Robby Benson, best known to at least one generation as a "teen idol" during the 1970s in such films as "Running Brave" and "Ode to Billy Joe," and more recently as the voice of the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), has kept a pretty low profile in the past few years.
But he'll be in Park City next weekend performing a concert version of his 2004 off Broadway musical "Open Heart."
It's also a homecoming of sorts. Benson and his wife, singer-actress Karla DeVito, who also performs in "Open Heart," lived in Park City when Benson was teaching in the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah.
Benson's other passions are composing, teaching and mostly his family, he said by phone from his home in New York City.
In addition to acting in the musical play, Benson also wrote the book, lyrics and music for "Open Heart." "I've been writing before I was even in my teens."
The soft-spoken Benson is also quite witty. He e-mailed several photographs to the Deseret Morning News, including one he said was the guitar on which he does his composing except it's a larger-than-life metal sculpture on a city plaza.
He began creating "Open Heart" nearly five years ago as a valentine tribute to his wife. In the production, Benson plays the central role of Jimmy, a workaholic director of family-friendly sitcoms who is so buried in deadlines and pressure from home that he appears to suffer a heart attack just as he's getting ready to go home to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary.
While "Open Heart" is not especially autobiographical, Benson said, "I will never deny writing about what I know. It's one of the funniest ways of looking at something that could be tragic. That's how I look at life."
In the musical, Benson is portraying the director of a television sitcom titled "Open Heart." In real life he has directed such popular sitcoms as "Friends" and "Ellen." Also in real-life, he has undergone open-heart surgeries, first when he was 28, then again at 42 and another just six years later. The 51-year-old performer was born with a heart defect, and he is an activist and fund-raiser for heart research.
Commenting on the latter, Benson concedes that, "I'm not one to do my own PR, I just try to do my best. There are so many ways that, if you're in the public, that you can do good things. I enjoy lending my name to causes that will help other people."
As for the play, it's "a love story," he said. "The 'Open Heart' in the title is about being vulnerable and being open to the person you love."
In addition to his wife, "Open Heart" also features Stan Brown, one of Benson's former students. Both DeVito and Brown play multiple characters. "People enjoy watching how talented Karla and Stan are in transforming themselves into 11 different characters with just glasses or a scarf or something else very subtle.
"The musical was always written to be as contained as possible, and the Park City production will have very little scenery, leaving it mysterious and open to interpretation."
During its three performances in the Egyptian Theatre, it will feature back-up singing by the Park City Singers.
Benson also cautioned that the show does have a few bawdy moments and may not be appropriate for younger audiences. "One song in particular might seem gratuitous but it's a comical look at the last things people say just before they die, like what you might hear in cockpit conversations. This does have a very adult theme and some mature language."
Benson and DeVito met when he was playing Frederic and she was playing Mabel in a Broadway revival of "The Pirates of Penzance." Like Jimmy and Jayne in "Open Heart," they've been married 25 years. They have a son, Zephyr, and a daughter, Lyric.
"Our son will be 15 by the time we land in Salt Lake City. Our daughter, who is 23 and out of school, is busy absorbing life and is a remarkable writer. I believe she is a much better writer than I am, and one day she'll be able to put her thoughts on paper and help our planet in some way."
The Bensons sold their home in Park City a few years ago. These days, he is a full-time professor at New York University and they live just three blocks from campus. "I don't travel well. If it weren't for Karla I wouldn't know where I was at any particular moment. My mind is always in the stars or in a perpetual writer's room. I will walk out of NYU and walk the wrong way home."
In addition to once teaching at the U., Benson has another local theater connection. For nearly 15 months in the early 1970s he played young Solomon in "The Rothschilds" on Broadway a musical for which Utah native Keene Curtis won a Tony Award for his portrayal of four different European characters. Curtis' Tony Award is now on display at Kingsbury Hall.
"Keene's performance on a nightly basis was something to marvel at," Benson said. "I remember just standing backstage and watching him work. He was a remarkable person."
After "Open Heart" closed in 2004 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City, Benson said he "sat down and started writing a novel. It's been sold to Harper-Collins and is coming out in August of this year. There's been some cool buzz behind it."
If you go . . .
What: "Open Heart"
Theatre, 328 Main St., Park City
When: Friday and
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.;
April 1, 2 p.m.
How much: $23-$200
Web site: www.parkcityshows.com
E-mail: [email protected]