Photo courtesy of the artist
Musical excerpts: “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy” from the Arena Stage production of Carousel written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, performed by Nicholas Rodriguez and Betsy Morgan.
Jo Reed: That's Nicholas Rodriguez, singing a song from the musical Carousel. He's playing Billy Bigelow in the current Arena Stage production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
The role of Billy Bigelow is a meaty one for an actor—he dominates the stage mixing bluster, vulnerability, charm, and brutality. He also sings some of the most beautiful and complicated songs ever written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s a part that Nicholas Rodriguez nails in the revival of Carousel directed by Arena Stage Artistic director Molly Smith. Rodriguez is a favorite actor at Arena Stage, playing characters, like Curly in Oklahoma! (for which he won a Helen Hays award), Freddie Eynsford Hill in My Fair Lady, Fabrizio in the Light in the Piazza and he's appeared in several non-musical plays as well, all of these in the past six years.
Rodriguez has also appeared on Broadway in Tarzan and performed in the national tours of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Hair. And this is just skimming the surface of a very accomplished career.
Nicholas Rodriguez shines as Billy Bigelow. Gone is the sunny innocence which Nicholas was so good in portraying in Oklahoma!’s Curley, for example. Billy is a conflicted and complicated character with as much darkness as light.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Billy Bigelow, he’s the barker of this carousel. It’s told to us very early on that he’s a drifter. You know he’s done this in Coney Island, he’s done it all up and down the Maine coast. He’s a bit of a ladies man; and he’s a hot head. He falls passionately for this Julie Jordan, who works in the mill. He’s a man that fights for what he wants, but he’s not always sure what he wants. So—and he doesn’t always make the right decision, unfortunately, like so many of us in life. You know, so he thinks he has the best intentions, but not necessarily the best plans.
Jo Reed: You know, just for listeners who might not know, can you briefly summarize the plot of Carousel?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Oh, gosh, that’s a tough one. I mean, because it’s such a dense plot. But I always tell people that it’s the basic boy meets girl story, with a twist. Like I said before, Billy Bigelow, he's the barker of the carousel, and Julie Jordan, they fall in love and it’s a whirlwind courtship that we see on stage. And then we jump to five or six weeks later and they’re married, and you find out that things might not be so ideal in their marriage, you know, he’s out of work, he’s drinking too much, and it comes out that he hits her. So you’re dealing with an abusive relationship. And shortly thereafter he finds out that he’s going to be a father, and that, you know, inspires him to try to get his life together, but it doesn’t go so well. And then there’s a twist, you know, so without giving away too much of the ending and what—it deals with redemption and how we’re redeemed; and it’s a roller coaster. <laughs>
Jo Reed: It is indeed. Tell me about the character of Billy Bigelow? It's very much Billy's show.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yes. <laughs> It feels like it.
Jo Reed: It is. I mean I think it is, and I think that obviously has to be extraordinarily rewarding, but also very, very challenging. How did you prepare?
Nicholas Rodriguez: You know, I prepared by putting one foot in front of the other. Honestly, like, not letting myself put the cart before the horse; so it was basically like laying building blocks. And I had known I was going to do it for some time now. Molly Smith, our director and I have been talking about this one for a while. It’s been on my dream list, bucket list, for a while. So I started with the nuts and bolts—learning the songs on my own, so that way I can dig into them a little bit deeper as an actor, and then working it step by step, you know. And it really is like doing building blocks, you know, you have to just kind of do one piece at a time, and I didn’t actually meet Betsy Morgan who plays Julie until the first day of rehearsal. So—which, you know, it sounds odd, but this business is so small that chances are you’ve met before, you’ve auditioned, or something. And so that was really neat, because then you really couldn’t start forming that relationship until we started, so I had a full process with her.
Jo Reed: That’s an interesting thing, because I’m really curious about the rehearsal process. Did you come in with a firm take on the character of Billy? Or did you let that develop throughout the rehearsal process?
Nicholas Rodriguez: I came in with a fair idea of who I thought he was, you know; and I came in knowing the music, but nothing else. You know, some actors like to come in with all their lines learned, and not me. I really try to just focus when I get here with the people that I’m going to be working with; that’s just how I like to work. But I felt like I had a pretty strong idea of who I thought Billy was. And the first week or so of rehearsal, we just sat around the table and talked. We didn’t block any of the scenes, we didn’t do any of the choreography, any of the songs, and we just went scene by scene and kind of fleshed it out so that informed the take on it as well. And then of course, through conversation with Molly and with Betsy and Skye Mattox who plays Louise, what that relationship is going to be like.
Jo Reed: And Louise is Billy's daughter?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Exactly. And I had the pleasure of working with E. Faye Butler who plays Mrs. Mullin, and knowing in advance that she was cast as well, I think that relationship is very integral, hindsight into who Billy is, the different relationships that he has with Mrs. Mullin and with Julie.
Jo Reed: And Mrs. Mullin owns the carousel.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yes, she’s the owner of the carousel. And to some degree, owns Billy, you know. So--
Jo Reed: Yeah, it’s—it’s not stated, but it’s hinted at that he’s sort of a gigolo.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s the take that we’re going with this too. So all of that like informs who he is. And I think in the beginning I was so daunted, not by the nuts and bolts of the music—and that’s its own challenge—and you know the text is its own challenge, but who he is at his core—I think as an actor, you can’t—I can’t believe that he is a bad guy if I’m going to commit to playing him every night. I have to believe in the good parts, you know. Even though he does some bad things. So I was intimidated by—I was intimidated by the differences between Nicholas and Billy. And I kind of had a little block to it until Molly just said—our director said, “Just start with what’s similar.” And as soon as I did that, I was like, “Oh, okay.” Because there is so much about him that is like me; that then I could allow myself into the darker parts.
Jo Reed: So how are you similar?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Well we’re both very passionate; we both are flirtatious, we both go after what we want; big dreamers; love fiercely, love deeply; yeah, those are some of the things I started with.
Jo Reed: What’s wonderful about the character of Billy is how complicated he is. He’s charming, so you have to convey charm, but there’s this whole other darker side of him as well, and one doesn’t negate the other, but you have to be able to present it all.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Mm hm. What’s interesting too, and so fun and fulfilling is, you know, doing it in a city like D.C. where you have a big population of intelligent, educated people, you know. So everybody’s walking into it with their own opinions, and they’re not shy to wait around and tell you afterward, too. You know, like just when we started talking, you saw the Lincoln Center production in ’94, and I had many people that tell me they saw John Raitt do it, and everybody’s coming in with their own opinion; even if they just know the songs and how the—it lives in our American psyche because it’s been around for 71 years. So it’s really amazing to have the opportunity to put your own stamp on it without even changing any of the text, just bringing who I am as a human being to the same exact material.
Jo Reed: That’s what’s so fabulous about theater.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yeah. It really is.
Jo Reed: Because it’s immediate, it’s present, it’s here, and it needs the actor or it’s only on a page.
Nicholas Rodriguez: And it needs the climate. I mean, you can’t ignore that we’re doing it when we’re doing it, with this group of diverse ethnic people, you know. This production wouldn’t have been done 71 years ago, you know, but it’s the same text.
Jo Reed: Yeah. How many shows have you done here at Arena Stage?
Nicholas Rodriguez: I think this is my eighth. We brought Oklahoma! back for a second run, so seventh production, but…
Jo Reed: Now, because you’ve worked here so often, and often with Molly Smith as the director, I would imagine that gives you a level of comfort.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it gives me the comfort to know that I will get the truth, you know. There’s no hiding when you’ve worked with somebody as intimately as Molly and I have worked together, because she knows all your tricks, you know, so she is going to always ask you to dig deeper, go further; it’s never one of those relationships that’s like—“Hey, remember that thing you did two shows ago? Put that moment here.” Like it’s always looking for what you haven’t done so far, or who—what pocket of your psyche have you not scratched yet, and that’s what I really like. And if she feels like she’s seen it before, she’s the first one to tell you.
Jo Reed: Do you think having that comfort is kind of necessary or important for you to be able to take chances on the stage?
Nicholas Rodriguez: It was for me in a role like this, I think. I think because there is so much about Billy that’s vulnerable and /volatile; and because he is a hothead, it was really awesome to know that I was going to be working with people that I completely trusted. And when I say that Billy was the dream role, I mean this was the dream team I wanted to do it with as well. And at Arena Stage, you know. So Paul Sportelli, our music director, I’ve worked with twice before now, and Parker Esse, the choreographer I’ve worked with twice before now too, so it’s just really awesome to be able to speak that shorthand and to have people know when you need a little something and know when you need to be left alone, you know, it’s really great.
Jo Reed: Yeah. You mentioned Oklahoma!, you reopened Arena Stage after it had been closed for its massive and gorgeous renovation, playing Curly in Oklahoma!, which is another meaty Rogers and Hammerstein role <laughs>
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Compare Curly and Billy.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Oh, gosh. You know, their archtype-ly very—is that even a word? Archetype-ly <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, go for it, why not.
Nicholas Rodriguez: They’re very similar on the page, you know. Like the physical requirements and the vocal requirements and the aesthetic requirements are very similar. They took place in a very similar window of time in American history; just in two different places. But Curly, as much as he rides the open plains, has not seen nearly as much of the world as Billy has, you know, so it’s just interesting to have two men that are about the same age who’ve had completely different experiences in life. And I think a lot of that comes in the preparation, and what I think as an actor or what happened to them before we meet them in the world of the play, if that makes sense.
Jo Reed: You perform a lot in D.C., and in regional theaters. And you know, at the NEA we look at theater throughout the country, but often, you know, in the popular vision theater is Broadway, and Broadway is theater which means that most of the work that's being done is not being discussed frequently. When you’re out there and performing, what’s your sense of the vitality of theater throughout the country?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Well I think it’s really great. I mean, I’m fortunate that I get to work in some really vibrant places that have really vibrant, thriving, theater communities. And I agree with you that for the average person, you know, they have their pulse on what’s going on on Broadway because of things like the Tony Awards and the Grammy Awards, and you know, it’s awesome to be going around the country and that emergency room doctors and housewives and school teachers can sing songs from Hamilton. I mean, that’s kind of cool, but I think there’s also a trickle-down effect, too, with regional theater. Some that people are aware of, and some that aren’t. Like the fact that some great shows start from regional theater and then move to Broadway, like Dear Evan Hansen, which—Next to Normal—and people might not be aware that they started in regional theater before moving to Broadway. And then, huge Broadway hits, once rights get released, move out to regional theater. So it’s kind of cyclical in that way.
Jo Reed: Like a revolving door in some ways.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Exactly.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Are you at a stage in your career where you don’t feel like you have to worry about the next job? Or is that an occupational hazard? <laughs>
Nicholas Rodriguez: <laughs> I mean, I try not to worry about it; I don’t like to spend a lot of energy worrying about it, but it’s constantly there <laughs>, let’s just be—I talked to my agent yesterday, and he said, “I think I’ve talked to you more times today than I have in the last three weeks.” So it’s something, you know, it’s the blessing and the curse of what we do, you know. You open a show, and then you might get a day past opening before people are, “So what are you doing next?” You know, so it’s always there. It’s always in the forefront.
Jo Reed: I think another thing people often overlook how entrepreneurial actors have to be.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you’re your own business. You’re your own brand, you know, it’s—you’re the keeper of your own schedule, and you know, it’s fabulous on one hand and it’s frustrating on the other. So…
Jo Reed: Yeah, and terrifying in between. <laughs>
Nicholas Rodriguez: Well, yeah, they are.
Jo Reed: You played Nick Chavez, in soap operas—One Life to Live which turned out to be a very important role in many ways.
Jo Reed: Tell us about that.
Nicholas Rodriguez: It was very fun. You know, it’s so funny because most people, they say that’s where I got my start; actually I had done a lot of stuff before that, but it was kind of the most high profile I guess, of the time; but it was somebody that was just supposed to be there for just this one, three little episode arc. He was a gay character, he was a third in this gay love triangle that they were trying to put on ABC, which was, you know, at the time, new. And the response was great, just from the producers, so they just kept writing him and kept writing him. And every week or so, they’d say, “Can you stick around a little bit longer?” And I said, “Absolutely.” But he became—Nick Chavez became a lot of firsts on daytime television, you know the first-- it was the first person to propose to somebody of the same sex, I was the head of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance in the fictional town of Llanview, of our town, you know, there was a gay wedding, there was a—you know, a hate crime, there was really—amazing. And shooting it in New York, we didn’t even have gay marriage legalized in New York much less federally at the time. So the fact that ABC was writing it and that I was lucky enough to get to play the character, it was awesome. And because there was no plan, originally, for Nick, his name wasn’t even Nick it was something else, I can’t even remember what it was, it was something incredibly WASPy—
Jo Reed: Like Brian <laughs>
Nicholas Rodriguez: Like, Brock or—like something incredibly WASPy. And I walked on the set, and they were like, “We can’t call him that, let’s just-- well he’s only here for three episodes, let’s just call him Nick,” because that was my name and everybody could remember it. And then a couple more episodes later, they were like, “Well, if you’re getting married, you have to have a last name.” So, the character—and they just started writing him with my voice. I mean, because there wasn’t really a plan, just a lot of episodes started happening really fast. So it was really fun and really fascinating to do.
Jo Reed: Soap operas are so—or were—because now there are so few, but you know, are so important to younger actors, actors as they’re getting a start or getting their face out there.
Nicholas Rodriguez: I remember being so intimidated because there’s no crash course. You show up—you get the job, and you just show up. There’s nobody that holds your hand, there’s no rehearsal process, you just show up and start filming. And I remember being so nervous. And one of the contract actresses who’d been on the show for a while, she walked straight up to me, introduced herself, she’s like, “Oh, my God, you’ve been on Broadway!” And I was like, well here you are, you star on a TV show, you know? So it was just very, like, whoosh, I can breathe now. Like, okay. You know, so—it was cool. It was a very cool experience.
Jo Reed: I always think working on a soap opera is the equivalent of writing a daily newspaper column—
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yeah!
Jo Reed: There's just no time to be precious, you have to just do it.
Nicholas Rodriguez: And for an actor, you know, it’s like sometimes you just-- you can obsess about, oh, how am I going to say this line, how am I going to do this—but when you’re getting a script one day and you shoot it the next day—I was doing, for a good chunk of the time I was on One Live to Live I was also doing an off Broadway show called The Toxic Avenger. So you know, if you would think of being on set from 7 or 8 a.m. until 5 and then being at the theater at 7 to 11, like, you’re learning those lines like in the car in between or on the subway or in the dressing room between, you know. So you’re constantly just learning new information.
Jo Reed: Where were you raised?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Austin, Texas.
Jo Reed: And did you come from a family that was musical?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, both of my parents played in the band in high school, and my dad, you know, played in a little pick up rock and roll band for fun on the side, and my grandmother was the choir director at our church, and she was an elementary school music teacher, so to some degree, I mean, music was always part of our life. But nobody, you know, nobody actively pursued it as a profession—other than my grandmother who was a music teacher.
Jo Reed: And what drew you to doing that?
Nicholas Rodriguez: You know it’s kind of a funny story. I mean I always sang; just like around, I just thought everybody did, you know, like our—at church or whatever. But then when I got to high school, my dad was the football coach at my high school, and I had to ride with him to school every morning, and got there early for football practice. I didn’t play football, and the only other thing that met before school was the show choir. So he’s like, “Well you got to do something, go check that out.” So I did, and turns out that I could sing and liked it, and that led me to musical theater.
Jo Reed: That’s funny. And where did you train?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Where did I get my degrees?
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Nicholas Rodriguez: I went to the University of Texas at Austin and got a bachelors and a masters in voice.
Jo Reed: When did you move to New York?
Nicholas Rodriguez: I moved there September of 2001.
Jo Reed: Oh, that was good timing.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yeah. It was an interesting time.
Jo Reed: Oh, Lord. How long—
Nicholas Rodriguez: September 5th. I went on the road right—very shortly after moving there.
Jo Reed: What was your first job in New York?
Nicholas Rodriguez: My very first job was right after September 11th happened, I got a phone call out of the blue from Harrisburg Opera—one of the actors that was doing Candide—their production of Candide—pulled out because he didn’t want to travel and leave his family. They started rehearsals I believe on the 14th of September. And the Cunegonde had done it with me before, so recommended me to the conductor, and they offered me the job so I went; very much just a product of circumstance, you know, of the time—
Jo Reed: You mean you had worked with the actress who had played the role?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Exactly. They offered me the job so I went, very much just a product of circumstance.
Jo Reed: Wow, but that's was a very nice first job.
Nicholas Rodriguez: It was a very nice job, and after that I got this book from a friend of mine that was called The Business of Acting, it’s a small little book. And basically it had chapters on how to get an agent, how to write a resume, I mean little stuff—so I copied the cover letter verbatim, just said, you know I just moved to the City, I just did this job, I’m looking for representation, I went to the drama bookshop and bought a packet of pre-made labels to send to agents for $9.99, and I sent off 50 or 60 cover letters and head shots and resumes, and that’s how I got my first agent, like right after that job. So all the things that they say never work, somehow happened for me, so I feel very—knocking on this wooden table <laughs> they worked out.
Jo Reed: <laughs> You know there are people who look at musical theater and obviously I am not one of them, but they see it as strained and artificial. What is it about musical theater that draws you?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Well, I mean I tend to agree; it can be strained, it can be artificial, but it can also be thrilling. So I think that’s when it’s really great. And I think there’s something so magical about being able to move seamlessly from speech to song. I’m a huge fan of opera. But not everything I have to say needs to be sung. Some things need to be, in the case of a musical. So when you get that right combination, it’s just thrilling, you know. And me, as a person, as a human being, I find that I’m not always the best with words, I’m not a great communicator, but I can sometimes read something that inspires me, or this song—you know, so being able to do that on stage, is sometimes better than how I can communicate to other people.
Jo Reed: You and Alicia Gamble who played Laurey in Oklahoma! put on a cabaret show here at Arena Stage and you've done other cabaret. What set of chops as a performer do you have to bring to a cabaret?
Nicholas Rodriguez: You know, it’s similar set of chops as doing a musical or doing a play; but the thing, the biggest difference is that you have to completely bring yourself, you know. And I think that’s why I resisted doing it for so long. I’ve always been fascinated by—not just cabaret, but like solo concert work. I’ve always loved it. And the immediacy of interpreting songs, I mean, like I said before, it’s the best form of expression for me, that I know how to do. And I think I was so afraid to bring my real self, it’s so vulnerable because it’s not somebody else’s words in the script, or the—
Jo Reed: It’s not Billy Bigelow singing.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Exactly. It’s not a character, it’s you. So why am I singing these songs now? So—but you know, once I did it, I just got the bug. I got hooked, I just love it so much.
Jo Reed: How do you set the playlist?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Other than the show with Alicia and I did my solo show which I recorded and made my first album, and now I’m getting ready to do another solo show at Signature for a week, here in D.C. But the first one, I just started from advice of a friend of mine who’s a big cabaret artist in New York. I just kept a running list of songs that I was drawn to, and something that I felt like I had something to say. And then as I started whittling—I was like, well what do these have in common, for instance, my first show was called The First Time, and all of the songs in that set list had something that was a first in my life; whether it was the first kiss, first heartbreak, first Broadway show. And then I was able to write the patter for the show and I found the hook into it.
Nicholas Rodriguez: It’s really fun for me. I like the idea of planning and programming—it’s kind of—uses all of the tools in my toolbox, you know. I get to dabble with directing, a little with writing, and then arranging how I’m going to do the songs, you know, so that they’re personal.
Jo Reed: So what's the theme for your next show? The one that's going to be at Signature at the end of January?
Nicholas Rodriguez: this new show is all songs of the 70s, so that’s the hook through that one with new arrangements. I’m turning 40 this year so I was feeling very nostalgic about the 70s. So that’s where this <laughs> about my life growing up in the late 70s and how these songs kind of stick with the fabric of our time.
Jo Reed: You've done a lot of work with the Broadway Dreams Foundation. Tell me about that organization.
Nicholas Rodriguez: It’s a not for profit arts education foundation that I worked for for several years, that we’d take Broadway actors, directors, choreographers, to cities around the county and do arts education and training. And then mentorship for young people that wanted to get into musical theater. It’s been around for about 10 years, started by a dear friend of mine out of Atlanta, and I taught for them for two or three years and then they asked me to become their artistic director, which I did for four years. Then I just recently stepped down last year, but I hold them in the highest of regards and dear friends and amazing educators.
Jo Reed: Why do you think it works as successfully as it does? What is it bringing to the table nobody else is?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Well it is all people that are currently in the business that are so passionate about it, you know. And there are so many wonderful programs where kids can fly to New York and have that New York experience; this is about the people from Broadway going to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Dallas, to Omaha, Nebraska, and you know, I didn’t have that as a kid; I mean, I didn’t have—I’d never met a Broadway person, you know? Not even in college. So to have a team of 6 or 7 or 10 sometimes come to my city and work with me and sing with me and now with social media, the ability to stay in touch, it’s really been pretty amazing, I mean, just to see the rewards of seeing it, paying it forward. And you know, like now I have students—ex-students that have more Broadway shows than I do, you know, so it’s pretty fascinating.
Jo Reed: What about—what artists influenced or inspired you?
Nicholas Rodriguez: Oh, gosh, so many. I mean, like I think so many of us can relate, like, I grew up with my parents’ record collection, that was a huge early influence, James Taylor, Carole King, the Beatles, Elton John—that’s the foundation, you know. When I first started getting my own music was—I was still obviously drawn to Elton John, but I’ll never forget like the first time I heard Maria Callas, and Nina Simone, you know, when I was in high school, and that was something that I hadn’t been exposed to before, so I love that both of those women are so different, but they both just left it all on the floor. You know, they just were raw. So people always say, “What’s your sound?” I’m like, it’s somewhere between Nina Simone, Maria Callas and Elton John.
Jo Reed: Well, Billy Bigelow certainly is that, because you do leave it all on the floor.
Nicholas Rodriguez: Yeah <laughs>
Jo Reed: Nick thank you so much, I really appreciate it
Nicholas Rodriguez: Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: That’s Nicholas Rodriguez he's playing the role of Billy Bigelow in Carousel at Arena Stage. It's running until December 24th. You can get more information at arenastage.org. After the holiday, you can catch Nicholas Rodriguez in Cabaret at the Signature Theater in Arlington Virginia. Find out all about it at sigtheatre.org. You’ve been listening to Artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities around the country, keep checking the “Art Works” blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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