BWW Interviews: Touring Veteran Reaches Milestone Performance In 42ND STREET
Most actors receive a standard show contract for around 12 months, but that doesn't mean every actor hangs up their shoes and immediately walks into another show. In fact, not only do some actors extend their contracts, but some make an entire career out of an individual credit. Rob Ouellette, who is currently playing pianist Oscar and a member of the tap-dancing ensemble of the 42nd STREET national tour is about to shuffle into his 1,000th performance with the show on February 16th, 2017, so we caught up with him about his experience.
Not only has Rob danced his way through six different companies of the musical, but he's performed several variations of the show's choreography, has worked three times with original book writer and director Mark Bramble, as well as with choreography icons Randy Skinner, Kelli Barclay, and Rick Conant, among others.
Name: Rob Ouellete
Hometown: "Trenton Michigan; I was there until I was 16, and I did all of my early training there. Then I moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina!"
Role: Oscar in the National Tour of 42nd Street
Kyle Christopher West: Take me back to your first audition for 42nd STREET. What do you remember about that experience?
Rob Ouellette: One thing that sticks in my mind is that I went to the dance call and they had all of these [dance] combinations. At the end of the day, they were going to film us with a video camera...in the corner! Suddenly, our point of focus was different. We went three at a time and I totally forgot the combo; it just fell apart. But, at this point, everyone who was still there was called back. Even though I totally messed up (and they had it on film), I was coming back the next day to sing. When I came back, they saw on my resume that I play the piano. So, the pianist played part of [one of the songs] and [then] I played it. I guess that was enough to save me. (Later, they had me come back in by myself and dance in front of the choreographer.)
Kyle: Which production was the initial audition for?
Rob: That was for the Big League* tour in 2004.
Kyle: And how many companies of the show have you performed with since?
Rob: Next was the Asian tour with Troika* (2007-2008), and then I did the Riverside/Vero Beach production in 2010. Then, I did the Show Palace in Florida in 2011. Last year, it was the Troika 2015-2016 tour, and now I'm with the Big League 2016-2017 tour!
Kyle: Having caught several productions of 42nd STREET myself, I've noted some changes within the show itself. Has your personal track varied at all?
Rob: The tours are the only times I've been Oscar and ensemble. In the regional productions, I've only been ensemble, which is fun because then I get to do numbers I never get to do as Oscar, like "The Audition" and "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me." Last year, they did write a little jingle involving Oscar that Bert and Maggie sang in the first scene. That actually became one of my favorite moments because it was new - but this year, it got cut, so we're not doing it anymore [laughs].
Kyle: In all of your years with the show, what are some of the most exciting places you've visited?
Rob: In the U.S., [one of] the most exciting places [was] Detroit, Michigan, because that's where I grew up seeing national tours. Internationally, Beijing was great because of the Great Wall of China. Tokyo, Shanghai, and Seoul [were good, too].
While we were in China, we got to dance "The Audition" on China's version of American Idol, [because] one of their finalists was put in our show during the Chinese portion of tour. As Oscar, I didn't normally dance "The Audition" in that production, but the Dance Captain let me do it for TV.
Kyle: Several triple-threats have gone on from 42nd STEET to find big Broadway careers, like Mara Davi (Broadway's A CHORUS LINE, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, DAMES AT SEA, NBC's SMASH) and Kyle Dean Massey (Broadway's WICKED, PIPPIN, NEXT TO NORMAL). What is it about this show that has been such a springboard for their careers?
Rob: Well, especially for Peggy Sawyer, they're [naturally] trying to find a big star that stands out amongst a group of chorus girls. Then, [those girls are] given this platform to go expose their talent across the world. In Asia, they were treated like big stars because we're "The Broadway 42nd Street" in China. I think it's luck that they've found such good people, like Mara Davi and Kyle Dean Massey [as Billy Lawlor]. It's funny [because] this time around, there are a lot people who say, "Oh, I watched the Mara Davi/Kyle Dean production." I'm hesitant to even say I was in it because it was so long ago [laughs]!
One thing that's interesting about this show: the [casting] circle is so small because of the tap dancers. There are people like me who are "42nd Streeters," so when you go to a new production, you expect to work with a few people who have done the show before. [For example], Shannon O'Brian is one of the most [hired] Peggys. She did Moscow, she did the national tour, and she does a lot of the regional productions - and I did it with her at Riverside. KEM [Kristen Martin] played Peggy at Goodspeed Opera House and then I did the Asia tour with her; she's become one of my best friends, so I've gotten to see her on Broadway in SPIDERMAN as Mary Jane a few times. I saw her in Ken Ledwig's new play COMEDY OF TENORS, as Val in the A CHORUS LINE tour, and I just saw her in WICKED as Nessarose in Providence [Rhode Island].
Kyle: Having worked on the show on-and-off for around a decade, how do you keep it fresh? Do you ever get bored with the show?
Rob: There's something about this show, and I feel most people who have done the show with me feel the same: there's this affectionate feeling toward it. Once you're doing it [after a hiatus], you're newly excited about how good it feels to do "Lullaby of Broadway." It's only step-touch, but at least once a week I get choked up doing it. Even today, and I feel weird saying this, but I was listening to 42nd STREET on my iPod on the tour bus.
Rob: Yeah, it's not a version I've listened to often: it's a London studio recording. I was sitting there getting choked up. I think because I've done the show so much, it just means that much more to me. When I hear the overture or "Lullaby," I get choked up. It's an assortment of memories and life experiences that, for many different reasons, I'm emotionally attached to. I can't imagine doing other shows so many times.
Kyle: Speaking of other shows, what are some of your credits outside of your 42nd STREET history?
Rob: When I moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, I did a bunch of shows at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina: ANYTHING GOES, MAME and WHITE CHRISTMAS. At the Utah Festival Opera, I was brought on to be in two musicals: MAN OF LA MANCHA and THE MUSIC MAN (as Tommy Djilas). I did LA CAGE [AUX FOLLES] with Titus Burgess [of THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT] at the now-defunct Downtown Cabaret in Connecticut. I also did THE PRODUCERS at Westchester Broadway Theatre. Both of those were fun because I was able to commute from New York City.
Kyle: How have you spent your time between shows?
Rob: After the two non-touring productions [of 42nd STREET], I decided to stop performing for a while and I worked at ZipCar for four years. [Then], my job was starting to be phased out so, on a whim, I googled "42nd Street tour 2016" just to see what was going on. It turned out it was going back out on tour and it was auditioning in two weeks! I decided I wanted to go in [and audition] - and the next week I got an email from Mark Bramble, the director. He was curious if I was interested in going back on tour as Oscar and a dancer again, so I felt it was definitely meant to be!
Kyle: How long do you anticipate staying with the show?
Rob: It's up in the air right now. This tour is going through May, and there's talk of continuing and going to Asia. I have all intentions of sticking with this show as long as it's going on. I'm actually starting to think that, if this all does comes to an end, maybe I'd want to get on a tour playing keyboard or something. I'm hoping this show will continue for a while!
Kyle: Well, thank you so much for talking with me about your long history with the show. That's quite an accomplishment. Break a leg on your 1,000th performance this week!
Rob: Thank you!
*Both Troika Entertainment and Big League Productions have produced professional tours of the show.