AVENUE Q 'Exit Interview' with Rob McClure, a.k.a. Princeton, a.k.a. Rod
Third in a series
What I Did This Summer, by Rob McClure. Had starring role in Tony-winning musical. Made late-night network TV debut. Got married.
That sure sounds like a life chock-full of purpose, no? Yet McClure, the last performer to fill the role of Princeton in Avenue Q on Broadway (it closes September 13), says he thoroughly identifies with his purpose-seeking character. He admits to a solidarity, too, with his other Avenue Q character, even though McClure just married his girlfriend while Rod's very reluctantly coming out of the closet.
Of course, both Rod and Princeton are puppets—which McClure had no professional experience with before he joined Avenue Q. When I saw the show in August for the first time since it opened in summer 2003, I was amazed at McClure's dexterity with the puppets and his charming, affable performance—and how much it reminded me of John Tartaglia's performance as the original Princeton/Rod, which had impressed me so much with its charm and affability. Tartaglia was a professional puppeteer before Avenue Q and has worked on children's TV shows such as Sesame Street and Johnny and the Sprites.
Like Tartaglia, McClure was virtually unknown and untested on New York City stages pre-Q. He was an understudy in the Broadway company of I'm Not Rappaport in 2002 but never got a chance to play his part during the revival's two-month run. And he'd briefly been in Q on Broadway a few years ago, in a smaller role. Most of McClure's credits have been at regional theaters in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
The 27-year-old newlywed talked to BWW last week about his road to Avenue Q and all the different personalities he's inhabited there and in other productions, as well as about personal subjects, like his August 23 wedding to actress Maggie Lakis.
You just took over Princeton/Rod on Broadway in early July, but you go back a few years with Avenue Q, right?
I first got hired almost three years ago as Nicky and Trekkie Monster on Broadway. I did it for about a hundred performances—which is about three months—and then they asked me to do Princeton and Rod on the tour. At first, I thought I was going out as Nicky and Trekkie on the tour; maybe three weeks before we started rehearsal, they gave me a call and said: "Listen, we want you to come in and sing some Princeton and Rod stuff." I went in, and they asked me to switch over. So I did Princeton and Rod on the road for two years, and then just joined the Broadway company to close it out in New York.
Which (human) characters in other shows you've done would you say are most similar to each of the Avenue Q roles you've played?
In college I did a bunch of scenes from the Brighton Beach Memoirs series—those three plays—and I think Eugene has a lot of Princeton in him: the constant questions, the constant uncertainty and striving to know more. I don't think there's anyone quite like Trekkie Monster that I've played before. Nicky's fun because he has such a big heart and he means well, he's not necessarily the most productive friend to have around; I don't know that I've gotten to play someone like him.
Rod...well, right before I came back to Broadway, I played Carmen Ghia in The Producers down at the Walnut Street, and Carmen Ghia makes Rod look like Mr. T! I love that about Rod. I love that the writers were brave enough and smart enough to not just make him flaming comic relief and to trust that if the audience would go with him during "If You Were Gay" and laugh at his insecurities, they would go with him if he had the breakdown in Act 2 with Christmas Eve, where he really doesn't know what to do. He does have a real struggle, he does have a real plot.
I can't tell you: being on the national tour and going to places in the buckle of the Bible Belt and hearing 50-year-old straight guys from the South let out an "Awww" at the end of "Fantasies Come True." For one moment they are relating to his struggle, to find someone who he loves and loves him back. I really think that that is a gigantic brave statement that this show has made, and I think being puppets allows people to let their guard down. They don't expect those kinds of things to come out of this, what they thought was just going to be a raunchy puppet show, and all of a sudden they're getting these sucker-punches of heart. I think that's why the show has run as long as it has, and why it won the Tony in the first place.
Did the show encounter any hostile reaction anywhere on the road?
Not really. What's amazing is we were so concerned: Well, we're about to go to Houston, Texas, where we're two blocks away from George Bush Sr.'s house, and we're about to slam George Bush...I don't know how this is going to go over. Again, I think it is that unexpected heart in the show that allowed everyone everywhere to have a magnificent response.
We were also playing gigantic houses—[for example] the 5,800-seat Fox in St. Louis, with a little puppet show—and going, How is this going to play here? And what we found from the audience is they said: "Okay, we just saw the Wedding Singer tour and in my seat I can't see anybody's expression. The puppets, with their wider eyes and their bright colors, are actually reading to us better than people usually do." We had the opposite response than we thought we would. We thought that the puppets would get lost in those big houses, but they were reaching people seated further away.
Tell us about becoming a puppeting pro.
I was a huge Muppet fan growing up, but that was the extent of my puppet knowledge. I really loved the art form and the whole Henson universe. I had seen Avenue Q off-Broadway back in 2003 and fell in love with it. I just thought it was the smartest, funniest thing I'd seen in a long time. I waited at the stage door for autographs like a little nerd, I was really obsessed with the show. So when the opportunity came—it was an open call—I figured, What the heck? I'll give it a try. It was a long process: I had eight callbacks and three days of what they call "puppet camp," this really intensive-training boot camp.
What were the auditions like?
It's a crazy-funny story. I went in expecting to audition for Princeton/Rod, because from what I knew, Rick Lyon had played Nicky/Trekkie and type-wise I thought I was more right for Princeton/Rod at the time. So I had my little "Purpose"-esque pop song that I had prepared, and I'm waiting in this room with God knows how many other people. Person after person would go in and really sing—you know, New York musical theater boys who just blow the roof off the place. I was getting self-conscious as I was waiting...I consider myself an actor first, a singer/dancer and all that second, so I'm not really sure what material to use. Five people before I went in, Cindy Tolan [the casting director] came out [and announced]: "I don't know if the remainder of you have seen Avenue Q, but the show is a comedy." And she shut the door. Apparently, everyone had been going in and singing "Suddenly Seymour" and "Lost in the Wilderness" and wailing their face off without appropriate material for the show. Everyone, including me, starts panicking and looking through their music books. I picked out an old Cole Porter song called "De-Lovely," and about three people before I went in, I decided to do it as a duet between Ernie and Cookie Monster. [Afterward] I called my fiancée, now wife, and told her what I did, and she said: "I'm so glad you didn't call me first and ask me if I thought you should do that, because I would have told you it's a horrible idea!" It was one of those things that was going to be either really good or really bad, but for Avenue Q, safe won't get you a callback. There has to be something else going on.
I was cast over a 2½-month audition process. The very first audition, you just go in and sing. The second one, they give you this sort of cheapy, Walmart-looking puppet—before they give you the $6,500 Avenue Q puppet. They're just seeing if you have any grasp of the lip-synch, of moving it with your own words. It was essentially just singing a song from the show, and they're looking for any natural ability to synch up your mouth with the puppet's. It wasn't until about four callbacks later that I was actually using the Avenue Q puppet.
And how did puppet camp go for you?
It was really, really intimidating. I'll never forget walking in and [they're] saying: "Step 1..." And I'm thinking it's going to be: Make sure your hand moves with your mouth. And they said: "Step 1 is making sure the puppet inhales before he speaks." I thought: Oh, my God! We're going to be here forever if that's Step 1. But it truly is that detail that, hopefully, the audience is taking all for granted: that the puppet really seems alive. They may not know all the little tricks going into it, but it's this endless struggle to keep this thing alive.
[When I first saw Avenue Q,] the first time Nicky came out—the two-handed puppet—for the first time in my life I remember thinking: Oh, my God, the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show couldn't have been one person! All this stuff that I had taken for granted... That's part of the magic of Avenue Q: revealing that to the audience. If you think hard enough about it: Rowlf the dog playing the piano on The Muppet Show—what kind of insanity was happening underneath the cameras to make that happen? His mouth is moving, and he's got two hands playing the piano. That's two people under there! This show has exposed that, and I think that's half the fun for the audience: getting to watch that process live.
What was the toughest thing about the puppetry to learn?
At puppet camp, just the stamina for your arm is a little overwhelming at first. You don't want to be the one guy in there who's whining about his arm hurting. But it absolutely does! But you get used to it. Overall, the hardest thing was when you're voicing multiple characters at once—when someone else is puppeteering a character that you're not manipulating at the time [but you're voicing]: keeping the character on your arm present and listening and responding to what you're saying back at it from a different puppet. That's the multitasking that gets a little overwhelming in the rehearsal process.
The biggest challenge, I think, is as an actor, you constantly want to be making fresh choices. But you have to become fluent in this crazy puppet language, so when you in the moment on stage make a new, fresh choice, you know how to translate it into this puppet on your arm.
Did it get confusing when you went from playing Nicky and Trekkie to Rod and Princeton?
Definitely those first few rehearsals were a major adjustment. The very first scene that I did as Princeton/Rod—I did the "B.A. in English" scene, then I went into the "If You Were Gay" sequence, and the guy playing Nicky, Christian Anderson, came out and went "Hi, Rod." And I realized that I was waiting [to hear] my line. There definitely was some osmosis in terms of learning the lines; I found I already knew a lot of them just from listening to them and responding them every night.
Have you gotten to know John Tartaglia?
A little bit. We've crossed paths a couple of times. He was nice enough to invite me to the set of Johnny and the Sprites and watch them film. It was just thrilling; it's a world that I'd been a fan of for so long.
Would you be able to do puppetry now outside of Avenue Q?
I'd like to think I could. I've done a little bit here and there. The puppetry for Avenue Q is so specific in terms of playing the character in tandem with yourself. Most of the time, [puppeteers are] in some uncomfortable position off-camera, making the puppet come alive in a monitor. So it is a very different beast. As far as the vocabulary of puppeteering, it's very much the same, but looking in a monitor where everything is backwards—right is left, and left is right—and you've got to keep your head out of the frame, all that is a different, specific art form in itself. Jennifer Barnhart, whom I was lucky enough to play Nicky/Trekkie with—my "dance partner"—she is a veteran of that world, so I picked up as much as I could from her and would love to do it in the future. You spend so much time acquiring this bizarre skill, and you just hope there's another opportunity to use it.
How'd you break into show biz?
I grew up in Bergen County, north Jersey—a town called New Milford—and did a lot of work down at the Paper Mill getting started. I really owe them most of my career. The Paper Mill Playhouse does this great thing called the Rising Star Awards—they send judges to [high school] plays all over the state. My senior year, I won the Rising Star Award for Best Actor [for the title role in Where's Charley?], which gives you a scholarship into their summer musical theater conservatory. So I studied with them over the summer: it's this intensive Monday-through-Friday program directed by their artistic director. He offered me a job in their mainstage production of Carousel, which was my professional debut. I was Enoch Snow Jr. And I got to work with some real amazing people. I got to work with Eddie Bracken, who has passed away since. He was a film and theater legend—an old character actor—and the stories that would come out of him, about working with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. I was 19 and soaking it up.
A year and a half later, the Paper Mill was doing a coproduction of I'm Not Rappaport with the Coconut Grove in Miami and the Ford's Theatre in Washington. I auditioned for it and didn't get it. But after they did it at the Coconut Grove and the Ford's, the kid who was understudying the part that I'd auditioned for—he was from Florida and didn't want to go all the way to New Jersey, so he didn't do the Paper Mill run. They called me to understudy the role, and two weeks into that run at the Paper Mill they said: This show is going to Broadway and we're bringing this cast, and here's your Equity card, and here we go... Working with Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen, I was trying to be like a sponge and learn as much as I could.
You and your new bride, Maggie, were on the Avenue Q tour together. Is that where you met?
No. We met doing a production of Grease down at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in New Jersey back in 2005. Maggie played Frenchie, and I played Doody. Nauseating, I know [laughs].
We were living together in Philadelphia when I booked Nicky/Trekkie in New York. Then they asked me to go out on the tour. It was a financial opportunity that I couldn't really pass on, but it was hard because I was going to have to leave her in Philly. She said, "Do you think they need anyone?" I had no idea. She sent in her headshot and résumé, and about 2½ months later she had booked it. She played the yellow bear/Mrs. T track on tour with me, and we brought our two cats with us.
As the tour was ending [last spring], we planned that August 23rd date. I had planned to have those two weeks off to get married after The Producers. Then the Avenue Q people called and said we'd love to have you come in and close it out. I said, "As long as you can give me the weekend off to get married, I'm in." I was back on Tuesday [August 25].
So is a honeymoon your No. 1 priority after Avenue Q closes?
We're trying to figure it out. You know, you're constantly trying to line up the next thing. Once we know what the next thing is, or isn't, then we'll know what time we have to do something.
I think I'm going to be working on Oliver! at the Walnut Street in Philly. It's a great gig over the holidays—a 10-minute walk from my house. What's so funny is I've had some people ask me, "You're going from Princeton/Rod, the lead on Broadway, to Noah Claypole and the ensemble at the Walnut Street...?" For me, it's always been about making a living. If I can pay my bills playing make-believe for the rest of my life, I've made it.
Why'd you decide to live in Philadelphia rather than NYC?
In between I'm Not Rappaport and Avenue Q, the New York thing slowed down a bit. Maggie was from Philadelphia, and said, "Philly has a really great theater scene. Why don't you come audition for some stuff?" And I started working out there, and she was out there, so it just made sense to move there. And the second I moved there, I got Avenue Q! I thought, I'll give the Amtrak train a try and if it's miserable, then we'll move. I've actually found that I love it. It's an hour and 20 minutes, and I can sleep or read or watch a movie, it's great downtime. The cost of living is the main draw [of Philly], in addition to having this great, thriving theater community at your fingertips in between New York gigs. We just bought a house.
And you were honored by the Philadelphia theater community in 2007 for your performance in The Bomb-itty of Errors.
There's a great company in Philadelphia called the 11th Hour Theatre. They're sort of committed to doing contemporary musical theater. They called me, and I had no idea what it was. They said, "It's going to be four white guys rapping Shakespeare." I thought, That sounds horrible! The artistic director was a friend of mine, and we sat down and read through the script, and I very quickly realized it was brilliant. Shakespeare is poetry to begin with, so just adding rhythm to it makes sense. I ended up winning the Barrymore Award for it, for Best Actor. There was some amazing talent in the category: Mark Jacoby and some people I really admired. When they called my name, I freaked out a little.
I just received another Barrymore nomination for my work as Carmen Ghia in The Producers at the Walnut Street Theatre. I also got to do Leo Frank in Parade at the Kasser Theater in New Jersey [in 2006]. That was probably one of the most rewarding theatrical processes that I've gone through, because that show is so epic and amazing.
[Last year, Rob was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for the Avenue Q tour in Washington, D.C.]
With these musical successes, do you still consider yourself an actor more than a musical performer?
I love singing and everything about musicals, but I'd always considered myself an actor first. I've done singing and dancing as I needed to when I've been hired in shows, but I've never done the crazy dance classes or the crazy voice lessons or any of that. I've been lucky enough to make my way doing it as I go along. Certainly now I consider myself a musical theater performer, it is where I made a home for myself, but it was never my intention from the start.
What do you feel is the main thing you're taking away from Avenue Q?
The show has done so much for me personally and artistically. I feel like I owe it so much. The heart of Avenue Q has not only taught countless audience members but me, too. The whole searching-for-your-purpose thing: It seems like, in the end you may never find it, but in the meantime perhaps your purpose is just to enjoy trying to find it. And that has taught me so much about my career and my personal life. That message of everything in life being for now has changed my outlook. Not to be cheesy, but I would say a large percentage of performances, I well up during that song. It really hits home, and I don't think I'm the only one. I'm just so proud to have been a small part in such a big success.
Read more about Rob's life and career—including the story of his proposal to Maggie on the stage of Avenue Q after a tour performance where she went on as Kate Monster—on his website.
Photos of Rob, from top: with Princeton; playing flamboyant Carmen Ghia earlier this summer in The Producers at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia; Rod, Avenue Q's closeted conservative; on the Avenue Q tour, with Rod, Nicky and (behind Nicky) David Benoit; Princeton gives Kate (Anika Larsen) a mix tape; in his first Q role, Nicky, with co-puppeteer Jennifer Barnhart; right, as Doody in 2005's Grease, with future wife Maggie Lakis and Josh Lamon; with Maggie on their wedding day two weeks ago; in his award-winning performance in The Bomb-itty of Errors; center, starring as the doomed Leo Frank in Parade. [Avenue Q photos by Carol Rosegg]
Want to read more from members of the final cast of Avenue Q? Click here for our interview with Jennifer Barnhart, who's been in the show for its entire Broadway run, and here for Anika Larsen, who stars opposite Robert as Kate Monster. And look for the last interview in the series later this week: with Ann Harada, back in her original role of Christmas Eve.