A Few Words With...Robin Lamont
By John A. Wilcox
How often do you get to talk to your teenage crush? When I first saw her sing Day By Day in the film Godspell, I was head over heels for the beautiful Robin Lamont. I was all of 13 back in 1973, but every time I watch the film I still swoon a bit to this day. Robin has gone from actress/singer to assistant district attorney to award winning author. Her latest book is Wright For America - a wry poke at talk radio. Join us for a spot of tea & conversation...
PS: Were you part of Godspell from the ground floor? The pre-Schwartz version?
RL: When Godspell was first created I was a junior in the drama department at Carnegie-Mellon. I recall wandering down the hall with my friend Sonia Manzano (later of Sesame Street fame) and seeing our names on the casting board for John-Michael’s show. It was a time of experimental theater and we weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into. Indeed, John-Michael’s vision of bringing celebration and fun to the Gospels took a little while to get through – but when it did, his vision became infectious. The show (all 3 performances) at Carnegie was a huge hit as word got around campus. The music then was more folk-rock, and all of one genre.
PS: What was your impression of Stephen's score the first time you heard it?
RL: Crazily enough, some of us were protective of the original music, so that when we first heard the new score, we were uncertain about how it might impact the naiveté and purity of Godspell. But you simply cannot hear those songs and not know that they are special. Indeed, I believe that Steven’s score is really what makes the show. It elevated it from a funky, fun little show to a theatrical piece that will take its place among the best of Broadway. I often see regional or school productions – and even while some of the acting may not be the best, you cannot wait for the next song to begin – and it always sounds good.
PS: Was Day By Day your feature piece from the first day it was brought into the show
RL: Day By Day was my song from the beginning. I’m pretty sure that Steven’s choice of me for the song was because my vocal range was somewhat limited. However, while technically it’s a simple song to sing, it’s not so easy to pull off in the show. It’s become such an iconic song that it requires respect and honesty to make it really work. Not that one has to be religious to sing it – but it has a unique place in the show, which I believe needs acknowledgement. Early in rehearsals, John-Michael and Steven impressed upon us that many of the songs in the show come out of the individual follower’s “aha” moment when they get what Jesus is trying to teach. Day By Day is the first of such moments. Also, not to make a big deal of it, but so many people have heard my version on the original cast album and in the film, many audience members cannot help but make a comparison.
PS: Did the song get a great crowd response from the get go?
RL: It was always the one that audience members left singing, which isn’t a real surprise since it is simple and tuneful – but also because it’s reprised during the curtain call. But after a few months, the song took on its own popularity. It was released as a single from the cast album, and reached Billboard’s top 20. When I was making the film, I would set my radio as an alarm, and once in a while I would wake up to the song. Day By Day was often the song that we sang on publicity tours, such as the Johnny Carson Show, etc. We also sang it on the Grammy’s when Godspell was nominated (and won) for best musical score. The more familiar it became to audiences, the more they anticipated it when the opening chords were played. Later in its run, as a performer I could hear a kind of general sigh, and “ahhh” when the song began, as if folks were finally relaxing into the experience of the show.
PS: What attracted you to the play to stay with it so long?
RL: Godspell was a fun show to do – yet demanding – could be hard on the body. You’re on stage the whole time, lots of bounding around, lots of time on your knees. I stayed with the show initially for a year, both in New York and LA. Then did the film, and went back to open the show when it moved from Off Broadway to Broadway. I became very close to a number of fellow cast members, and am to this day. As an ensemble piece, and perhaps because of the nature of the show, I have found that it bring actors together in a way that no other show does.
PS: Let me backtrack for just a moment. Do any recordings of any sort exist of the pre-Schwartz Godspell songs?
RL: Yes, someone made a tape of the Carnegie/Café LaMama music. It’s pretty raw – not great sound quality, and the music really doesn’t hold up.
PS: As you came to work on the film version, how did Victor Garber's energy differ from Stephen Nathan's?
RL: Every Jesus had a different energy, a slightly different style. Stephen’s sense of humor drove much of his performance, making his Jesus run the show with a sense of fun and playfulness. He was more of a showman, and it really came through in All For The Best.
Victor gave a smoother, silkier performance, with his warm, gentle voice taking center stage. I think his Jesus was a little more innocent.
I would add one more to the top bunch which is Andy Rohrer, who played Jesus at Carnegie, and joined the cast later in New York. Andy’s intelligence was the core of his Jesus – a man really trying to figure it out as he went along.
All of them were superb in the role and showed that there could be more than one aspect of the character of Jesus.
PS: What was the most challenging sequence of Godspell to film?
RL: For me, the most challenging sequence was the dance number on top of the World Trade Center. I’m terrified of heights and I could barely stand in the center of the roof, much less look like I’m having fun dancing at the edge. It was horrible. The Trade Center was not even finished, so that we had to take a construction elevator up the last few flights. Making it worse, Jeffrey enjoyed teasing me, making it look as though he were about to jump off.
In retrospect, it’s amazing to see the footage of us dancing on the infamous building that is no longer. I haven’t see the film for a while, but I often see photos posted on FB or elsewhere, and the picture of us up there makes me really sad.
PS: Tell me a bit about working with Jeffrey Mylett.
RL: I loved Jeffrey. He was a good friend and remarkably talented, energetic actor. We did an enormous amount of inventing on our feet to get the basic structure of the show down, and Jeffrey was at the heart of a lot of that work. He was fearless at improvisation and in many ways, was the perfect “clown” for the show – someone who could play like a kid, joyously and freely, yet with a sense of sadness underneath.
PS: Give me your thoughts on Joanne Jonas. I believe she played a different role in the film than she did in the play.
RL: Joanne was the only original cast member who had not attended Carnegie Mellon. As such, she had to work her way into the clique, as it were. But she did so in the most engaging way. I personally thought she was best in her original role, singing Bless The Lord. Her clown was goofy and endearing. And along with Jeffrey, she had the highest energy of anyone in the show. Many performances, especially when we were doing five shows on the weekend (Friday night, two Saturday and two Sunday), that energy kept us all going.
PS: How did the transition from Godspell to Grease come about?
RL: A kind of circuitous route. After I did the film of Godspell, I joined the national touring company of Grease in Toronto. We were there for a couple of months where I played Sandy opposite Greg Evigan. Toronto was the last stop of the national tour, so I took a break until Grease did a regular run in Florida – at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
When I returned to New York, Godspell was to open on Broadway, moving up from its Off Broadway run on 76th Street. The producers asked a number of original company members to open the show. And it was while I was performing here that I received a call to replace Candace Early as Sandy in the Broadway production of Grease. I was delighted to do so and a week or so later, I moved my from one dressing room to another across the street – an unusually happy experience for an actor.
PS: Who were you in the cast and who shared the stage with you during your run in Grease?
RL: I played Sandy in all the productions, and worked with a lot of people – all talented, fun actors to work with. The short list would include: Marilu Henner, Ilene Graff, Treat Williams, and Mimi Kennedy.
PS: While you were acting, you also found yourself working with the law. How were you approached and what was it they were having you do?
RL: As the rock musical began to die out, I found myself occasionally unemployed, and like most actors, needed a day job. I detested waitressing (but did some) and didn’t have the clerical skills for temp work. One day, an actor friend suggested I work for a private investigator whom she knew. The investigator had a small business in Manhattan and often used actors to do undercover work – believing, and probably rightly so, that they’d be more adept at undercover work.
The PI firm specialized in mounting sting operations to go after counterfeiters of designer merchandise: Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton bags, MLB t-shirt, etc. For the most part, the undercover would approach a seller and offer to buy a large quantity of merchandise. If the seller was amenable, we would do surveillances to see where they might be getting their product, or we might do a dumpster-dive and retrieve thrown-out phone records to see who they contacted. The idea was to work your way up the chain. We were often successful!
PS: What about this work did you find enjoyable?
RL: I liked the diversity of the work. I’m a Gemini and can get easily bored doing the same thing day after day. One day you’d be going undercover, another doing a surveillance, and another, searching records and making connections. I also liked solving the “mystery” of where the counterfeit product was coming from. Some of the work was dicey, and looking back on it, probably a little dangerous. But ah, we were young!
PS: What were you doing between this work and working for the DA?
RL: While I was at the PI agency, I often worked with lawyers. Selling counterfeit merchandise became a crime under the NY Penal Code in the early 90’s – so the only remedy the trademark owners had prior to that was to sue the counterfeiters in federal civil court. I was immediately attracted to the law.
While I was still working at the agency, I decided to go to law school at night. With my husband’s financial help and some loans, I did four years at Pace Law School, and graduated with a JD. I loved it, and still find the law endlessly fascinating. In my last years at Pace, I interned for an appellate judge and then for the Special Prosecutions Unit (domestic violence and child abuse) at the Westchester District Attorney’s Office. When I graduated, I went right back to the DA’s office, knowing exactly what I wanted to do.
PS: You say you were immediately attracted to the law. What was the attraction?
RL: I became interested when I was a PI. We did anti-counterfeiting and worked closely with the attorneys who represented trademark owners: Rolex, Gucci, Fendi, etc. Our job was to come up with quality evidence that could be used in a court of law to get an injunction against those selling and manufacturing fake products.
But I really loved law school. It was more than just an introduction to logical thinking – it opened up a world of words that had real life consequences. A statute or law can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. How you frame a case depends a great deal on how you state the facts. And clarity is important, but there’s room for creativity. The law for me was a lot like solving a mystery – and that has always been a draw since I picked up my first Nancy Drew book.
PS: When you graduated & contacted the office of the Westchester DA. Were they immediately interested in hiring you?
RL: I did get a job right out of law school with the Westchester County DA’s office. It helped that I interned there my last year of law school, working with the Special Prosecutions Unit, which deals with domestic and child abuse. Interestingly, I made use of my acting skills while I was an intern there. The Chief of the department, Lisa Linsky, had put together a team of lawyers to do educational seminars on domestic abuse cases. One such seminar used the show & tell of putting a battered woman on the stand – what questions to ask, what to avoid, etc. Lisa used me as the “battered wife” in some of the mock trials.
PS: What sorts of cases were you working on & what did that work consist of?
RL: I started where all new ADA’s start in Westchester County, which is in the Appeals Bureau. Through research and writing you learn the ins and outs of the issues you ultimately face in a courtroom. Evidentiary matters, whether the charge is appropriate to the facts, prosecutorial mistakes, etc. After about a year I went out to the local court system where I handled misdemeanor cases and the early stages of felony charges. Most of an ADA’s work is in plea bargaining – the system would crash like an old computer if all cases went to trial. It involves negotiation with defense attorneys, most of whom are pretty good people who understand the system and want to work with you. It’s not as adversarial as TV and movies make it out to be.
I ended my tenure back in the Appeals Division working federal Habeus Corpus cases as well as other matters that were considered tricky. These cases usually involved “new evidence”, i.e. a witness recanting their testimony or improper behavior on the part of an interrogating officer.
PS: Were there any particular cases that you found to be especially satisfying?
RL: There was one rape case when I went back to working the federal Habeus Corpus. To make a long story short, a federal judge overturned the conviction basing his ruling an a particular state case that defined when a victim is “physically helpless.” I was sure that the judge misread the case on which he relied, I told him so and he dismissed me in short order. I dug and dug until I got the trial transcripts which proved that the judge was wrong. We appealed to the 2nd Circuit down in New York City, I argued the case, and got the conviction reinstated. I was happy because if his ruling had stayed, it would have set a bad precedent for convictions on future rape cases, not to mention that I thought the federal judge had been an idiot about the whole thing.
PS: What was the most frustrating aspect of working in law?
RL: Oh, there’s lots. When you’re out in the field and handling cases from start to finish, the work load is impossible and there’s never enough time to get them all in order. Depending on which office I was in, I would be taking care of three town courts at any given time, each of which would have somewhere between a dozen and eighty cases every week. The cops or probation officers don’t always file the right paperwork on time or their reports don’t tell you the details you need, so you have to stay on them. Witnesses are hard to track down. And you’re under a lot of pressure to “dispose” of cases so you and the court are not completely overwhelmed.
Plus, as an ADA you’re essentially the representative of victims in abuse or assault cases. You want to do right by them, but you find in most instances that it’s never black and white. Some of the victims are bigger jerks than the defendants, sometimes it’s just one big messed up family. But you still have to prosecute.
PS: What made you decide to leave the DA's office and become a writer?
RL: Initially, I left the DA’s office to tend to family matters. We had adopted our daughter from the Philippines and because of her rough start there, she needed some extra attention that I could not provide as a full-time working mom. But once I left, I began to write my first manuscript (unpublished) and soon found a new career in creating stories and characters and bringing some of my experiences into my work.
PS: Your first novel, If Thy Right Hand, is a pretty heavy suspense piece. What inspired the tale?
RL: It was actually my work at the DA’s office that inspired If Thy Right Hand. One cool autumn, news reached our small suburban town that a registered sex offender had moved into the neighborhood. Parents were outraged and near hysteria. Moms were terrified that their children would be snatched by serial rapists from their yards or while waiting for the school bus. And having handled a number of cases coming out of the Special Prosecutions Bureau, I knew that this was not what they ought to be leery of. While it does happen on occasion, incidents of sex abuse involving children are far more common around friends or family. Pedophiles tend to be attracted to situations and jobs where they can be close to children. Unfortunately we’ve seen a great deal of this in recent times, i.e. the Catholic Church and Penn State.
I had seen some of the terrible, sordid, sad stories of sex abuse from both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s sides. I make no excuses for the exploitation of children, but wanted to write about the gray area that exists. So in If Thy Right Hand, we see a town reeling from their fear of “sex offenders” in the neighborhood and a prosecutor of sex crimes whose own son is falsely accused of molesting two kids.
PS: Where did Ilene Hart come from? Is any part of Robin Lamont in her, or was she created from whole cloth?
RL: I think there is probably a piece of me in every character I write. Rather like an actor taking on a role. If you want to make it believable and true, you try to connect with anything in that character, even if it’s unlikable. There is, of course, a larger part of me in Ilene. Besides being a prosecutor, she’s a mother with a challenged child, whose life has had to adjust to that.
PS: Were you pleased with the reaction the book received?
RL: Yes I am pleased. The book won Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2011, and more recently, won the 2012 Gold Medal in the Independent Publishers Awards. Most satisfying is that readers enjoy it and find a lot to think about.
PS: Your latest, Wright For America, is a total left turn - a tangy satire of conservative radio. Did you find it a risk to jump headlong into a new genre?
RL: I actually didn’t jump into a new genre – I was pulled in. The story of a venomous right wing radio host started, for me, as another suspense novel. But as I began my research, listening to hours of conservative talk radio, every day I was stunned anew by how ludicrous some of the ranting and name-calling was. And indeed, it has become so common that we hardly blink when our rather moderate President is termed a Nazi, socialist, America-destroying, alien. Some of what conservative radio guys spout – along with the theatrics – is so ridiculous that I thought no one who doesn’t listen to this stuff will believe it. The book had to be a satire.
PS: What's your next project?
RL: I am returning to a more traditional suspense genre (although I’d hardly call my new book traditional), in a series featuring an animal welfare investigator. There are so many places where animals suffer at the expense of greed, dishonesty and need for expedience. Puppy mills, the drugging of race horses, the wholesale slaughter of dolphins in Japan, the abysmal way we treat farm animals that we eat, the list is endless. I have met a number of brave, selfless young men and women who go undercover to expose some of these abuses, and I hope to create a protagonist who will mirror their sacrifice. I also hope to shed some light on the mistreatment of animals in a different way.
PS: What music are you currently listening to?
RL: As a writer, I’m pretty busy all day with words on paper, so I don’t get a lot of time to explore new music. But I’m glad you asked that because music has been so much a part of my life that it does inspire and fuel my writing. When I create characters, each one usually has a song. It might be because of the lyrics or music – or both, but the song helps me “see” the character, their colors, their feelings. Often, it’s just the feel of a song that defines a character. For instance, in Wright For America, one of the main guys is an FBI agent named Harry Thorne. He’s a newbie, very enthusiastic about his work, but somewhat idealistic and lacking in confidence. Jackson Browne’s classic She Must Be Somebody’s Baby – that’s Harry. With my new book, which is set in North Carolina, I’m listening to a lot of country music, especially Rascal Flatts.
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