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Robb Sapp - Performing Is In His Blood

Philip Fisher talks to up-and-coming young American musical theatre actor Robb Sapp on a flying visit to London.

Robb Sapp is not yet a well-known name on the side of the Atlantic but this young man has a great future ahead of him. It says a lot that after obtaining his BFA in Musical Theatre at Syracuse University, a course renowned for qualifying its graduates for waiting tables, he has worked on stage almost full-time.

He is now building a reputation as a star of musical theatre, having recently starred in the award-winning Johnny Guitar but does not want to stop there. He hankers after the opportunity to appear on Broadway and also like to work in straight (non-musical) theatre. The first must surely be just around the corner but the second might have to wait until he actually has time to do it.

Robb Sapp was brought up in Cleveland and performing is in his blood. His trumpeter father and (twin) uncle were in a rock band called Fully Assembled until the onset of maturity when business beckoned. His mother meanwhile helped to run an Italian family food import business.

Happily, they have both fully supported Sapp's decision to throw himself into the theatre. As he says, he has not built up any alternative career to fall back on and that is what keeps him going. "If there had been a fall back, I'd have fallen back by now. My stubbornness comes in handy too".

Having had so little time resting, Sapp claims to have done little in the way of embarrassing jobs but adds "since I reached the city (New York)". The obviously excludes his experience dressed up as a whale at Sea World during student days. With a fall back like that, anyone would ensure that they had full-time work!

During his short quiet periods, he has managed to keep himself going on unemployment benefit, helping friends and - rather bizarrely for an underpaid off-Broadway actor - on savings.

After appearing in shows such as Anything Goes and Much Ado About Nothing at Syracuse, following graduation he was immediately recruited by the Music Theater of Wichita, known as "Broadway in the Plains" and spent a couple of very happy months appearing in shows such as Singin' in the Rain, Evita and The Pajama Game.

Within a couple of months of leaving university, he was working in New York and within a fortnight had obtained his Equity card. This gives some indication of his talent and determination. That was a direct result of his work in Wichita and his recruitment by Michael Mayer (who directed Thoroughly Modern Millie in London) for a workshop project on a musical version of Wedekind's Spring Awakening.

He was then in the US tour of the Broadway production of Saturday Night Fever for seven months. This is clearly a wonderful formative experience, "one big vacation/party" topped by his opportunity to play the star part of Bobby C at the Shubert in Los Angeles, the first theatre that he had ever visited in his life, some fifteen years before. "I had goose bumps the whole time".

Ever keen to keep his career going, he remarks that "I want the job when it comes to London. I am perfect for the show - I look fantastic in bell-bottoms".

From there he went into the part of Tank in the multi-award-winning off-Broadway production Zanna, Don't!, a hip musical fairy-tale by Tim Acito. This is the kind of show that people still ask about: "It was an industry success - everybody loved it". Zanna, Don't! is currently being rewritten with the confident hope that a major production might be just around the corner. If it is, subject to other commitments, Sapp, who has been with the show since its original reading, should be a part of it.

He was also delighted to be able to report that earlier in the day he had found an original cast recording of the show, featuring himself, in London's Dress Circle. In addition to the production and the recording, he also did two concerts of the show that were sell-out successes, driving audiences wild.

Sapp then faced one of those difficult career decisions as two fantastic opportunities arose simultaneously. He had to choose between Johnny Guitar and a new musical by it a real icon, William Finn. The part of Turkey, the young cowpoke in the musical by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins, based on the 50 year old Western starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, eventually won. In part, this was because it gave him the opportunity to work with Broadway stars such as Ann Crumb, Steve Blanchard and Judy McLane. Sapp is very proud that this show involved him in even more trophies as, earlier this year, it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.

Johnny Guitar was clearly a special experience with the opening night on the 100th anniversary of Joan Crawford's birth. "It was a cute little show, I think, and will work perfectly in London".

He has been juggling a lot lately as he also simultaneously accepted the opportunity to appear in William Finn's new musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As soon as he returns to New York from his frantic week of theatre-going in London, he will take up a starring role in the show.

This is the source of great excitement as when asked to name the musical writers with whom he would most like to work, he unhesitatingly puts William Finn, who won a Tony Award for Falsettos, as well as Maltby and Shire at the top of the list. His excitement as he explains it that "William Finn was actually sitting at the piano writing songs for us" can hardly be contained.

When asked about influences on his career to date, William Finn is right up there together with his mother and father, and he also puts in a fond word for Julie Ann Marshall, one of the BTG's two New York correspondents, with whom he worked on Johnny Guitar. "She is one of New York City's up and coming producers - she has such a huge heart and is really helping me to develop my career".

For such a young man, Robb Sapp has already achieved many of life's ambitions. In particular, he picks out his appearance at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC in Children of Eden. "I spent the whole time looking at the box where Lincoln was assassinated hoping to see his ghost".

This is a charming young man who has found his life's vocation very early. He sums it all up when he says of his career that "I can never picture myself doing anything else". Very few people are lucky enough to reach that conclusion!

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©Peter Lathan 2004