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Mary Robin Roth grew up in Minnesota. She also went to college in Minnesota and got her degree in theater. Before she graduated from college, she started doing commercial work. That got her into AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). Shortly thereafter, she got into Equity right away at Chanhassen Dinner Theater in Chanhassen, Minnesota. She got her Equity card with the show, The Robber Bridegroom.

Every girl’s dream is to be on Broadway but Mary Robin felt that going from Minnesota to New York might be too big of a jump for her. She moved to Chicago in 1980 and got the National tour of Evita.

It was the first National tour and played the Shubert Theater in Chicago where both Carol Channing and Eve Arden had appeared in Hello, Dolly during that show’s first National tour. Mary Robin stayed with Evita for one year, in the chorus, at The Shubert.

The show was about to go on the road. However, Mary Robin had gotten cast as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. They are no longer in existence. Always in the back of her mind, she knew she desired to move to New York but she felt that her resume needed more leading roles before she made that transition.

The Evita cast was questioning how she could quit that tour in which she was making good money to play Annie Oakley in a local dinner theater. Mary Robin knew in her heart what HER plan was.
Indeed it worked out. She did lots of leading roles at Candlelight. In addition to Annie Oakley, she played the leader in Zorba, she played Sister Leah in Black Patent Leather Shoes, she played Vera Charles in Mame, Nancy in Oliver, among others. After doing these leading roles, she was asked back to the tour of Evita! She got to do it all, actually. It was then decided that Evita would do a Scandinavian tour, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She did that for three months.
When she came back, she knew she was ready to move to New York.

She moved to New York in ’83. She got an agent right away with The Gage Group. Her first job through the agent was a Civil War musical at the Ford’s Theater in Washington DC called Shiloh Hill. She had a principal role in that. Shortly after that, she signed with Jeanne Nicolosi. After that, Mary Robin got Nunsense in Kansas City. She became good friends with Danny Goggin and did all of his shows!

She eventually made it to Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She understudied Dame Cleo Lane and Jenna Schneider who played the Indian. Before she got Drood, Mary Robin was waitressing on the Upper West Side at The Copper Hatch. Dame Cleo Lane was a regular customer. They were doing Drood in Central Park at the time. She would request Mary Robin as her waitress and they got to be good friends. Mary Robin knew her likes. She likes decaf and she is a vegetarian. Then, Mary Robin got cast as her understudy! Dame Cleo would always mention Mary Robin in her interviews, saying how it was so interesting that her waitress had become her understudy. Because of scheduled concerts, Mary Robin went on for her a lot. When she signed her contract, she got the OK to continue her concert career. Mary Robin always got voted as the murderer! Dame Cleo never did!! She always got voted as the lovers. As the murderer, the one playing the role always gets another song. Mary Robin used to tell Dame Cleo it was because she was much meaner than her and that she was too nice.

Mary Robin was with the show for over a year and appeared on the Tony Awards which was very exciting. She also became good friends with George Rose. He didn’t particularly care for women but he liked Mary Robin. She really enjoyed that relationship. He was a very smart quick man. Once, there was a replacement in the show and he didn’t care for that person. He made no bones about it. He once said to Mary Robin, “Who is this god damned woman? She is constantly in my path! Is this god damned community theater?” It was hysterical. He was great and that was a wonderful experience in Mary Robin’s life.

Drood ends and Mary Robin once again goes on the road with Nunsense. She then got the lead in Senator Jones written by Tom O’Horgan. The woman who produced it went to prison for embezzling the money that she raised for that show. The same scenario recently happened with the musical, Rebecca, and is part of this season’s storyline for Smash.

They did three preview performances and the police came in and told the cast to empty their dressing rooms. They were out, goodbye! The smart gal that Mary Robin was, she went down to Martha Swope’s photography and bought some of the slides. She is one of the few people involved that has pictures from that production. Costumes were designed specifically for Mary Robin. Her name was sewn in the back of the costumes. She played the lead. She was Jean McCarthy, Joe’s wife. She had songs. She thought this was going to be a real boon to her career. She was going to soar after this. It never happened. The show closed before she had a chance. She then did a couple of more Nunsense’s. This nun business got to be a habit! She went on to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at Beef and Boards in Indianapolis. She got that while she was still living in New York.

She moved back to Chicago in ’93 because she was offered a lot of leading roles there. She decided to move and that’s when she met her husband. Mary Robin’s husband is not in the business. When young girls come up to her and tell her they desire to be an actress, she gives them two pieces of advice. Number One: Their job is finding a job. If they can handle that which is the way it’s going to be for their entire careers, go for it. Her second piece of advice is to marry someone with a steady paycheck and health insurance.

She met her husband on a blind date. He proposed to her when she was playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. There is a scene in which Nicky Arnstein gives her flowers. He says, “Fannie, did you get the flowers?” She says, “No, Nick, I didn’t have a chance.” She goes over and looks at the card by the flowers. The card reads, “You were great tonight, Fanny. Love, Nick.” Her now husband went to the prop man and switched the cards during a performance. The scene goes on as usual. She reads the card: “ Let’s drop this Roth Kihara business and just be Kihara. Will you marry me? Love, Kevin.” Her husband is Japanese. At first, she thought it was a joke. She was trying to read this but say the lines as written. It was a weird sensation. She does that scene. The next scene is the train scene in which she sings Don’t Rain on My Parade. As she is doing the costume change backstage, she is asking everyone, “What is this?” They are telling her that he is proposing to her! She is wondering how she can give him an answer on stage. The next scene Nick says to Fanny, “Fanny, I love you.” Her response is, “You do, Nick? Well, you know what you ought to do, Nick? You should marry me. I’m all yours anyway but the kind of wife I’d be…”

And she goes on with the monologue. The scene is going on as planned, but she turns to where her husband is sitting in the audience and recites the lines, “But if you were to ask me to marry you, the answer would be yes.” He got his answer on stage.

 Funny Girl ends and she then gets cast as the Norma Desmond understudy in Sunset Boulevard in Toronto starring Diahann Carroll. When they auditioned Mary Robin in Chicago, they had her strictly sing Norma’s songs which she did and they loved it and she got cast.

 When she got to rehearsal, they said, “OK, Mary, you sit over here with the sopranos. She thought, “They’ve got to be kidding.” She had never been a soprano, even in her mother’s womb! She saw the look on their faces. They had messed up. The track that she was supposed to be cast in was in the chorus as a soprano but she was supposed to understudy Norma Desmond which makes no sense because Diahann Carroll sang in the lowest keys possible!

 Listen to the recording. Mary Robin was fired. She had never been fired in her life. It was traumatic. Her husband came and got her at the airport. It was horrible. American AND Canadian Equity stepped in and said that she could not be fired.

She had a run of the show contract. They would have to buy her out or recast her. They recast her and flew her back and verbally and physically abused her for over a week. She will not mention any names who did it but every day, she was calling Equity and telling them that she could not take this. She was crying and she was told this is what they desired.

They wanted her to break. They desired her to quit and then they would not owe her anything. This is what they were hoping for. She had to hang in there. It was terrible. One day, the director had her sing for an hour the phrase, “With one look” over and over. “Lift your shoulders!” “With one look. With one look…”  “Again!” Over and over!

Mary Robin and Nicole Miller in Nunsense

Finally, they knew they were not going to break her. They then sent her to the Livent doctor. The Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, Inc., also known as Livent, was a theatre production company in Toronto, Ontario, begun as a division of the motion picture exhibitor Cineplex Odeon. The doctor told her that she couldn’t sing, that her blood vessels were all broken and that she needed surgery. She was told that her vocal chords needed to be stripped and they fired her again. She went back home and had her vocal doctor look at her. The surgery they said she needed would have done the same thing to her that happed to Julie Andrews.

By the mid-1990s, a lifetime of singing had taken a toll on Julie’s voice. She had throat surgery in 1997, an operation that left her legendary voice permanently damaged. “It was not a successful operation, and tissue was removed. I didn’t have cancer, I didn’t have nodules, I didn’t have anything,” she says. “When you work on Broadway eight shows a week for a very long time … a certain kind of muscular striation happens on the vocal chords. A lot of Broadway singers get it. So, sadly, I had to work to deal with the loss of a voice because it just didn’t come back.”

The specific problem with her vocal chords is that they don’t meet, Julie says.

“Wind just whistled through the vocal chords that would not come together because tissue was missing,” she says. “I have a about six good low, low notes, and I can sing the hell out of ‘Old Man River.’”

Michael Gillespie and Mary Robin Roth star in the comedy ‘Spreading it Around’ at Meadow Brook Theatre. Photo Courtesy of Rick Smith at Rick’s Photography.
William Pullinsi and Mary Robin Roth

That type of surgery is no longer done. It was just a ridiculous way of trying to get rid of Mary Robin again. They NEVER auditioned her as a soprano in the chorus track.

They messed up. She won the lawsuit. It paid for a beautiful wedding. Later on, Livent came to Chicago to cast Ragtime. Mary Robin is a Buddhist and chants, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Buddhists believe that EVERYONE has courage and everything that is needed is within.

Mary Robin decided to go to that audition to audition for Emma Goldman. The people that would be sitting at the table were the same people that had done this to her. She got a call back. She, however, didn’t get cast. It took a great deal of courage to do that. The man who abused her acknowledged her courage in going to that audition.

She told them it was the courage she always exhibited in her own life. She left it at that.

      By 1997, the company was losing money (a loss of $44.1 million that year alone), and in June, 1998, shareholders approved a deal which saw American actors’ agent and ex-Disney executive Michael Ovitz take charge. Things deteriorated quickly between the company and co-founders Drabinsky and Gottlieb. The two were dismissed and escorted, under security, out of Livent’s Toronto offices on August 13, 1998. Livent subsequently filed a $225 million lawsuit against them.

Cast of Nunsense

That was a tragic time in Mary Robin’s life and after that she could not perform. She was left so weighted, having never experienced something like this. She was embarrassed. The Chigago people knew. Her husband encouraged her to get back on stage.

She auditioned for Follies at The Drury Lane Oakbrook and she got the role of Carlotta, originated by former Dolly Yvonne De Carlo. She sang I’m Still Here. She won two awards for that performance, the Jeff Award and the Gay Chicago Magazine Award which is called the After Dark Award. It was not the Awards that she focuses on but rather, what she went through to get to that point.

She didn’t give up. She almost did. It proved to her that when there are struggles in this business, just go and look back at the accomplishments and know that they can be done again. Don’t be defeated. One can do this. That was a pretty cool time with that show.

Mary Robin has a huge voice. Mama Rose in Gypsy, she has done several times. She has played both Mane and Vera Charles. Carlotta in Follies and Dolly! Those are her power house roles. She tells everyone that there weren’t microphones when she started in this business! They had to learn how to project.

Hello, Dolly happened for Mary Robin because she auditioned to play Miss Hannigan in Annie at Arkansas Rep in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the time, they were also auditioning for Mama Rose. She auditioned for both parts. 

Mary Robin Roth, Alene Robertson and Felicia Fields

She got both roles. Then they were having auditions for Dolly. She went to New York to audition. She went in wearing a big hat and Dolly’s calling cards. She went to the table and started handing out her cards. When she walks into an audition space, she is the character, as opposed to Mary Robin Roth. She entered as Dolly and went up to the table and gave out her cards and each card was a funny card. She had things like Dolly Levi, the Japanese Kimono maker, things she made up to give a laugh. She sang. She waited and waited and waited. She was told they were going to get a star.

Sally Struthers who has appeared as Dolly many times was mentioned. Mary Robin thought, “Here we go again”, but she got the role! This was in 2007. Robert Hupp is the artistic director. Brad Mooy directed it. He is no longer there. The costumes were unbelievable. The man who designed the costumes was a former drag queen. Mary Robin’s hats were so big she couldn’t get through the door. She had to turn sideways for entrances and exits. When she spoke with fellow actors on stage, she had to be a distance away because the hats were so humongous. The costumes were gorgeous. He used antique lace for the final wedding dress at the end that she quickly changes in to for the curtain call. It was exquisite.

Mary Robin Roth

Mary Robin also played Dolly at Light Opera Works in Evanston, Illinois Christmas time in 2010. Mary Robin was so enthusiastic about her costumes at Arkansas Rep that they rented her costumes for her that had been made especially for her.

When she first tried on those costumes she felt like she was trying on clothes for her wedding day. When she put these costumes on, it was magical. If she gets to play Dolly again, she desires to wear THOSE costumes.

As of this writing, it is being done again next season at Drury Lane Oldbrook. They have gotten in the habit of casting their leads out of New York. She has expressed interest to the casting director.

The highlight of playing Dolly ON STAGE for Mary is the monologue leading into Before the Parade Passes By. Mary Robin had people crying. There is softness to Dolly as well as her toughness. The actress playing Dolly cannot play just one level. There are sides to her that Mary Robin feels that she really brought out in that monologue.

Dolly talks a mile a minute. She doesn’t shut up. What was difficult for Mary at first was figuring out her thought pattern. She would be talking about one thing and then quickly changes the subject. When she changes it, there is no thru line of how she got from one point to another. Memorizing the lines, Mary Robin had to figure out how and why she got to each point. That was hard for her.

There are a couple of reasons why Hello, Dolly is still relevant. The message is about generosity. That resonates now more than ever. It has a lot to do with the time we are living in and the economy. Dolly is a giver. She gives hope to everyone. It a wonderful message, especially now in our country. She realizes that in addition to giving to others it is now time to give to herself.

If she was given the opportunity to play Dolly again, Mary Robin feels that she would be even funnier in the food scene. She never saw Channing do it but assumes that she was hysterical. Mary Robin would like to find ways to be even more funny in that scene. She did think that she was funny but there are definitely deeper areas to mine. She is sure there are things she missed in the timing of things.

Mary Robin feels that she tried too hard the first time she played Dolly.

Mary Robin’s husband went to a preview performance the first time she played Dolly at Arkansas Rep. The opening was the next night. Her husband said to her, Mary, you are a nervous wreck up there. I’ve never seen you like this before. I see panic.” Thank God he said that to her. It was a wake-up call. Mary Robin said to herself, “Damn it, I’m opening tomorrow night in Hello, Dolly! It’s called HELLO, DOLLY! Dolly…I’m Dolly. I have to own this show. This show is mine, now. It’s not the director’s. It’s not the choreographer’s anymore. I’m opening this show tomorrow night. This show belongs to me now. ” Opening night, she got on that train and leaps…right to the finish. It can be overwhelming to an actress who has never done it before. The character AND the show is bigger than life. She is so glad her husband said what he said to her.

Mary Robin feels Hello, Dolly SHOULD return to Broadway. It is a show that is never ending. It’s got such optimism. It is something people want to be able to feel. It offers that sense of hope. That’s what the show is. Mary Robin would love to see Bette Midler play the part. She loves her portrayal as Mama Rose. She also thinks Tyne Daly would make a great Dolly.

Mary Robin has a tremendous amount of energy and brought that to her portrayal of Dolly. She finds it hard to sit still. In all of the reviews that she got, they mentioned her energy. That kind of stamina is needed for Dolly. Mary Robin has too much energy and a lot of directors have told her that they like that because they can cut her back and tone her down. It is difficult for a director when an actor comes to the table and they have to pull it out of them. With Mary Robin, a director needs to pull her back.

She definitely continued to tweak her performance after the show opened. She was still finding things as the show continued. There are things that she could build upon or take away from each performance, timing of things.

Her director at Arkansas Rep, Brad Mooy was very intellectual and did a lot of research. It was to the point that she was asking if they could just do the show. He would spend hours discussing the kind of horse cart she made her entrance on. He was a real stickler of being true to Thornton Wilder and Michael Stewart. He desired every word to be exact, every “the”, and “an”. It did get in the way of Mary Robin’s process.

The second time she did it, her director, Rudy Hogenmiller, was also a choreographer and really knew what he desired and wanted to recreate it EXACTLY as it was originally done. That’s what they do at Light Opera Works. They take musicals and recreate them as they were originally done. She had a full orchestra. At the Rep, it wasn’t a full piece orchestra. Rudy told her it was amazing to hear her sing this score in the original key, to hear it live as it was originally done. That was enlightening for Mary Robin. A lot of actresses don’t sing it in the original key. Channing’s voice is quite low. Mary Robin and Rudy met when they were both were cast in Evita and have remained close ever since.  

They did not have a passarelle with either production.

Like most actresses, it is sad to say goodbye to Dolly after playing her. It’s like giving birth to a creation and then having to let that baby go. Mary Robin never had children of her own. She gives birth to characters. She had to let Dolly go and that was bittersweet for her because she always wonders if she will ever meet her again.

She really enjoyed the cotton candy! That was the source of her dumplings.

Mary Robin Roth, like Dolly Levi, got married late in life. Mary Robin has a wonderful marriage. She was forty two. It was his second marriage and her only. Getting married late in life, there IS a difference. She has so much appreciation for the relationship. God forbid that Mary Robin was to lose her husband, but if she were to, she would still have the relationship with him that Dolly has with Ephraim.

Dolly refuses to take “no” as an answer to life. She is persistent. When Mary Robin Roth thinks about that, she is reminded for herself to have a strong determination. One gets beaten down in this business but she tells herself to keep going. During the low times when she is not cast in something she truly desires, she now knows it is their loss. She has something to bring to the table that no one else can. If they don’t see it, it’s their loss. Move on, Mary!

When she gets down and she’s not working and she feels she will never work again and she is feeling sorry for herself, her husband says to her, “Why don’t you go and get a job at McDonald’s. At least you will be on a microphone!”  

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