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Robin Field on Objectivism and the Performing Arts

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 11, No. 2.

robin-field

Robin Field—entertainer, singer, actor, composer, lyricist—has performed in virtually every form of show business, from the New York stage, to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, to Carnegie Hall. He recorded for RCA Victor; appeared on the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks; and worked for Disney Studios and with such show business icons as Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis. In 1972, Dom DeLuise presented Field as his “discovery” on The Merv Griffin Show. In the 1980s and 1990s, Field toured in his own philosophical one-man show, Reason in Rhyme. He wrote, directed, and starred in seven editions of Broadway: A Hundred Years Ago. For five years, he served as creator and host of the New York radio series Broadway Time Capsule. And he was editor and publisher of Revival, a magazine devoted to theatrical history.

Field and his singing partner, Bill Daugherty, won rave reviews throughout the United States as well as in London and Amsterdam. They won four MAC Awards (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) for “Best Musical-Comedy Team”; and their show Daugherty & Field Off-Broadway was nominated for a New York Outer Critics Circle award as “Best Musical Review.” In 1992, they headlined at Carnegie Hall, where their show sold out and received a standing ovation.

If you’ve never heard Robin Field perform, don’t delay—watch Reason in Rhyme: A Philosophic Oratorio, a one-hour video that you can find on TOS’s website by searching “Robin Field.” There, you’ll see why the New York Times called him “brilliant,” why the Los Angeles Times called him “a superb entertainer,” why Backstage called him “extraordinarily gifted,” why Merv Griffin called him “a multitalented performer,” and Tony- and Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer called him “a Renaissance man.”

I could go on recounting Field’s many talents and achievements; but instead, let’s hear from the Renaissance man himself. —Craig Biddle

Craig Biddle: Thank you for taking time to chat with me, Robin. I know many of our readers are eager to hear what you’ve been up to. And some of our readers, those who are not yet familiar with you or your work, are, well, in for an awakening.

Let’s begin at the beginning: How did you first become interested in the performing arts?

Robin Field: That’s easy. My whole family was wildly musical. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a vaudevillian—a singer, songwriter, comedian—and I learned and performed most of his songs and routines when I was in grade school. My mother’s sister sang with the big bands during the Second World War. My father played a little jazz piano and clarinet nonprofessionally, and my three sisters and I would fall asleep on Tuesday nights to his Dixieland jam sessions at the house. This was in Newport Beach, California. My mother sang and played the piano beautifully, also nonprofessionally. So I grew up with all of these influences.

Biddle: And how did you get started in this area?

Field: That’s harder to pinpoint. I began playing piano by ear when I was about seven. When I was a Cub Scout, I starred in a play for one of our pack meetings—something about pirates. My mother was also quite an artist, so I took up cartooning around that time. I started the school newspaper and did all of the editing and comic pages. When I was twelve, I appeared on a Los Angeles TV show, Tom Hatten’s Popeye, and won a cartooning contest. And for years I put on backyard puppet shows for the neighborhood kids, a different show every day, and won a puppet contest on another TV show. Eventually, I worked up a ventriloquist act and won a trophy for that. And I used to hire out to local birthday parties as a clown. This was all in the 1950s. School shows, children’s theater: I was always performing, long before I was a teenager. I also dabbled with writing songs, poems, short stories, plays. My first contracted work as an entertainer was at a pizza parlor in Ventura, where I sang and played the piano for six months. When I turned twenty-one, I headed for New York to see if I could get anywhere in big-time show business—and that led to the whole career on stage, radio, TV, and so on.

Biddle: When and how did you become interested in philosophy in general, and in Ayn Rand’s philosophy in particular?

Field: Well, in my teens I was something of a “troubled youth” with suicidal tendencies. I was a runaway at sixteen, hitchhiking all over the country. I’d had therapy for a while when I was eighteen—psychoanalysis—and found it to be no help at all. But a friend who understood me better than I did myself recommended Atlas Shrugged. She had been studying Objectivism for about a year by then. I was in Chicago at the time, and I went to the gigantic library there and asked for Atlas. But it wasn’t there. So I found Anthem and sat down and read it there in the library. This was the first time I’d ever heard of egoism as a good thing, and I wanted more. So I thumbed my way back to California so that my friend and I could study all the newsletters and lectures together. This was in 1965. When I got through Atlas, my whole perspective changed. I had answers to most of my deepest questions and a rational frame of reference for making all of my future decisions. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but I seriously believe that Ayn Rand saved my life. I once wrote her to thank her for that.

Biddle: What was the first instance of your explicitly integrating philosophy with performing arts?

Field: In my twenties I wrote a few operettas based on classic fairy tales. But I had to revise the morals of each story, because they were usually so offensive to me. So in The Bronze Ring, in which magic made everything come out right, I made it about honesty instead. In The Crystal Palace, in which the hero had to learn humility, I made the case for legitimate pride. And in Little Red Riding Hood, the message went from “Always obey your parents” to “Learn to think for yourself.” But my only show about philosophy itself was Reason in Rhyme, which I originally called Three Questions.

Biddle: And what was the inspiration for that?

Field: During the seventies I was taking Leonard Peikoff’s lectures “live” in New York, with Miss Rand taking part in the questions afterwards, and I was beginning to understand the whole structure and validation of Objectivism—but it was difficult to retain, even though I took pretty good notes. So I found myself boiling the ideas down into little rhymes, such as “Volition is the ignition.” And I thought, you know, I can do this with the whole philosophy. So I conceived the idea of writing myself a whole one-man show of songs and poems as a musical-comedy lecture. Partly I wanted to demonstrate my abilities as a songwriter and entertainer and distinguish myself from other talents in New York, and partly I wanted to perform more meaningful material than I had done before.

Biddle: When and where did you first perform Reason in Rhyme? And how was it received?

Field: Well, my personal manager invited a number of professionals to my apartment for several weeks to get their reactions—theater people, agents, directors, managers—because she didn’t really know what to think of it herself. I performed it at my own piano, and the reactions were mixed. They all said it was an amazing accomplishment but unsellable. One agent was enthusiastic enough to call it sui generis (in a class by itself). But the consensus was “It’s too highbrow,” “Only philosophy students would understand it,” and “It isn’t entertainment.” My manager and I sent off tapes to producers, record companies, and agents who booked college concerts. Nobody wanted it. So I found bookings on my own, through friends and family. I first performed it for private parties of teachers, librarians, doctors, then at various universities and high schools. Everybody loved it. Then I performed it as a fund-raiser for a community theater in California, and a general audience of about four hundred strangers gave it a standing ovation. So you can guess what I think of industry experts. By 1983 Walter Huebscher, who ran the Objectivist Book Service in Toronto, invited me to perform it there for a few schools and colleges and eventually offered it through the catalog for about three years as a cassette tape. And today I still meet young Objectivists who say, “My parents raised me on that tape.”

Biddle: Why did you change the show’s title?

Field: Oh—well, I thought Three Questions was ideal, because that was the title of the first song, and it referred to the three basic branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—or “What is so? How do you know? and So what should you do?” But someone told me he had no idea what the show was about from that title. It could be about rent control or anything. And I realized he was right. So Reason in Rhyme was more to the point and had a lyrical lilt to it. I can tell you a few secrets about the content, if you like.

Biddle: By all means.

Field: The show didn’t actually occur to me as a single work. I had written a handful of philosophical songs with other projects in mind. For instance, “The Universe” was intended for a musical version of a children’s book I grew up with called A Child’s History of the World, which began with a description of what existed before the Earth spun off from the Sun. But the bolero rhythm I chose for it, in order to capture how vast and inexorable the universe is, seemed too dramatic for a children’s work. Then “Living” was intended to be a theme song for a movie script I tried to write about my teenage runaway. I never finished these projects. “A Is A” was a Danny-Kaye-ish patter song I wrote just to show that I could perform that kind of number. But here’s the big secret: I wrote the lyrics first, with all kinds of puns on A, B, and C—then I composed a melody in the style of a Bach prelude, made up of the musical pitches of A, B, and C. So every time I sing “A is A,” I’m singing the note A. When I sing “To be or not to be,” I’m singing a B. When I sing “See?” I’m singing a C. “Defining” is sung on a D, and “Even” is sung on an E. The biggest clue is when I sing, “Say they’re both the same, I’ll knock you flat”—and the whole song suddenly changes to a flat key. So “A Is A” may be the only song in history to have its melody literally dictated by the lyrics.

Biddle: That’s wonderful. Has anyone to your knowledge ever discovered this on his own?

Field: Not that I know of, no.

Biddle: How did the video of Reason in Rhyme wind up on the Internet?

Field: A young man from Canada attended a recent Objectivist conference and asked about me. I wasn’t there, but we were put in touch with each other, and he said, “Why haven’t you put the video on YouTube?” I said, “Because I don’t know how.” He said, “Well, I do.” So I sent it to him, and he made it happen. And I’m very grateful that the show is getting a second life after about thirty-five years.

Biddle: So am I. It’s one of the most uplifting and delightful performances I’ve ever seen.

You wrote and hosted a radio series titled Broadway Time Capsule, which was a chronological retrospective of virtually every Broadway musical from 1767 [not a typo—CB] onward. Tell me about this massive venture.

Field: Yes, well, you have to understand that I was a nutty kid: In my preteens I had an imaginary radio network. I used to host my record collection using my Mom’s vacuum-cleaner hose as my microphone, dangling the other end downstairs in case anyone wanted to listen. Nobody ever did, but I didn’t care. By my twenties, I had a huge collection of Broadway cast albums, and I decided to record them all on tape in chronological order, just for my own enjoyment, and to satisfy my own curiosity about which show came first, who wrote them, who starred in them. With the help of several books, I researched the facts, wrote brief introductions, and played pretend host again. Soon I had dozens of tapes. Now, cut to twenty years later. My New York press representative, David Rothenberg, has a radio series on Saturday mornings, and he asks me if I know anyone who could substitute for him for the summer. I said I’d love to. I asked if I could present my own Broadway tapes, and he loved the idea. So after a few weeks of night school to get my FCC broadcasting license, I was hosting and engineering my own radio series for five summers. Like playing Carnegie Hall, another childhood fantasy I never believed would come true did.

Biddle: I’m fortunate to have several copies of your breathtakingly beautiful magazine, Revival. How did you get started publishing and editing this gem?

Field: Well, thank you—from one editor to another. In the late eighties, I became a member of The Players, the theater club founded a hundred years earlier by Edwin Booth, the great Shakespearean actor. Now I was rubbing shoulders with such heroes of mine as Alfred Drake, Helen Hayes, and the president of the club at that time, Jose Ferrer. I began writing and directing a series of musical revues for the club, called Broadway: A Hundred Years Ago, using songs and scenes from shows of the 1880s and 1890s. I did most of the research in The Players’ own theatrical library, upstairs of the club. Well, this library sold some of its theater books every year, and I acquired two enormous and dusty volumes called The Stage and Its Stars, published in 1890. At first I just wanted to share it with a few friends in California by retyping its content into my computer, but the language was a bit archaic and the references too obscure, so I began making minor revisions to the wording and filling in missing facts. But these volumes were also loaded with incredible illustrations, mostly drawings and etchings of the greatest actors and actresses throughout the ages, and I didn’t know how to copy them properly. So a friend who had been a professional magazine designer offered to turn the whole project into a quarterly magazine.

Biddle: And how would you describe it and its contents?

Field: Physically, it’s a black-and-white, lavishly illustrated, glossy magazine. In content, it’s the whole history of theater, from the ancient Greeks, through the Shakespeareans and the early Americans, up to 1890—mostly told by the actual letters and memoirs of the actors themselves, plus a few articles and poems by me. The research was tedious, but like most of my projects, it was a labor of love. We offered it for sale, but it never made money. However, it received wonderful reviews, and among our subscribers were Harvard, Yale, and Oxford Universities. Not bad for a high-school drop-out.

Biddle: What have you been up to in recent years?

Field: I retired several years ago, but I still work on creative projects. In my mountain hometown in California I wrote and directed a musical of Tom Sawyer, which I had started writing forty years earlier as a kid. I starred in local productions of The Music Man, My Fair Lady, The King and I, and portrayed Mark Twain in a one-man show. I acted in a Costa Mesa production of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and Hollywood productions of Cabaret and Monna Vanna (one of Ayn Rand’s favorite plays). I’ve been writing a musical version of Cyrano on and off for years, and recording audiobooks.

Biddle: Please say more about the musical version of Cyrano. That’s one of my favorite plays. Might this come to fruition—and perhaps a stage—in the near future?

Field: Who knows? It’s about half finished, but it’s hard to keep it on the front burner. Once I can clear some time to reimmerse myself in it, I can probably finish it in a few months. Whether it ever gets produced, I can’t say. First it has to exist on paper. When I saw Jose Ferrer in the 1950 movie version, I fell in love with the play, the character, and his performance. And although several musical versions have been attempted over the past century, none were successful. But I’ve studied them, and I think I know where they went wrong. For one thing, mine will preserve the original theme of Cyrano’s heroic integrity.

Biddle: I’m sure your version would be both philosophically and aesthetically phenomenal. I hope to see it performed.

What are some of your favorite audiobooks you’ve recorded?

Field: Well, I’ve recorded works by Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Darwin—as well as children’s classics such as the fairy tales of Perrault, Grimm, and Andersen, the original Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, Uncle Remus, The Wizard of Oz, and all six volumes of the McGuffey Readers. I’ve won industry awards for my Huckleberry Finn and a John Williams novel called Stoner. My favorite is Mark Twain. I love his dry humor, and I love tuning into his voice characterization. I’m trying to do his complete works and am about halfway there. But the greatest honor has been to record Ayn Rand’s Three Plays and Leonard Peikoff’s The Dim Hypothesis. I also just finished Genesis, a beautiful novel by Quent Cordair, the Objectivist art dealer. It doesn’t seem like I’m retired at all, does it? But this work suits me perfectly now, because I can keep on acting without leaving my house.

Biddle: Yes, and the world can keep on enjoying the fruits of your many remarkable talents. Where can people find these recordings? Are they all available?

Field: Oh, yes, I think they’re all available on Amazon and audible.com.

Biddle: Apart from more readings, what lies ahead for you?

Field: Well, I just moved to a small farm in the Midwest with some friends, but I’m still surrounded by all of my collections of books, records, and videos, and I mean to continue working on all of my creative projects. I just celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday, so I’m a little less active but comfortable and happy. May I say just one more thing before we close?

Biddle: Of course.

Field: You asked me a few years ago if I’d be interested in writing something for TOS, and I said something like I didn’t think my areas of knowledge and experience were appropriate for a philosophical journal, especially one that’s based on Objectivism. The world is in big trouble, and the need to spread a rational philosophy is now more urgent than ever. And show business seems a little off point. But I agreed to do this interview because it may be inspiring to readers to learn that Objectivism turned my life around and made it possible for me to achieve so many of my dreams. After fifty years of applying it to my own life, I’m convinced that it’s the only philosophy that makes sense. And, speaking now to young readers, if the vast number of books and lectures on Objectivism seem too daunting, you might find my one-man show Reason in Rhyme a helpful introduction. You need the full philosophy for its complete validation, but it helps to have a concise, simplified outline. You know how I remember that the proper definition of reason includes both perception and conception (as opposed to the traditional split between rationalism and empiricism)? I think of it as a formula: R = E + L (reason is evidence plus logic). Or how I remember that the worst ideas in history are mysticism, altruism, and collectivism? M-A-C, or the Big MAC.

Biddle: I like that. And if you add subjectivism to it, you get the Big SMAC, which seems rather appropriate.

Field: Ha! Excellent. And as I indicate in the finale of Reason in Rhyme, you can’t love your life unless you love yourself. Loving yourself is absolutely vital. And all it takes is two things: to be reasonable and to be good. Of course, Objectivism shows you why these two things are one and the same.

Biddle: Thanks, Robin. This has been delightful.

Field: Thank you, Craig.

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