BWW Interviews: James Rocco and the Ordway's BROADWAY SONGBOOK: Cole Porter

James Rocco is the vice president of programming and producing artistic director of the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minn. He is also the director, host and a performer in the Ordway's latest edition of BROADWAY SONGBOOK, this time, focusing on American musical theatre master, Cole Porter. I recently sat down to learn about James, the BROADWAY SONGBOOK: Cole Porter and what's next for the theatre.

Q: Tell me a little about your background.

A: I was born in New York City and I started performing at a very early age and got my equity card when I was about 12-years-old. And have been working pretty much steadily on both sides of the table since I'm about 16. I produced and directed my first show when I was 16--it was crazy but I did it and it was really a great way to enter the world of show business as a director and producer. But I continued to perform and direct and produce. And I also had a career as a singer and I did that for many, many years. It's about 20 years now.

Everything started going more towards producing and directing; so I started doing that more and more and singing less and less and performing less and less. Now I'm really fortunate because I have been singing again and having some success singing and it's all for fun.

It's really a gas. I have a record but they will play on the radio last year that I was kind of fun. And I get to do these Songbooks and that's really fun. And, I get to work in a field that I really care about, which is nonprofit arts management. I really think that without nonprofit arts management, communities would not be as intellectually stimulating. We need arts institutions around and throughout our country. To inspire the community.

Q: How did the Ordway's BROADWAY SONGBOOK series begin and how does that fit into the mission of the organization?

A: I've been peripherally involved in the history of the evolution of musical theater my for my whole life as well because starting as a child in the 60s I was exposed to a generation that had experienced the birth of -- and they were very, very old but there were still old Vaudevillians around people who had worked in the Ziegfeld Follies. Where it wasn't uncommon bump into these people who'd been in George M Cohan shows then, of course, shows in the 20s, 30s, 40s -- they were alive and I was taking lessons from these people. So it was always interesting to me particularly when it clicked that musical theater was a result of all of these different cultures coming to America and throwing their performing arts out there and creating a mixture of all their performing arts that then became uniquely American. And that turned me on. When you think about someone like George M Cohan, who comes from an Irish background; he actually created the myth of Broadway and the myth of America when he wrote "Give My Regards to Broadway," and when he wrote "You're a Grand Old Flag." He took what Stephen Foster was doing and put it onto an entirely new plateau. None of us have escaped George M Cohan; at this point in time he seems almost corny but if you look at the actual time period, it was revolutionary and in many ways he was a rebel because he was saying instead of doing a show or a song in a classic European style, he was going to do it with the Yankee Doodle style and somehow developed that into an entire place that became Broadway. He wasn't the only one but that's just one of the people that contributed to this American art form.

John Adams, our second president said once, "Let our sons be statesmen and their sons be artists." I think it's kind of interesting because that's sort of what happened: the next generation of people really helped set up America and the Industrial Revolution. You know America really thrived because we started to really started to make a plan to progress. Then the next generation of people that arrived here were given the opportunity to actually contribute to the arts and I always thought that was a real foresight because who would've known any right at the same time that's when we first started seeing the new American kind of art forms. I think it was interesting because they spoke to the people.

I've been doing these sort of shows pretty regularly and when we were looking for something to do at the Ordway-- we're really dedicated education at the Ordway; 50,000 schoolchildren come to the Ordway every year and that doesn't include the children that come to the Flint Hills International Children's Festival so we also go out to the community and master classes to expose people to new concepts, art, you know, people don't even realize that subtly you're being educated while you're being entertained.

We wanted to put together something because a number of people have questioned me as to whether useful theater was an art form or whether it was just entertainment, which could be insulting but I didn't take it that way. It made me laugh a little bit, actually because it made me realize that it's... so seductive--musical theater--that you don't even realize that it's affecting you or your education or your knowledge or your intellect and that's what sort of what turned me on to it.

The more and more musical theatre became pertinent to me, and I saw the effect it had on shaping our culture, so we wanted to do something like that at the Ordway. We wanted to actually share, not only new Broadway shows and our own productions of classic shows but we wanted to start saying, "Look, this has really shaped the culture of America. So we created this series, BROADWAY SONGBOOK, and the idea really started small.

We were going to do three a year and we would look into the lives of a great composer, a great lyricist, a great musical theater production and tell the story of their life as well as tell kind of some background about the music and maybe give some insight into why it was pertinent and still pertinent to this day. It's funny, because with Cole Porter we're realizing that he wrote, "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on the something shocking and now God knows anything goes." He wrote that in the 30s and I've been thinking lately, oh my God, on television you see so much nudity--Anything goes! Here he was observing it already in American life then. So it's still a pertinent thought.

We wanted to do something that would kind of cover that territory, and also entertain people. So we started out small. We chose to do three in the series each year and we were going to do three performances and they were small, in the McKnight, but it became so popular that by this point we're doing 10 three times a year. Next year will be a little bit different because of the construction going on at the Ordway but nevertheless, it grew very quickly and because I knew it was going to have an educational aspect I purposely wanted to keep it loose so that it felt like you were coming to the living room and we were chatting as opposed to you're coming hear this lecture. It's grown and changed; it's getting crisper and crisper.

It started with bare walls; the lighting was exposed. We just sat on the stage and talked to the audience. I was hoping to give people a look into what it's like for us to work. I would explain to people that you we got together on Monday it's now Friday. We picked these 30 songs--wish us luck! We're going to try to perform them for you. We discuss them all; we know a lot about their background and here they are. Right off the bat, a lot of people got it and they've really enjoy the informality of it. It's evolved a little bit.

I wanted to structure it so it was appealing to everyone. Some people were surprised it was not a musical review. I think it was pretty astounding to them at first because they probably thought it was going to be some kind of musical revue but it really is more of a--I call it a symposium. It's really like Oprah's Book Club; we just chat about Cole Porter or Irving Berlin and then say that this song was cut from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN --can you imagine? Listen to it and then afterwards say, "Isn't it amazing? That's a great song but it we didn't actually make the show. You never heard of it until today."

Q: How do you pick the subject and songs that you use in BROADWAY SONGBOOK?

A: Cole Porter seemed a natural for the songbook series because his work is familiar, people probably don't have any idea that he wrote most of the songs. I've mentioned songs like "Night and Day," and they say, "I don't know that song," then (sings a line of the song) then they're like, "I know that was written by Cole Porter;" these people sort of fallen away from the mainstream and yet we are still hearing, "Let's do it, let's fall in love," "Let's Misbehave" and all these songs are in our lives.

So Cole Porter was inevitable. One because the songs are recognizable and two because he really had a fascinating life. Many of the people who created musical theatre were immigrants and although I am sure his family immigrated here he wasn't from that school, he was an Episcopalian guy from Indiana whose grandfather was one of the wealthiest men in Indiana. He was privileged from the time he was born and his work all grew out of his lifestyle. It all grew out of the fact that he could party 24 hours a day. And did. And his work was all about encouraging people to see life with humor and to embrace life, which is also kind interesting. The other interesting part of it is that he had this terrible accident very early in his life and lived for 30 years in constant pain. His two legs were shattered. To think that a man who was in constant pain; they really should've been amputated his legs but that didn't happen until later in his life. So he lived all those years in constant pain. They couldn't do anything about it. And yet he wrote all of these bubbly songs and kept encouraging everyone to live life to the fullest, have fun, notice that we're progressing as a society--enjoy yourself. So he seemed a natural to do in the first couple of Songbooks.

Q: Who is performing in BROADWAY SONGBOOK: Cole Porter?

All the performers are from the musical theater community here in the Twin Cities. There are seven of us in this show. Jennifer Baldwin Peden, who is exquisite and one of the gems of our city. Kersten Rodau is a knockout--she is a force of nature this woman. I've been doing this all my life and these people are world class performers. Kersten is... if there were Ethel Mermans today, she would be one; she's really that good.

Kersten's been a regular in the Songbooks; I mean, she's so classical musical theater. And we have a young girl named Kirby Trymucha-Duresky, who is just delightful. It's so fun watching her blossom. She's really, really, really got the goods, and she's really blossoming in front of our eyes, and that's really sweet. Regina Marie Williams--she's one of our stars. What I have come to find is not only is she just s superb actress, she is a superb singing actress and she is a person that is, oh my, so filled with generosity. All of them are, actually.

Jennifer Baldwin Peden yesterday ran out in spite of having these two children that she's running around town with, somebody needed a dress and she said she would go get it. It's unbelievable. It's the mosT Loving community I've seen.

The guys are Joshua James Campbell, terrific young leading man, and then Gary Briggle, who is more from my generation and he also has a connection to the Broadway season and the regional scene but he lives here and he's married to Wendy Lehr. It's like having a consummate pro on this. What can I say? He's done this his whole life and he's a master. So it's fun.

And then Raymond Burr is our musical director. He's been my cohort since I got to the Ordway. He's great; we're just pals and we pursue this together.

Q: What is happening to the McKnight Theatre? I heard it's being replaced.

A: The McKnight is going away; it's being demolished. This is the last show in the space. On the closing night of Cole Porter Songbook, we're going to do a gala where we have invited as many people as we could possibly invite who have performed on this stage in a musical to come back and do one of the numbers from that show. The show is going to be incredible. One after another are just incredible people.

It's about our celebrating the life of the theatre and everyone who has worked there. We're all sad to see it go but on the other hand, what we're moving towards is an 1,100 seat, acoustically tuned concert hall that will be the most perfect place in the Twin Cities for music. Classical music. Serious music. Of course, we can do jazz and rock and anything in it. It really will be the place to hear acoustically perfect music.

We may lose the ability to do a small show like LOVE, JANIS but I hesitate to say we're losing that programming. It may lead to us partnering with Latte Da, Mu/Daiko, etc. more. The new space will be done sometime in 2015.

Night of Million Stars - Saying 'Goodbye' to the McKnight

The Ordway will say farewell to the McKnight Theatre in grand style on Sunday, April 28, 2013, at 7:30 p.m., in a special performance called, "The Night of a Million Stars." The concert production will highlight area artists and feature musical pieces from productions previously held in the McKnight Theatre. The space will be expanded into a 1,100 seat concert hall and it is expected to open in mid-2015.

Ticket prices: VIP $250* & $150; $75, $50 and $40 and are available by calling the Ordway Ticket Office at 651.224.4222 or by visiting www.ordway.org. (*There is a $100 donation included in this price.)

Scheduled to appear are a who's who of Twin Cities musical theatre are: Sharon Bach, Ben Bakken, Christina Baldwin, Bradley Beahen, Jamecia Bennett, Raymond Berg, Dieter Bierbrauer, Paul Brekke, Gary Briggle, Yolande Bruce, Joshua James Campbell, Justine Carroll, Julius C. Collins III, Dennis Curley, Lori Dokken, Debbie Duncan, Jennifer Eckes, Nicole Fenstad, Jessica Fredrickson, Greta Grosch, Monica Heuser, Tonia Hughes, Connie Kunkle, Joel Liestman, Jill Mikelson, Kym Chambers Otto, Lisa Pallen, Jennifer Baldwin Peden, T. Mychael Rambo, Kacie Riddle, James A. Rocco, Kersten Rodau, Randy Schmeling, Erin Schwab, Maria Stukey, Allison Tilsen-Kassabian, Kirby Trymucha-Duresky, Austene Van, Kimberly Wells, Regina Marie Williams and Cameron Wright.

More about James A. Rocco (Ordway's VP Programming/Producing Artistic Director) ORDWAY: Director/Choreographer: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Singin' in the Rain, Yankee Doodle; Director: Grey Gardens; Love Janis (Ivey Award); Producer: Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Blues In The Night, The Rocky Horror Show, Cabaret (Ivey Award). Broadway: Musical Staging and Choreography: Wizard of Oz; Off-Broadway: Co-writer, Director: Streakin'!; Co-Creator: Nite Club Confidential; Director: Sweeney Todd. Other Directing: London: Doin' What Comes Naturally; Tokyo: Singin' in The Rain, Galaxy Express (World Premiere); Los Angeles: The Melody Lingers On, She Loves Me, The Bad Seed, Crazy For You (Ovation Award Nominee), Superstar, Chess. Regional: Irving Berlin's White Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, What A Glorious Feeling (World Premiere), As Bees In Honey Drown, A Little Night Music, Smokey Joe's Café (multiple awards), Guys & Dolls (multiple awards), On The Town, Violet and 50 more. Film & Television: "The World We Create" (regional Emmy nominee), "21 for the 21st," "Born of a Dream," "Galaxy Express, Monsters;" Commissioned: "A Country Christmas Carol." Writer: "Rock & Roll Christmas," and The Words & Music Series. Before becoming a full-time producer/director Rocco played The Rum Tum Tugger in Cats on Broadway among many other theatrical roles, sang with The Duke Ellington Band and Herbie Hancock's Super Sounds. Rocco is a member of SDC, AEA, ASCAP, The Broadway League, National Alliance for Musical Theatre Producers and the Independent Presenters Network. Last year he released a new solo CD, "It's Between Us." The album's single, "And The Night Stood Still" can currently be heard on college radio stations around the country. More information at www.jamesrocco.com.

Photo courtesy Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

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