For veteran Broadway and film actor Tony Roberts, arriving in Chicago to take on the role of The Starkeeper in the Lyric Opera’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is a case of the stars aligning just so.
“It’s kind of ironic and synergistic because the very first role I was given at Northwestern University when I was a freshman was that of Linzman, the [payroll clerk] they try to hold up in ‘Liliom,’ which is the  drama on which ‘Carousel’ is based,” Roberts says. “Now I’m back here playing The Starkeeper in the musical.”
RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S ‘CAROUSEL’ When: April 10-May 3 Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 W. Wacker Tickets: $29-$199 Info: lyricopera.org
At Northwestern, Roberts studied under legendary drama teacher Alvina Krause, known affectionately as “the maker of stars”; her student roster also boasts Patricia Neal, Garry Marshall, Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones and Frank Galati (of Steppenwolf and the Goodman Theatre). “She was the goddess of acting in America at the time,” Roberts continues.
Roberts has spent a great deal of his 55 years in show business on the boards, garnering two Tony Award nominations along the way. His Broadway credits boast “The Royal Family,” “Cabaret,” “Barefoot in the Park” (he replaced Robert Redford in the original Broadway production and recently co-starred in the revival), “Promises, Promises” (which played in Chicago) and Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam” (he would reprise his role in Allen’s film version), among others. His New York credits also include productions of “South Pacific” and “Brigadoon” at Lincoln Center, something he says is akin to stepping onto the stage of the Lyric.
“There’s a wonderful and different kind of atmosphere to these grand, operatic productions,” Roberts continues. ” ‘Carousel’ is a real gift.”
It’s his numerous film roles, most notably those in a slew of Woody Allen films such as “Annie Hall,” “Radio Days,” “Play It Again, Sam” and “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” that have made him a familiar face. “Yes, we are still close friends,” Roberts says with a chuckle when pressed about their relationship.
Still, the roar of the crowd — and practicality — has always brought him back to the stage.
“The money,” Roberts says with a chuckle, when asked why the role in “Carousel” appealed to him. “I gotta pay the rent. So does everybody else who’s an actor. It’s idealistic to consider why you want it or why they want you for the role. We all want to be wanted. You get a call and then suddenly you’re wanted for something.”
Turns out he was very much wanted by “Carousel” director Rob Ashford, a former Broadway dancer who worked with Roberts a few times through the years. The Lyric production also stars Broadway veterans Laura Osnes, Steven Pasquale, Jenn Gambatese, Jarrod Emick and soprano Denyce Graves.
“You work with someone and you click, and years go by but that friendship is still there, and years later your paths cross again,” Roberts says matter-of-factly.
As for the “heavenly” role of The Starkeeper, the guy who decides whether or not a soul can enter the Pearly Gates, Roberts says he’s discovering the unique dynamic of the character.
“The Starkeeper gets into a very ethereal, mystical place that’s at the heart of everybody’s confusion about the existence of some higher power: Is there somebody out there? Is there somebody who cares? Is there life after death? The character fulfills a great yearning to know that, yes, there is someone ‘up there.’ In ‘Liliom,’ The Starkeeper is described as a police magistrate kind of character, which is an interesting way to think of St. Peter at the gates of heaven deciding that you haven’t done enough good but you have the opportunity to go back to earth for a day to change that. Everyone has regrets or remorse. Everyone wishes they had said kinder or more loving things.”
Born and raised in New York, Roberts grew up listening to records of “Carousel” and “Oklahoma” and “On the Town,” which whetted his appetite for musicals.
“I was taken to the theater when I was 6,” Roberts said. “And I looked at New York City and I was just enchanted. I wanted to be part of it.”
Not that Roberts was altogether a stranger to show business as a kid. His father was veteran announcer Ken Roberts, whose voice in radio’s Golden Age heralded major serials such as “The Shadow,” “The Secret Storm” and “Love of Life.”
“I was taken to the studio to watch my father work when I was around 10 years old and I saw actors pretending in front of microphones and I knew I wanted to do that,” Roberts says.
“Pretending” on stage meant baring one’s soul night after night in front of an audience, perhaps the most vulnerable of undertakings. Roberts quickly agrees, but points out it’s only one side of the acting coin.
“The other side of vulnerable is that it’s also an opportunity to express one’s feelings and thoughts in a way that affects other people,” the 75-year-old actor says. “I think it takes a big ego to assume that [an audience] cares at all about what you’re thinking or feeling. I think that’s what drives people to be actors. Talent is something you’re born with and you can develop, but the wish, the desire to hold the center of the stage or command the room, shows up in people when they’re 8 or 9 because people are either not paying enough attention to you or too much attention to you.”
So what’s the elusive Woody Allen really like?
“He’s a very shy fellow and you’re aware of this as soon as you get into his presence and you realize you’re in the presence of a great mind and very kind human being,” Roberts says. “And that creates this very interesting dynamic. It took us several experiences together to really feel comfortable. … He’s a great reader; he’s read so many obscure books and philosophical treatises, and he’s a tremendously informed sports fan. And not just local teams or just baseball or basketball. He’s knowledgeable about fine art, painting, architecture. He has tremendous curiosity and a restless mind. I think that’s what makes him so hard to pin down. His brain is functioning on so many cylinders.And he’s never ‘on’ like most comedians I’ve known. They need to find a laugh all the time. He’s never done that.”
Their working partnership began when Allen caught Roberts in “Barefoot in the Park” in the early 1960s and cast the actor in Allen’s first play, “Don’t Drink the Water.”
“We really didn’t bond as friends, however, until two or three years later when [Woody] cast me in ‘Play It Again, Sam’ on Broadway. We were both very familiar with enough cultural history, and we related to art and culture and sports, and became pals.
“Diane Keaton played a huge role in our relationship because the three of us were in that play and we dined together on matinee days, we hung around backstage, we spent a lot of time together and we all became friends. He used all of that in ‘Annie Hall’ when you think about it.”
Working with Allen on a film is a unique experience for an actor, Roberts adds.
“Woody will call and say ‘What are you doing in three months? Do you have a job? And he’ll say, ‘Don’t take a job because I have something I want you to do.’ Then it becomes this wonderful journey. He’ll invite the actors to his apartment and you read the script aloud with him and you hear how it sounds in your mouth and he asks if you’d like to make any adjustments about a line. He wants it to feel comfortable for you. Nobody else does that.”
Roberts is also publishing his memoir, “Do You Know Me?,” later this spring, in which he chronicles his life’s ups and downs (he finally discusses in detail a seizure he suffered on stage almost five years ago).
“It took 15 years to write,” Roberts admits. “Going back through all those times on stage, behind the scenes, a lot of particular interests for people in love with the Golden Age of Broadway [he laughs] — if they’re still alive.”
What did the prolific author Woody Allen have to say about the book?
“When I told Woody I was writing it, he said, ‘Who’s gonna read it?’ ” Roberts says, laughing.
That’s what friends are for.