Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Interview: Rodney Hicks talks about originating musical roles - "RENT," "Scottsboro Boys," now "Come From Away!"

Rodney Hicks in Come From Away (Kevin Berne)
Rodney Hicks is a talented actor/writer, husband to Portland Center Stage’s artistic director, Chris Coleman, and has originated multiple roles in Broadway musicals to great acclaim! He is ready to open the brand new musical, Come From Away, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, after a lauded run at co-producer La Jolla Playhouse, November 18th.

Come From Away is a heart-warming story about a little known aspect of fall-out from 9/11. When planes were caught in flight during the no-flight mandate over the United States, planes had to land somewhere. 38 planes were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada! It is a tiny town unaccustomed to so many visitors. The town springs into action to support all these passengers.

A talented roster of performers, including locals Eric Ankrim, Chad Kimball, and Kendra Kassebaum create this ensemble-driven piece playing multiple roles. Directed by Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla, the production is still being heavily revised by writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein (My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding). They are certain to be working to bring the production to Broadway, though the exact route there is unknown at this time.

Rodney has been seen on Seattle stages twice. He performed at the 5th Avenue Theatre in 2002 in Hair, and in 2012, he starred as Jim in Big River at Village Theatre. Rodney spoke with SGN about his career and originating characters in seminal musicals, such as RENT, The Scottsboro Boys, and Come From
Away.

Rodney actually met Jonathan Larson, the celebrated creator of RENT, when Rodney was cast in Larson’s young-audiences musical, Blocks. Blocks performed in NYC middle schools, and covered subjects such as child abuse, prejudice, and expressing your feelings.

Rodney says, “Ironically, I played a young Gay 16 year-old (in Blocks) who was not comfortable in his own skin. The parallel was something I struggled with for a very long time. It was art imitating life. I was afraid I was Gay. All I knew about being Gay was AIDS. I thought I didn’t want to be Gay.

“I was so in denial, I was engaged to a young woman. I thought, ‘I like this girl and she’s awesome and has a child. Instant family – score!’ I was attracted to men but I was terrified. Had it not been for RENT I would have married her out of responsibility and pleasing your family.”

Rodney says, “(Blocks) was when I first became friends with Anthony Rapp and Yassmin Alers (she is starring in On Your Feet on Broadway, now).

“I came from Mansfield University in Mansfield, PA. I was majoring in communications and minoring in theater. But I wrote, produced and directed two films while in school, and after the second year my acting professor told me I shouldn’t be here. I auditioned for a show, Mark Twain the Musical, got the role of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – who had always been white. They wanted to shake things up.

“I was able to get a manager and she said, ‘You need to be in New York.’ I was so not ready inside. I had all this talent inside but I knew nothing about the business – I just wanted to be on Broadway!

“I was cast in RENT in December 1995, and we began rehearsal two days later. It was all wonderful until Jon (Larson) died suddenly. (Note: Larson died of a brain aneurysm.) This is someone who was our friend, we had meals with him, had been to his home. So my Broadway debut was done in mourning.

“At that time I had no real concept of what originating a role was. I was simply going off of instincts and following along with all of the seasoned actors who I was blessed to be in the cast with.” (Original cast members included Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, and Jesse Martin.)

Rodney continues, “You get the script but (the creators) don’t know who you’ll play. So many things are rewritten and cut and added. That’s part of originating a role. It is what serves the piece. I learned on the job what that all meant.

“Ten years later, I was cast in the revival as Benny the landlord. Michael Grief, the show's director, allowed us to re-discover a character without having to model it after another actor's interpretation who came before. That usually doesn't happen when you replace someone.”

Another original role was Clarence Norris in The Scottsboro Boys (Broadway, 2010). This musical was based on a true story from the 1930s. To get out of trouble, two white prostitutes accused nine black teens of rape, while on a train stopped in Alabama. The teen boys were arrested and prosecuted and sentenced to death! They became a national news item and though they won a new trial, they were reconvicted.

Rodney says, ”The role wasn't as flushed out in all of their previous readings and workshops. After I was offered the role, as in any show, roles begin to be written for the actor portraying it. It's a common and most beautiful thing when you create a role from scratch. But what was special about Scottsboro Boys is I was playing someone who was based on a real person so they were able to incorporate more of his story into the piece.

“Originally Clarence was not the adversary to Haywood Patterson (the lead). They pumped it up so Clarence was an opposite energy to Haywood. They then become friends at the end. The show closed abruptly on Broadway after two month! A lot of black people did not embrace it, but they didn’t see the show! Those who saw it loved it!

“I subsequently took on the lead role of Haywood Patterson in the Philadelphia premiere of the show at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2012. I was honored with the prestigious Barrymore Award for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical. Both productions were directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. In Philly, we were sold out and from a predominantly black audience!”

Now Rodney has another chance to originate a role in a production aiming for Broadway. He is Bob in Come From Away. He says, “All 12 of us are ‘leads’ and we also all play all these other people. These are real people based on interviews. The person who Bob is based on is Italian and older. In all the other readings, Bob was white and Jewish. I have been a part of the production since the Seattle workshop last year.

“When I was asked to be a part of this piece, they didn't know who I would be portraying until rehearsal began. When they told me my primary character was Bob, I began doing my actor work in creating him. I make a backstory about every character! So, Bob (in my imagination) is a lover of comic books, conspiracy theories and initially is skeptical of the friendliness people are exhibiting. He just doesn't get it. He learns how not to be afraid of people he was taught to be wary of. That work is where the actor comes in – to fill in the interpretation.

“I also have an African character. One day I was asked by our director Christopher what I thought his name was. I didn't want to bullshit an answer and African names have a great deal of meaning and purpose. So I went back to the hotel and researched. I came up with Gwandoya. It means ‘met with misery.’ He is terrified for his life, so he met with misery on the flight – they don’t speak English, they speak Swahili, and I looked for a name that encompassed what he goes through in the show. It was an honor to be asked to name my character.

“We all remember exactly where we were on that day (9/11/01). I was in New York City, on the Harlem River Drive trying to get to my acting job. It was jam packed at a standstill and I watched the 2nd Tower fall! My aunt was at Ground Zero. I remember being outside my car on the freeway. It was devastating. With this show, the irony is that I’m playing one of 2 characters from NY and my character’s name, Bob, is my dad’s name.

“(The musical) resurfaces the tragedy that the day brought, yes, but what it also does is reminds us to be grateful and thankful for the hope that came out of that time. That, to me, is what this piece is about.

“The beauty of live theatre there's always an evolution of character that happens during the course of a run. What was great and working in La Jolla may be different in Seattle in regards to the feel and energy of the tone of the show. I absolutely love creating a character. Especially in a show like this where we get to create more than one specific person to inhabit. The fact that it is all based on real people adds another level of happiness for me.”

Rodney has made his home for the past four years in Salmon Creek, WA with his husband, Chris Coleman and two dogs, Trevor and Logan. You can read more about him at www.rodneyhicksnow.com.

In January 2016, he will be back in New York, he says, “with both feet in and ready for whatever the universe has in store for my continuing career. My husband and I will be bi-coastal. I took four years to make my personal life my priority. Now that it’s firmly rooted, I’ll go and work to have the career I have always been afraid of having. I’m finally in a place in my life where I don’t have fear of success. We’re just going to make it work.”

For information about Come From Away, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.