BWW Interview: At Home With Robbie Rozelle
Robbie Rozelle may well be the hardest working man in the business... when he's not homebound due to a global pandemic. Actually, even while under voluntary quarantine, chances are Rozelle is still hard at work, putting out fires, hatching ideas, and setting things up for a day when life returns to some kind of normal. Mr. Rozelle is well known as a director of cabaret shows, a performer in cabaret shows, and a graphic artist taking the thoughts and wishes of artists in need and turning them into something tangible. With an impressive phone book of friends in the business, Robbie curated a regular variety show at 54 Below that always boasted great guest artists with a bounty of talent. During the current hiatus from live theater, Robbie Rozelle had some time to answer a few questions about his life, his work, and his passion.
Name: Robbie Rozelle
First Cabaret Show (Title, Year, Club): Songs From Inside My Locker, June 2017, Feinstein's/54 Below
Most Recent Cabaret Show: The much lamented Tuesdays at 54... with Robbie Rozelle!, January 2020, Feinstein's/54 Below
Website or Social Media Handles: www.robbierozelle.com @divarobbie
Robbie, you do basically everything in your work, don't you? You perform, you direct, you do graphic design - you are a font of creative energy - where does that come from?
I wish I could tell you. I started directing when I was 16 because I wanted to be part of the creative process. I did it for a number of years. On a parallel track, I was doing graphic design, because I somehow have an ability to sit at a computer and understand intuitively how a program works (Photoshop, etc.). So I was laying out the high school newspaper CatTales while also doing The Wizard of Oz. Some years later, I was run down from burning the candle at both ends, so I had stopped directing and performing, and I was working on a hotel. I kept doing graphic design work as a freelancer, for performers websites and record labels like PS Classics and Ghostlight Records - Tommy Krasker was the first person to take me seriously as a graphic designer. After I moved to NYC, I was hired by Playbill as a digital archivist and transitioned into their graphic designer, but I had missed creating, so I started to write and direct cabaret. A string of shows with friends like Jessica Vosk, Kate Baldwin, Melissa Errico, Nikka Graff Lanzarone lead to me creating my own show - Songs From Inside My Locker. I fell completely ass-backward into cabaret. I never meant for it to happen, it was just creating great fun things with people I love. Continuing to do that, and expanding my circle of collaborators, has been such a source of joy for me. I guess what I'm saying is, I had the energy to burn creatively.
And where is all that energy going to during the voluntary lockdown?
Oof. Like everyone else, all the outlets have dried up. I had two shows in the pipeline that I'm super-excited about, whenever clubs re-open. I'm still talking to those creative teams all the time (Sunday was to have been Jennifer Diamond's show). I'm trying to use my social media to be light, and inject a little humor into what can be terrible awful timelines. Sometimes just trying to give a much-needed giggle.
You are fortunate in that you are self-quarantined with your spouse, so you aren't alone, right?
Yes, both my husband Leonard and I are quarantined together. We're trying to create some kind of schedule and work in separate rooms (he works out of our office that we jokingly call The Salon, I work out of the living room), with our earbuds in, because we're both often doing conference calls with other people we work with. It's been kind of hilarious watching our hair and clothing options change the longer this goes on. I made a joke online recently that I had been wanting some time off, and I realize now that I should have been more specific.
Did your many different talents emerge in a particular order or did you grow up knowing that you were an artistic Jack-Of-All-Trades?
I don't think I knew, per se... I just liked challenging myself and seeing things through. It has definitely taught me my strengths and weaknesses - I know how to lean into all of my strengths and avoid weaknesses the way some people know what clothing will be the most flattering on them.
You had a wonderful show called Tuesdays at 54 in which you performed in a host capacity - was that your first time on stage as an emcee rather than a soloist?
Oh, thank you for that. I really loved Tuesdays at 54... with Robbie Rozelle!, and I miss doing it. It was not my first time on stage as an emcee - Robert W. Schneider often had concerts at 54 Below as part of the "54 Sings..." series. I hosted a few of those to varying degrees of success. I did two in one night once - Elton John and Alanis Morissette. I thought I would slay the Elton show (those were my people) and was nervous about the Alanis show. Boy, was I wrong. The Elton audience HATED me. They just wanted to hear that music. The Alanis crowd ate me up. What I really learned is that I'm not good at a dinnertime show (7:00 pm), audiences like me the later I am. But it was those shows and my solo stuff that ultimately led to Tuesdays at 54...
What gave you the idea for that variety show?
I got a rather cryptic email from Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the creative and programming director at 54, saying that they had an idea for a show, and I was the person she thought of immediately. I obviously responded immediately because that kind of flattery is lovely. So I came in for a meeting and heard the pitch. I didn't love the original pitch, but I spun it in the room into something I knew I would be good at - leaning into my strengths. I loved The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and how it brought together her friends, her passions, and new talents, and neatly wrapped it all up in an hour. I tried to emulate that in the late-night format and I think it really worked. I am also very lucky that so many friends of mine said "absolutely" when I asked them to come play with me - I can count on one hand the people who turned me down. Some guests were kind enough to come back for special occasions - Nathan Salstone came back for my birthday show to do a bit with me, and Bonnie Milligan did a crazy memorable turn in my final show where we recreated the entire Barbara Cook Kennedy Center Honors tribute. She was Patti LuPone. The show was also the only show in 54's history to have its own menu. I'm really grateful to 54 Below for giving me the opportunity to do it; I would have done it forever. The final month of the show was a doozy, one of the greatest artistic accomplishments of my life. Luke Williams (the resident MD) and I, we just had the best time, and we worked so hard on it. It hurt like hell when it ended, but I'm glad it had seven months to thrive.
You direct a lot of performers, you curated a wide range of acts for Tuesdays at 54, you do graphic design for entertainers in need - it is clear that you have a passion for talent. At what point did you realize you had such a love for performers and that you would nurture it into your career?
I just love talented, creative people, and I love challenging them. It's been so interesting in this self-quarantined time because I've had time to revisit a lot of older work. 54 Below is streaming the first show Melissa Errico and I ever did together, so rewatching that, it's been like revisiting an old friend. That show was so great, because we had like three weeks to pull it together, and it was successful because we really didn't have time to second guess. I approached that show as a fan of hers and created a setlist with her of songs I loved hearing her sing, and songs I always wanted to hear her sing. I knew, for example, that we'd need a Michel Legrand song in there, but I wanted it to be a new song to her, so I grabbed "The Way He Makes Me Feel" from Yentl. New for her, exciting for the audience. I also wanted to hear her sing "Always Better" from The Bridges of Madison County. Bang, we had a show! When Jessica Vosk and I did our last show together, "Being Green," it was about her time on the tour of Wicked, but my challenge was to tell that story without using any songs from the show. It was such a great run, and six of those songs ended up on the album we made, "Wild And Free." I just love asking the performer "what's the story we want to tell?", rolling up our sleeves, and figuring out new, great ways to tell those stories. I also love creating arrangements of songs (the kids call them mash-ups), that make an audience lean forward because they weren't expecting to hear what happened. We did a great one for Kate Baldwin and Matt Doyle in Kate's show "Extraordinary Machine" that had a Rufus Wainwright song and a song from Hedwig being sung contrapuntal. (See that video HERE ) Kris Kukul, the MD, took what Kate and I created and built this incredible arrangement and orchestration around it. That was exciting because people don't expect to hear Kate Baldwin sing from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We also try to create things that people never expect, like Nikka Graff Lanzarone's "Backup Medley," which we put together with Brian Nash (See that video HERE). I do a lot of these kinds of medleys; I had an incredibly fun one in my solo show called "The Aged-Out Medley," which I created with Josh D. Smith (See that video HERE).
During the period of physical distancing have you taken on any new household projects? Dove into any new things to learn?
I've been cooking a lot - my husband and I both cook, so we've been experimenting with things we've always wanted to make. I can now make bread without reading a recipe. So there's that. I also have created a perfect barbecue sauce recipe. I also turned 43 this year and set a goal of reading 43 books in the year. I've been moving along that goal rather steadily. We've also been watching some series from start to finish (we're in season six of Mad Men right now).
You are a man with many opinions and an eloquent way of expressing them but you manage to keep your social media upbeat and positive, even in dark times: what's the secret?
I definitely have opinions! It's been so hard to keep social media upbeat because everyone in the world became a political scientist, medical doctor, AND psychologist at the same time. So I was actually staying away from it for a bit because I was teetering close to the edge. I'm an extrovert by nature, so not being around people has been having an effect on me. Len, he's such an introvert, he's been basically fine! I'm still just trying to post jokes, but also to embrace that sadness can be okay to express, and while everything is not okay, there's hope. Stephen Sondheim says in Act Two of Into The Woods (which we are all living) "Hard to see the light now... just don't let it go. Things will come out right now, we can make it so. Someone is on your side." I'm trying to be the someone on your side, even if it's just virtually. No one is alone.
Robbie, tell me about the Distantly Social series - I am sure there are people who don't know about it who would love it.
It's actually my friend Patrick Flynn's series - he has an excellent podcast called "The Original Cast," ( Click HERE) and because he's working from home, he's been doing a podcast a day talking with different people about how they are dealing with this. Sometimes it's serious, sometimes it's just two friends cracking jokes at each other. He asked me to come on every Tuesday, since "Tuesdays belong to you," and who am I to say no? Honestly, without it, I wouldn't know what day of the week it was, because time is just a flat circle.
Photos provided by Robbie Rozelle include 54 Below shots by Kristin Pulido and a selfie. Top photo by Stephen Mosher