty good these days.

“There was a lot of good will around the show (going into the Tonys), but we didn’t count our chickens before they hatched,” Liam Robinson said. “It’s also not the end-all. I’m glad that it happened, but we liked what we did. Awards are validating, but they’re not everything.”

And they do make nice stars on hand-drawn career maps.

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