BWW Interview: Robert Hager Talks TUTS Underground's BONNIE & CLYDE
Houston, have you seen TUTS Underground's production of the Tony-nominated musical BONNIE & CLYDE? Now entering their last week of performances, this musical takes audiences on a wild ride with two of Texas's most infamous outlaws. Playing the infamous Clyde Barrow, Robert Hager took some time out of his schedule to let Houston audiences know what they can expect from this tale of love and crime and why they don't want to miss it.
We ask this question to everyone. When did you know that you wanted to have a career in the performing arts?
Robert Hager: I have been asked this before, but I really love this question. I knew that I wanted to make a career out of this when I was in my high school years up in Westchester, New York. But, I first got the theatre bug living in Mexico City. When I was thirteen the Radio City Christmas show came down and was holding auditions for James. I went to that audition when my parents said, "You should really go." I didn't want to go, actually. I didn't want to go do that. [Laughs] But, I went and booked it. Then I got to really see what the backstage world was, what performing in front of so many people felt like, and I really liked it. I kept doing it as a hobby on the side during school. I moved up to New York in high school and really started doing it. That was when I thought 'I could really do this for a while.' Then, I started doing workshops and readings. Right after high school, I booked my first Broadway gig, which was SPRING AWAKENING. That was when it was really obvious for me that this would be my career. I didn't want to do anything else. It became my responsibility. Plus its fun. It's what I love to do. I think the moment that I realized was right around graduating high school.
You're playing Clyde Barrow in TUTS Underground's production of BONNIE & CLYDE. As huge fans of Frank Wildhorn, we have to ask, what is your favorite number in the show?
Robert Hager: Wow, it's kind of hard with this show because it's such a unique show. There are quite a lot of numbers that I love. I think my favorite one is the one that Courtney Markowitz (who plays Blanche) sings with Kathryn Porterfield (who plays Bonnie). They sing "You Love Who You Love." The way that Bruce Lumpkin and Marley Wisnoski directed it, they just sit, sing their hearts out, and give emotion. It's a beautiful moment, and I just fell in love with the song. Frank Wildhorn is so good at writing for the voice, especially the female voice. So, to hear two incredible singers sing that melody is pretty great. That's got to be my favorite one.
I think another one is, and my cast mates might laugh at me, the first time that they sing "Gods Arms Are Always Open." I love it because it's one of the few times I get to spend time with the whole cast, and it's fun. For a lot of the show, Clyde only spends time with Bonnie, and it's good to hang out with the cast onstage. It's a fun time. So, I think those two are my top favorites.
You already mentioned that Frank Wildhorn is known for his amazing ballads. What is it like working on a Wildhorn show that is unlike his typical works and not his usual sound?
Robert Hager: This is actually my first Wildhorn show! This is my first time to do a show of his. It's funny. It is different from some of his other ones, like JEKYLL & HYDE or THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, but there are still some very Wildhorn-esque things in it, like the duet that I mentioned, "You Love Who You Love." There are a couple of other songs where you hear little things and go, "Oh, that sounds like a Wildhorn score." But, it's fun. I like that it's a bit different. I like that it has this Bluegrass and Country mix. It is so fun for the voice, especially doing it in a southern accent. I've got to say, I really enjoy it. It's a fun score.
One of the most interesting things about this role, while perhaps the most challenging, is that you get to play a historical figure. What has it been like preparing for this role, and how did you research Clyde?
Robert Hager: Clyde is a pretty amazing, intense, dangerous character or person. The first thing I did was read the script because that is the story that I have to make true to myself. Whether things are historically accurate or not, that's what I need to play as truth. Ivan Menchell, who wrote the book, did a very good job of piecing those things together for Clyde. Then after finding what that was, I started doing a lot of researching online. There's a great documentary that I saw on The History Channel. I also borrowed this book that I'm still reading it, and it's Blanche's memoir. She wrote all of these letters that were found. She wrote them when she was in the car with Bonnie and Clyde and they were driving around for hours and hours and staying in Joplin or Oklahoma. It's pretty interesting because it goes chronologically, and they start with background and key facts. It's a really good book. It's a good reference to go back to. There's another book that I want to check about the lives of Bonnie and Clyde because it focuses on them, and it is not just from Blanche's perspective. But again, after all of the fact and all of the truth, I go back to the script because that is what we're playing.
After that, it was about how I relate to this guy, which was a hard thing. That was a tough thing to do because obviously, I am not an outlaw. [Laughs] But, I think one thing I can kind of relate to is that the economics have been up and down these past ten or fifteen years. What if the outcome was another depression? Obviously, I am not saying that is what will happen or what I want, but I put myself in that perspective. What would I do if I had to really fight for food or fight to survive and provide for my family who I love so much? It's the imagination that takes over at that point. I ask myself, "What would I do?" I think that's where he was. He was in a very tough place. They took the farm away from his dad. The banks took away the land. Then, in the Depression, they had no money in the bank. There was this frustration: How is this happening to this country? How are we supposed to survive after all of the work that we do? That was how I needed to find the relationship with this guy and then everything else came into place, but it was challenging for sure. [Laughs]
How are you making the role your own while still being true to the historical figure?
Robert Hager: I think, the more I find out about the human being, whatever goodness was in his heart, that's a good place to start for me. It's about putting myself in that place, in his position and starting from there. It's hard. This guy was intense. [Laughs] But, there is something about him that I love.
What makes playing the anti-hero so exciting?
Robert Hager: Well, he's an outlaw, and there's just some excitement behind that. Not that you want to be an outlaw, but Clyde was obsessed with Al Capone and the fame that came with it. I think that kind of excitement comes from that, the idea of fame and being recognized from the newspaper. Everybody wants to be famous. Everyone wants to be a star and be recognized. I think what makes him even more exciting is that he wants to be this guy holding a gun and have his picture taken. He wants to be famous because of that. I think that's what's so interesting about this guy. It's kind of exciting for me to just dive into it.
What has been the most rewarding part about playing this Texas-born outlaw?
Robert Hager: Number one, this cast is phenomenal. This cast has been nothing but kind, nothing but super-welcoming, and great. That has been so helpful. It's easy to play with them onstage, and back stage. It's a great, great time. Our directors and choreographer are great. And Thom Culcasi, our Musical Director, plays the entire score during rehearsals. I think it's a beautiful family that we've created. I think that's it because having that makes all of the possibilities come up.
Surely there have been some challenges too. What has been the most challenging part in becoming Clyde?
Robert Hager: Clyde went through a lot. He was sentenced to sixteen years in prison where he went through quite a bit. There was a lot of abuse and he was beaten up. I think it was there that there was the switch-where he became a new person. It wasn't just about this rebellious, young kid who was robbing grocery stores and playing around. He became a killer. His first killing was in that prison, and it became this revenge that took over him. It wasn't about money anymore. I think that switch had to be one of the most challenging ones. There's a song called "Raise A Little Hell" from the end of the first act, right before he beats up this guy who was abusing him, and he kills him. It's not easy to go there. It's not easy to emotionally put yourself in that place. So, getting out of that place with a new head on your shoulder was probably the trickiest and most challenging things. On top of everything else, the score is beautiful. But, for a tenor, it is high. Combining that with that emotion is really challenging, but it's also super-rewarding.
Why should Houston audiences be excited to see TUTS Underground's production of BONNIE & CLYDE?
Robert Hager: They're from Texas! [Laughs] That says it all right there. I think it's a great story. It's a story that has a lot of heart in it despite the all of danger and killings that happen. There are great people telling a great story that is still relevant. People still know about Bonnie and Clyde. It's a great cast with a great production team. It's worth coming to see it, and you'll leave the theatre humming. It's a good time. It can be heavy, but in a very good, satisfying way.
Last question. What advice do you have for someone aspiring to have a career in the performing arts?
Robert Hager: Do it. It's one of the best choices that I have ever made in terms of my career. Definitely do it. With that comes passion. You have to be passionate. If you're passionate about it, that means you have to practice. Never stop learning. Being a risk-taker is also a big deal. Besides that, informing yourself on what's going on in the world around you is really important. A lot of people don't like to get involved in political conversations, but it's important to know what's going on. Knowing things and informing yourself is only going to help you build characters. The past two or three years is when that really started to hit home for me. I was playing the role of Gabe in a production of NEXT TO NORMAL and that really sent me down the spiral on needing to inform myself of the world around me. I also like to tell everyone to be kind. It's important to be good to others. Also, remember to have fun.
TUTS Underground's production of BONNIE & CLYDE only has a few performances left. Be sure to catch these outlaws while they're still in town! Running through October 11 in the Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, tickets start as low as $25. For more information about TUTS Underground, or to book your tickets to BONNIE & CLYDE, please visit http://www.tutsunderground.com.
Production photos by Christian Brown. Photos courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.
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