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Posted January 3, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Shenandoah graduate makes it big in theater business

J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley
J. Robert Spencer, left, performs as Dan, with Alice Ripley as Diana, in “Next to Normal” at Arena Stage in Crystal City. Spencer has performed on and off Broadway. Courtesy/Joan Marcus

By Josette Keelor — Daily Staff Writer

J. Robert Spencer is not partial to one genre of music. He loves everything about it.

The music producer, writer, actor, singer, dancer, musician practically eats, sleeps and breathes it. He has been around music his entire life, and now a Broadway star married to former Broadway star, the Shenandoah Conservatory graduate seems to have it all.

Spencer, 38, who lives in New York, is married to actress Jenny Lynn Suckling, has two children and is starring in “Next to Normal” at the Arena Stage, of Washington, which has a temporary stage in Arlington.

It wasn’t always like this though. Before becoming a producer of music and television in California, appearing in “Cats” off-Broadway, and landing his big role in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway, Spencer was just a young man wondering what to do with his life.

“I feel like the journey was mapped out for me through music,” he said in a recent phone interview. Though he had never really intended to make music his life, as he was growing up he always knew it was a big part of who he was.

“Music itself, on the radio, growing up in a household where the radio was always playing,” were some of his early influences, he said.

Everywhere they traveled, his family blasted the radio in their yellow station wagon.

“The more you listen to it, the more you get a tune with the melodies, the harmonies,” he said.

He was in his senior year at Central York High School in York, Pa., when a school counselor suggested he pursue a career in the subject he enjoyed — music. Spencer had participated in the band and chorus, and he enjoyed the theater, so he accepted the counselor’s advice.

The following year he found himself in the theater program at Shenandoah Conservatory at Shenandoah University in Winchester.

Though he was not academically inclined in high school, he attended college to pursue his interest in the arts.

“At college you’re there for 100 percent on your dream, and it’s fantastic,” he said. “All the way, 100 percent, all the time.”

After achieving a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and music theater and a minor in voice, he and the members of his band, Licia, took to the road to seek success. The members had been together since their sophomore year, but the band fell apart after four years together, because of differences in motivation, Spencer said.

“I had given up on acting,” Spencer said of his decision to tour with his band. “[I] thought, ‘This is where it’s gonna go.’” Licia even had a chance at a record deal in 1992, but some of the members had cold feet, and the band dissolved.

Deciding he was tired of his life being decided for him by others, Spencer began pursuing his dreams of performing on Broadway, and he soon moved to New York to play the odds. After months of rejections from studios around the city, in the spring of 1993, he landed a role in an off-Broadway production of “Cats,” according to his Web site, www.bobbyspencer.com.

He spent six months on the road with the show before returning to New York and acquiring his first Broadway role in “Side Show.”

The choice to move to Los Angeles was decided for many reasons. He and Suckling were married and living in New York until just after Sept. 11, 2001, he said.

“Like the rest of the world, there was a lot of freakin’ out going on,” he said. Suckling wanted to leave New York, and Spencer wanted to write his own music, so they moved to California

“We just hung out, worked real jobs,” he said. By day he waited tables; by night he wrote music, for two and a half years.

“I was constantly doing something in L.A., creatively, constantly letting it flow,” he said. When Suckling returned to New York to perform in “The Producers” on Broadway, Spencer remained in California.

Then came his big break. His agent called him with a role he thought would be perfect for Spencer, as one of the leads in “Jersey Boys,” the musical story of the rock band Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Spencer played Nick Massi, bass vocalist and founding member of the band.

“It was great. I was bringing all of my assets together in one place,” he said.

The role required him to learn bass guitar.

“Not a lot of people can play an instrument and dance and sing and act, and I could, and that alone set me above everyone else,” he said.

He was in the show for three years, and one thing he remembers most is the “tremendous script with a lot of heart.”

His current role came about from a reading he had done through an agent call for the show.

“I heard the music, and I just knew,” he said, remembering thinking at the time, “Oh my God, this is just incredible.”

Though at the Arena Stage he plays the role of the husband and father, during the workshop he was cast in the role of the therapist.

“The whole time, I knew I was much more suited for the role of Dan ... the father and husband,” he said.

“Next to Normal,” in its second run, is a reincarnation of music writer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey’s original story, which tells of a family trying to hold itself together in the wake of the mother/wife’s mental illness. The show, which has earned rave reviews from various publications, has earned Spencer’s praise for its originality and authenticity. It has what he calls the “Sondheim element,” referring to William Sondheim, writer of “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd.”

That very rarely happens in musical theater, he said.

“It’s a joyous, wonderful score,” he said, adding that it is also “a haunting score.”

Spencer is hopeful and optimistic for the future of his career, although, after “Next to Normal” ends, he is also unsure of where his future will lead him.

“I feel like it’s moving in the right direction,” he said.

“Next to Normal” will continue at the Arena Stage in Crystal City, at 1800 S. Bell St. in Arlington, through Jan. 18, while the Arena Stage in Washington is being renovated. For tickets or more information, call (202) 488-3300 or visit the Web at www.arenastage.org.

* Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com

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