Robbie Rozelle is Bustin’ Out
Today, I am sitting down to interview Robbie Rozelle, who is about to make his sophomore outing at Feinstein’s/54 Below with his show Bustin’ Out. After a successful debut effort titled Songs From Inside My Locker, Robbie was asked to be the venue’s Pride headliner. Mr. Rozelle, who is a busy guy with his work at Broadway Records, directing acts for the likes of Jessica Vosk, Kate Baldwin, and Melissa Errico, as well as having the dubious distinction of managing my website and social media, found a few minutes for me to pick his brain about the upcoming show.
How will this show differ from your last show Songs From Inside My Locker?
My debut show last year was kind of a whirlwind. When I was asked to do it, I was casting around for what my theme should be, because I really really loathe the “I was going to be an actor, so I moved to New York City and had my heart broken, so here’s a song about my true love - my cat” shows. I fell on the idea of all the songs that got me through high school, which as you can imagine was not the easiest time for me. I still can’t believe it sold out.
I had no intention of putting together a new show, but when Jen Tepper of 54 Below asked me to be the Pride headliner this year, I knew I had to say yes, and set forth putting together a show. My goal has been to write and perform a hopeful, optimistic show while in real life we all seem to be living in Act Two of Into the Woods.
Is there one particular song that you are particularly excited to sing and why?
My friend Michael Finke is a really special emerging musical theatre writer, and he wrote a song just for me! I knew a point I wanted to hit (trying to navigate being gay and over 40, aka often invisible), so we locked ourselves in a rehearsal room and he let me diatribe (about Hell’s Kitchen) for an hour. About two weeks later, he delivered an 18-page song that contains everything I said in that session. I can’t wait to premiere it; I still can’t believe that someone wrote me a song!
What has been the hardest thing about putting together this new show?
Trying to find the right balance. After a first sing-thru of the songs I had selected, I turned to Josh [Smith, musical director] and said “wow, this is really dark.” That’s just the place that we’ve been living in. So I had to recalibrate how to get my points across so that the waiters wouldn’t have to deliver cyanide tablets with the check at the end of the night. I think we finally have the right balance of joy and call to action.
How do you begin assembling a show like this? How does it take its form?
I spend most of my time on the other side of the table, as a writer and director of other people’s shows. My favorite thing to do is ask “Ok, what story do we want to tell?” and see what they answer. Then, finding songs that fit that story or that experience, and looking for unexpected things. For example, when we did Jessica Vosk’s recent show about her time with Wicked, I knew I didn’t want to use any songs from Wicked — that’s too easy and tips our hand too much. So only our encore was from the show, and felt earned. But finding music to amplify the stories of her no-fly performance for example, things like that, were really interesting to me (and a great way for me to get her to sing “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. When we did Kate Baldwin’s show Extraordinary Machine, the show was almost completely pop, but I felt she needed three show tunes with pop sensibilities. I put “Breeze Off The River” from The Full Monty in there, because that was her Broadway debut, a song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (in a mash-up with a Rufus Wainwright song), and a sort of Joni Mitchell arrangement of "Ribbons Down My Back," because Hello, Dolly! had just been announced, but we made sure they were arranged in ways that you wouldn’t get if you were lucky enough to get to the Shubert to see her in the show. And I feel the same about me — it’s so easy to do a show with “I Am What I Am” and a medley of songs about parades… how can I do a Pride show when I take those off the table? It’s been challenging but a lot of fun.
This cabaret act has been designed to coincide with Gay Pride. What particular points about your experience with being gay and proud do you hope will come through in this show?
I feel like I’ve made an accidental career out of being a professional gay. When I was with Playbill, I was the designer of Playbill Pride, and two years ago I was honored to design Broadway For Orlando’s “What the World Needs Now is Love”, in response to the Pulse tragedy. I hope to give voice to people who feel marginalized. When the recent SCOTUS ruling about the baker happened, I sent Josh a text immediately saying that we were adding “Married” from Cabaret to the show, because I needed to talk about it. Every day it feels like things are becoming acceptable and normalized, and I need to push back at that. If my resistance means spreading hope and joy and optimism and Jerry Herman songs, that’s what I’m going to keep doing as long as there is breath in my body.
What Broadway composers inspire you and why?
Man, this is a hard question. I know the answer should be “Stephen Sondheim”, but more and more I find myself drawn to the scores of Cy Coleman and Jerry Herman. I really respond to them. I think that Jeanine Tesori is remarkable, the way she changes her sound to fit the show is so chameleon-like. David Yazbeck I have loved since the first note of The Full Monty, and his sense of humor is so funny and unexpected. I think Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of the best scores we’ve had the past twenty years.
You have some special guests joining you for part of the show. Tell us about them and why, in particular, you chose them to join you.
I have had a long collaboration with Jessica Vosk (three shows and her album that we are currently recording… I really have nothing going on in June), and now that she’s back from Wicked, it was a no-brainer that I ask her to sing with me. Christina Sajous, from American Idiot and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark) is a new friend, and joining Jess and I for a trio of a song that relates to my first time coming to NYC for the Pride parade, and all that ensued. In my last show, my guests were Nathan Salstone and Bonnie Milligan, and this year Nathan made his Broadway debut in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Bonnie is making her Broadway debut as the lead of Head Over Heels. I’m not saying that I’m responsible for that, but my guess is people want to sing with me because I conjure Broadway.
Why should people come see your show? What makes it unique from all the other gay men at a microphone story and song entertainments that pop up everywhere around Gay Pride celebrations?
I like to think of myself as counter-programming to all of the parties and dances. I’m going to give a really fun 70-minute diversion from reality that’s stuffed with show tunes, my really spectacular band The Two Drink Minimum, comedy, heart, and most importantly, hope. I think that even if the world is burning down, there are things we can celebrate. There is joy and laughter, and I hope that it is contagious. And if all else fails, there’s a really wonderful medley of roles that I am now too old to play. And for that, I say, “You’re welcome."
Bustin’ Out will play at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Saturday, June 23, 2018 at 9:30 PM. Tickets at 54Below.com.
Photo by Curtis Brown Photography