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Columbia Missourian

Broadway's Jana Robbins to direct 'Little Women' at Stephens

By Kelsey Allen
December 2, 2008 | 5:37 p.m. CST
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Jana Robbins graduated from Stephens College in 1967 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. Since then, she has made her career as a Broadway actress and producer. Robbins returned to Columbia last month to direct a musical version of “Little Women” at Stephens to celebrate the college’s 175th anniversary year.

COLUMBIA — In the 1960s, the first show Jana Robbins participated in at Stephens College was “The Women.” More than 40 years later, her first major role in a feature film was in “The Women,” released this fall. She doesn’t think it is a coincidence.

Nor does she think it's a coincidence that the first show she produced on Broadway was “Little Women.” And this December, she is directing a musical version of “Little Women” at Stephens to celebrate the college’s 175th anniversary year. For Robbins, her career has come full circle.  

If You Go

What: "Little Women," the musical, presented by Stephens College

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5-6 and 2 p.m. Dec. 7

Where: Macklanburg Playhouse, Stephens College, 100 Willis Ave.

Admission: $14 general, $7 student/senior. Call the box office, (573) 876-7199

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“It’s not even bittersweet,” Robbins said. “It’s just totally sweet.”

After graduating from Stephens in 1967 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Robbins starred on Broadway, in off-Broadway shows and wherever else she could. Her first Broadway show was “Good News.” Other leading roles have been in “I Love My Wife” and “Crimes of the Heart.” Her most recent role was in the Broadway show “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

Although nothing compares to the limelight and resources Broadway offers, Robbins said she is thankful to have the opportunity to return to her alma mater to direct “Little Women.”  

“A dream come true is what it is like,” she said. “I feel honored that I have reached a level of success within the business that I studied for here. This is the school that prepared me for my career, and to do a show that I can produce on Broadway that I think is perfect for my own school, and then to have the opportunity to get hands on and, on a daily basis, direct it is one of the most fulfilling experiences that a person can have.”

Robbins is excited to return to Stephens. But for the students with the opportunity to work with her, the thought of hitting a wrong note or forgetting a line is enough to make them more than a little anxious.

“Before she came, we all had this big, scary expectation of what she was going to be like, like the Broadway Star,” said Sydney Turner, who plays the leading role of Jo March.  

Fortunately, Robbins is not the stereotypical diva.    

“From the minute I met her, she was nothing but nice and considerate and welcomes questions — everything opposite from what we anticipated,” Turner said.

Stephens provided Robbins with a “feeling of warmth” that she said she hoped to replicate while directing “Little Women.” In addition, Robbins hopes her success story will inspire some of the girls to follow in her footsteps.   

“I hope that they are also encouraged by being with me, to see me as an example of someone who had a life in theater and had a rewarding and emotionally stable life as an actress and a producer in the business," Robbins said. "That it can be done.”    

Emily Shackelford, who plays the eldest March sister, Meg, said that hearing Robbins' stories and learning from her has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I feel so lucky that I get to meet her and hear the things she has to say about theater in general,” Shackelford said. “She always says, ‘Don’t act it, live it.’ She really drills that in and tries to make sure we are not doing things because she told us to, but because our characters would really live and breathe in that moment.”

That is exactly what Robbins hopes the young women take away from her time spent directing the musical at Stephens.  

“Most of life is in the doing of it,” Robbins said. She said she hopes they will have grown not only as actresses, but in their humanity — "what they each took away from learning and playing these roles.”

Robbins said that although the Macklanburg Playhouse doesn't have the resources of a Broadway production, it doesn’t mean the show can’t be as grand. In adapting the show for Stephens, she has taken some creative liberties. Jo’s character, for example, is shown obviously to be Louisa May Alcott writing “Little Women.” But, Robbins said, the changes aren’t so drastic that the audience won’t recognize the show.  

Turner said she is looking forward to seeing girls come and enjoy the musical. “I know I loved 'Little Women' when I was a little girl,” she said. “I think whether you grow up in a family with lots of siblings or lots of sisters or not, it really speaks to general camaraderie and friendship.”