BWW Interview: Rob Lindley of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA National Tour is Still an Iowa Boy at Heart
Rob Lindley, performing the role of Monsieur Andre' in the National Tour of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, has local roots. Currently based in Chicago, Lindley spent his youth in Northwest Iowa. I spoke with him this week about growing up in a small town and making it in the big city. PHANTOM is Lindley's first national tour, but it is not his first time on stage. A Jeff Award winner and five time nominee, Lindley has performed a wide variety of roles in FUN HOME, SECRET GARDEN, CAROLINE OR CHANGE, CAROUSEL and many more. He is an accomplished vocalist, actor, and director.
When Omaha Performing Arts recommended that I interview you, they suggested that you have somewhat of a local affiliation. What is your connection to this part of the country?
Well, I think it's "local" if you're from a small town in the rural Midwest. I grew up in Northwest Iowa. I always joke with people that I never lived in a town that had a movie theater until I went to college. So, for kids like me growing up, if you wanted to see the arts or a movie, you drove to a metropolitan area. For me I either drove to Sioux City, Iowa or Omaha, Nebraska. So Omaha has a special place in my heart. Omaha is where I fly into when I go to my parents' place for Thanksgiving. I tell everyone I lucked out being in Omaha over Thanksgiving. I can save myself a flight and just drive to my dad's on Thursday.
Your parents are from up near Sioux City?
Yeah. I grew up in Alta, Iowa near Storm Lake. My mother's passed away, but my dad lives up in Sanborn. Now it would probably be a little bit closer for me to go to Minneapolis or Sioux Falls, but it's still not too far away; probably a 2 1/2 hour drive. My dad's planning on coming down to the show.
Do you consider Chicago your home?
Yes. I've lived in Chicago for more than 20 years and I consider that my home base. Although I am an Iowa boy through and through!
You belonged to an a cappella singing group called Navy Pier Players. Was this your start in the performing arts?
I was a member for, gosh, kind of like a day job off and on for four or five years. It was probably one of my first professional singing jobs. We were an eight person a cappella group at Navy Pier put together by a wonderful woman named Denise McGowan. We performed at Navy Pier five days a week. I always tell people that if you've ever been to Disneyland, you may have seen a similar group there called the Liberty Players. We did five shows a day and spent the rest of the time as strolling entertainers on the pier and really working as ambassadors of the city of Chicago. We got to do a lot of fun events. We worked very closely with the mayor's office. I got to sing The National Anthem at Soldier Field, the old Comiskey Ballpark. It was a fun gig to have for awhile. I met some of my best friends there, including the members of my band Foiled Again. We have a great holiday CD streaming on all major outlets such as iTunes, Spotify, and cdbaby.
How did you end up in musical theatre?
Well, I always sang. My dad is a retired United Methodist minister. There's not a time that I wasn't doing special songs in church services and I sang in the choir. That part has always come second nature to me. Then the theatre thing kinda started in high school. I was very active in speech competitions. The funny thing is, you think of those small towns as being more focused on athletics. Certainly, my high school was, but we had one of those marvelous high school teachers who got everybody excited and onboard. I think he was telling me when last we spoke, that out of the 200 kids in the whole school, about 175 of them were somehow involved in theatre or speech. His name is Brad Nesbitt. He was one of those teachers who looked at me when I was a freshman and said, "Man, you've got something special." There are those people that you meet along the way. When you look back at your journey, you think, "What defined these moments? What made me who I am?" Sometimes it's one sentence, you know? All it takes is for someone to really look at you and say, "Hey, I think you've got something."
I think that's kinda where we are in the world right now. Everyone's looking for empathy or just for someone to look you in the eye and say, "I see you. I see what you're going through. I'm here for you." That's all we want, no matter what your profession is.
He definitely encouraged me. When it was time to start electing colleges, I knew that I would be studying music and/or theatre. At the time I thought that I would probably be an educator. Or I'd possibly do something involved with the ministry like my dad. But you know there was always a kind of thing in the back of my mind that said maybe someday I'll be on Broadway! I just didn't think it would take until I was 45 for my first Broadway tour (laughs). We're not always in charge of the timing.
You have an extensive history of productions in Chicago, including one of my favorites, FUN HOME.
I have friends who live in Omaha who are subscribers to Omaha Playhouse. So I keep track on Facebook what they go to see locally and I saw that they were doing FUN HOME. I played Bruce in Bechdel in FUN HOME in Chicago last year. We have our local version of the Tony Awards here in Chicago called the Jeff Awards. I was nominated for FUN HOME and was a nominee four other times, and a past winner. I just went back to Chicago a couple weeks ago to go to the ceremony and performed with my cast. That was a very, very special production. Particularly being from a small town and struggling with my own coming out story. I related to a lot of the themes from that.
You learn when you're doing parts like that how to take care of yourself off stage. I was doing another emotionally draining show awhile back and some friends told me, "You know, your little heart is like a battery. You gotta make sure you're plugging into the right thing at the end of the night and taking care of yourself." We freak out if our cell phones don't get charged up, but a lot of time we don't charge up our hearts.
What was your audition process for PHANTOM OF THE OPERA like?
You know, it was a lot of fun! I had been seen by Tara Rubin Casting Agency in New York. They had seen me a number of times for the national tours of MAMMA MIA! They contacted my agent in Chicago and said they'd like to see me for PHANTOM. I didn't really know much about the show. I'd never seen it. I knew the popular songs like Music of the Night and the title song and Think of Me. But I really didn't know that much about the show, so I remember saying to my agent, "Gosh, I don't think I want to go on the road right now." I was in a good groove of local things. So I said no.
A few months later, my agent called me again and told me I really should learn the material and put it on a tape. "If they're asking this hard you have to at least meet them half way." So I did. Parts of the process went so fast and parts went very slow. We sent the tape in and I think we got a call the next day asking if I could come to New York. I went to New York. I auditioned and it went very well. They asked if I'd stick around to meet with the choreographer and the choreographer's assistant to learn some of Masquerade, the big dance number that everyone's in. Right then I said to myself, "Well, this is where I lose the job." There weren't a lot of ballet classes in rural Iowa! (laughs) I even called my mom on the phone and said, "Well, it went well, but here we go. Here we go again." And she laughed and said, "Just get in there and show them that you're fun to have in their group. That's all you can do." So I did and I had fun. There were only three of us there. I didn't get the part that time.
A year and a half passed and I got to do FUN HOME and some other great things in Chicago. Then I got a call from my agent this past May and he said, "Hey. PHANTOM is wondering if you're available." And I said, "Available?" "Yes, they're not asking if you're interested. They're not asking you to come back to New York and audition. They're asking if you're available and if you can be in Toronto in four weeks." I was like, "Well, I think I can move some things around!" (laughs)
I spend a lot of my energy doing workshops and Master classes with young performers. I always say, "You never know! Keep your head up!" Honestly, I think I've said that my whole career and in the back of my mind I've been like, "You didn't get it, girl." But this is a true example of "You never know. Keep your head up. They will call you when it's your time."
You play Gilles Andre' in the national touring production of PHANTOM. How would you characterize this person?
Well, if you have an opera house, there has to be a couple people who personify the actual opera house. In PHANTOM there's Monsieur Andre' and Monsieur Firmin. They're kind of like Laurel and Hardy. They are attached at the hip. They run the opera house. So any of the actual haunting that's happening, the communication from the Phantom to the opera house's owners comes through us. While we offer a lot of the action in the plot points, you'll find in the structure of the show that we sometimes offer the comic relief as well. This show is so lush and romantic, and dark at times. We have the fun duty of coming in and brightening the tempo, brightening the scenes, and hopefully getting a couple laughs out of people. We have a lot of fun. I have a great scene partner, David Benoit plays Firmin. We are, indeed, attached at the hip. You rarely see us on stage where we're not right next to each other.
PHANTOM has earned 70 awards thus far. To what do you attribute its great success?
You know, I think like any good piece of art, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA falls on different audience members in different ways. That's why it appeals to so many people. On one level there's a love story. On another there's a love triangle. There's the obvious love couple and then there's Phantom who's tortured and misunderstood in a lot of ways. There are a lot of online posts about "Are you Team Phantom? Or are you Team Raoul? Who are you rooting for to get the girl?" So there's that romantic part. It also is a play within a play, so if you're interested in the backstage, there's the backstage part of an opera company. The time period is fun. Turn of the century in Paris in the late 1800s was such a beautiful time. Paris is exciting. And then it's scary. It has kind of a Gothic appeal. One of the things that I was struck by when I watched it in Toronto on my first day of work is that to me it is a story about compassion. There's a beautiful part in Act Two where they reveal why the Phantom is the way he is. It's really a touching scene where you hear his story. And again, I think we are at a time in the world where we are really looking for compassion and empathy. The piece is still speaking to people in a profound way. And it's unbelievably visually stunning.
PHANTOM is your debut national tour. How do you find life on the road?
Life on the road has really been fun. I've always loved traveling. I'm getting to see a lot of different parts of this great country of ours. On the list of cities that I signed up for on my year contract, there are only about four or five that I've been to before. I get to town and I Google "best coffee shop" or "best antique mall." I have fun exploring little local places. I'm a foodie, so I like good restaurants. I'm really happy to be returning to one of the cities that I know very well when I come back to Omaha next week.
Photo Credit: Brandon Dahlquist Photography