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BWW Interview: Robert Hartwell of North Carolina Theatre's MEMPHIS

BWW Interview: Robert Hartwell of North Carolina Theatre's MEMPHIS

From March 24th-29th, North Carolina Theatre will be presenting a production of Joe DiPietro & David Bryan's 2010 Tony-winning musical, Memphis, at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Robert Hartwell, who will be directing and choreographing the production.

Robert has previously appeared on Broadway in Memphis, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, Motown the Musical, Hello, Dolly!, as well as the national and international tours of Dreamgirls. Hartwell is also the founder of The Broadway Collective, Inc., a musical theatre class tour that connects Broadway's finest performers with students across the country.

To start things off, your Broadway debut happened to have been in the musical Memphis. How did that opportunity come about?
RH: The opportunity actually came about by way of being a fan of the show. I just loved the show from the moment that I saw it in 2009. I had just graduated from the University of Michigan and the casting director for Memphis on Broadway was a graduate of that school. So my senior year, she told me "Hey, there is a new show that's coming to Broadway and there is a role that I seem to be really great at, but it's currently filled." So I pretty much had this show on my radar for about a year or two to get ready for the audition in my brain while I was on tour for a little over a year. I was really preparing for this, not just because I didn't want to let this casting director down who was believing in me, but I also really desperately wanted to do the show.

You even got to be part of the taping of the musical for movie theaters, which has gone on to be released on DVD/Blu-Ray, and is now streaming on BroadwayHD. What was it like getting to film the show?
RH: It was actually one of the most frightening experiences of my life. I had only been in the show for a few weeks when the cameras showed up. It was my Broadway debut and the day after my first performance, the producers came into the theater and said "Hey, we have this incredible opportunity to film the show." Everyone in the show at that point had been doing it for a year, and I had just been doing it at that point for one night. It was also my first time that I had a solo in a show that was on Broadway. So it definitely felt a lot of pressure of like "Oh my gosh, I've got to get up to the level of these people, but I've got about a week or two to do it." So it was very scary when it happened, but looking back on it, I'm so happy that it did happen because it's so rare that you get the opportunity to have recordings of your Broadway shows to be able to show your students or show your family. Though when the filming was happening, it actually was incredibly fun. There were sets of buzz in the theater because everyone was just so excited at the thought that "Hey, this is going to be preserved forever," but it was initial shock at first.

What was your solo part?
RH: I was Wailin' Joe. So I popped out of the floor every single night and screamed really high notes. So I'm the guy that comes out of the floor of Collins' department store on the DVD. I remember the night of my Broadway debut, the dance captain, Jermaine Rembert, came to me before the show started, held me by the shoulders, and he said "Tonight, before you pop out of the floor, (it's like a trap door), just take a moment and tell yourself that you made it, that you're here, that you get to do this moment." That really stuck with me for forever because in the two years that I was with the show, I always said to myself "When on Earth am I ever going to get the opportunity to make a trap door entrance every night on Broadway screaming the highest note in my range?" It felt like a huge gift in that way.

As someone who was in the show on Broadway, what is it like for you getting to be at the helm of it for North Carolina Theatre's upcoming production?
RH: It's beyond thrilling. Memphis is a family. There are numerous babies, marriages, and lifelong friendships that came out of the Shubert Theatre and out of that creative team that put us together. So I feel our responsibility to bring that level of love and integrity and truthfulness to the storytelling. But beyond that, also just sharing this story with a group of actors in a different time in America. I always say that when I was doing Memphis on Broadway, we were in an Obama administration of this country. We live in a very different administration these days, so it's a different approach because I feel that everyone is feeling things in a very different way regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. I would say that I feel a great responsibility to honor what the original creative team made, but I also feel a great freedom from the book writer, Joe DiPietro, who has seen another production of Memphis that I've directed, and gave me his blessing and told me to just keep going to keep making stories. I don't think as an actor who then starts to directing and choreograph, there's no greater joy than bringing pride to the people that helped you get to where you are. So Joe is a huge hero of mine and to have this blessing on this show means everything to me.

Hopefully this time next year, we'll be under a much different and more hopeful administration.
RH: Yes. You know what's very interesting is that we start rehearsals on Monday and I sent an email to the cast last week and I said to them "What's very interesting is that we get this opportunity to tell this story in 2020. It's a story that started to be told in 2009 on Broadway, but we get to tell it at a time where laws and administrations have the ability to change. We are in Raleigh, North Carolina, the state capital where legislation and political change are happening every single day. Eyes and ears and hearts will be on our production that could truly change what is happening in the state of North Carolina. So I think that we've got the opportunity to use our art as activism and use our art as a voice for those that are marginalized, those that aren't usually heard. So I feel that we all are in agreement that we have such an incredible responsibility as artists with this show at this time in America and North Carolina.

It's interesting looking back at how several members of the original Broadway cast would go on to greater things in their careers. James Monroe Iglehart went on to originate the role of the Genie in Disney's Broadway stage adaptation of Aladdin, winning him the 2014 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical; Michael McGrath went on to win the 2012 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as Cookie McGee in Nice Work If You Can Get It; Derrick Baskin & Ephraim Sykes (the latter of whom is set to star as Michael Jackson on Broadway) both went on to earn Tony nominations last year for their performances in Ain't Too Proud; and Daniel J. Watts is currently making his Broadway debut in a principal role as Ike Turner in The Tina Turner Musical.
RH: It's really incredible what the original creative team gave us the opportunity to do. It's so rare that you allow black performers to come together and allow them to be great and to not tell a story that is on a plantation, which those stories are equally as vital, but they allowed us to tell a story about how love and talent can triumph hate. I believe that because they gave us that platform 10 years ago, it was a true springboard for all of us to go on other projects. It's all been a gift.

Would you mind telling us about the cast you've assembled for this upcoming production at North Carolina Theatre?
RH: Well, first I'm obsessed with all of them. They are wildly talented and so diverse in age and experience. Two of them are actually Broadway cast members that I did Memphis with in New York City, but I really wanted to get a Huey and a Felicia that had not done the show before, which is a little unorthodox in a 12 day rehearsal period with such a beast of a musical. When I found Desireé (Murphy) and when we found Colby (Dezelick), it was just an immediate yes. It's just been a magical experience really getting to find these people, I can't wait to get into the room with them on Monday for our first day of rehearsal, but truly they are all so very exciting. They're all thrilled about the production and everyone's been working so hard. So I am really excited to let North Carolina audiences hear Desireé singing 'Love Will Stand When All Else Falls' and to see Colby take this huge journey as Huey and his 'Memphis Lives in Me' is just going to be so heartbreaking. I mean everyone's just fantastic, everyone truly is a triple threat, and I've been telling Eric Woodall for the past 2-3 months like "This is going to be one of the most special shows that your theater will ever produce." I believe that with all my heart and it starts with the incredible cast that we've assembled.

How excited are you to be starting rehearsals?
RH: I feel like a kid in a candy store in the sense that I've been doing pre-production for two months. So for the past two months, our associate choreographer, Ramone Owens (who's currently in the Broadway cast of Beetlejuice) and I had been choreographing all of the numbers and there are 14 production numbers in this show. So it's nonstop singing, nonstop dancing, and nonstop scene work. So we're just both equally thrilled and amped to get into the rehearsal room and start to see what we've been creating, truly be put on the bodies that are going to be doing it.

Going back to the beginning, how did you first get started in the theatre?
RH: Actually, a very full circle moment. I'm from Raleigh, North Carolina, and the first professional show that I ever saw was at North Carolina Theatre in 1997. I saw the national tour of Cats come through Raleigh Memorial Auditorium where North Carolina Theatre produces their shows. At that moment, I just knew whatever those people were doing, I wanted to be doing that for the rest of my life. I was just beyond bit with the bug as my life was transformed that day. So to go back to this theater nearly 23 years later and be in the same seats that I was in where I saw my first professional show, but now to be directing and choreographing a show that also gave me my professional start on Broadway in New York City, it's truly overwhelming in the most blissful way ever I feel. That's gratitude for everyone that has allowed me a place at the table and a place to tell stories, but truly it all started in Raleigh, North Carolina for me.

After having worked as a performer for a while, how did you make the move to working behind the scenes as a director/choreographer?
RH: Well, it's interesting because I actually feel that there was no transition. I feel like I have been directing and choreographing my entire life. I'm always the person in a show that is watching what the director and the choreographer are doing. I was the kid growing up that I didn't always necessarily want to be in the show, I wanted to get people together and direct and choreograph the show. So being a creative, being an entrepreneur, being a leader has always been something that has really driven me. When I made the choice, I was actually doing Hello, Dolly! at the time on Broadway, and The Broadway Collective was starting to really take off and I had to make a choice if I were going to continue to perform eight shows a week and build this company at the same time. I made a leap of faith to say "I'm going to take a step away for a moment and really focus on this other thing." The second that I decided to do that, it was as though I had cleared up space with the universe to allow more opportunities to flow in the directing and choreographing arena of my life. So I started to get offers from theaters that I hadn't even ever reached out to, it was like an opportunity started to find me. I was just so grateful for that, but I also don't take it lightly in the sense that when you do get an opportunity, what do you then do with it? So I hope to always be a good steward of what I can get.

Before we go, do you have any other upcoming projects you'd like to share with us?
RH: My biggest project that's happening right now is getting ready for Memphis, but also every summer I host students in New York City for a summer intensive with Broadway directors and choreographers and casting directors. I am deep in the creation process of figuring out what shows we're going to be seeing after the Tony Awards and all of those things. So that's my next project.

In conclusion, for those who would like to have a career in the theatre, where do you think would be a good place to start?
RH: I would start in two places. One at the library. I would go pick up a book about the American musical theater. I would read and learn about who came before me and I would learn the greats. I would learn about the business of this industry and I would really get myself educated because I feel that so many people that are coming to New York now don't know where this art form started. If you don't know where it started, there's no way that you can pick up the reins and help it move to where it's going. So I would start with picking up a book, getting a book, and educating yourself. The second thing that I would do is go to ballet class because there are so many people who are not aware of their body and space. I'm not talking about being a dancer or not being a dancer, but I think that there is something that ballet does, which gives us structure, which gives us discipline, and which gives us an awareness of how we move through space. So I would start with education and then I would start with movement of how do we move through space.

Well, sometimes ballet transitions into Broadway with shows like An American in Paris, Billy Elliot, Carousel, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story.
RH: Right, but also at the beginning of the day, I think it's the ballet techniques that really helps people sustain eight shows a week because I think anyone can dance a Broadway show, but can you dance it eight times a week and you can't do it if you don't have technique.

Robert, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
RH: Same. Thank you so much for such thoughtful questions. I truly appreciate the opportunity.

Be sure to catch North Carolina Theatre's production of Memphis. It will be playing at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium from March 24th-29th. For more information, please visit:

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From This Author Jeffrey Kare