Song and Dance Man

JAMIE ROCCO’S OFFICE, a small, windowless space in the basement of St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts—like the impresario’s lair in Mel Brooks’s The Producers—doesn’t look like the kind of place that will someday birth the next great American musical. But in fact, this is the incubator that could well put the Ordway on Broadway.

It’s been a long time since a major musical was produced in the Twin Cities and made the leap to the Great White Way. The show most locals recall is The Lion King, which opened at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis in 1997. More recently, and less successfully, the rock musical William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet premiered at the Ordway in 1999. But Rocco hopes to give the region its next big hit. Surrounded by memorabilia from his adventures in acting, producing, and directing—a framed Playbill from his Broadway appearance in Cats, a poster from his re-envisioned production of Singin’ in the Rain, which has played around the world—he has the savvy and the connections to pull it off.

“He’s a very creative guy, and he’s nationally known,” says Jeff Bakken, former chairman of the Ordway board, who became interim president and CEO after David Galligan resigned last summer. “He can open a lot of doors—not just on Broadway, but across the country—with a lot of our peers.”

Rocco was hired in December as the Ordway’s artistic director and vice president of programming, having spent the bulk of his life working in the theatrical trenches of New York City. His first task was to seal the deal on the venue’s 2006-2007 theater lineup, which has been hailed as a “dream season” by numerous critics. The slate includes Monty Python’s
Spamalot; Irving Berlin’s White Christmas; the classic Camelot, starring Michael York of Austin Powers and Cabaret fame; and Edward Scissorhands, a gothic dance version of the Tim Burton film. Even after decades in theater, Rocco is excited by original stagecraft, and in talking about it he throws his hands in the air and his eyes grow wide, his inner Regis Philbin endearingly emerging. “This man dances with scissors on his hands!” he marvels.

In addition to securing the touring shows that are the bread-and-butter of the Ordway’s theater season, Rocco and his coworkers will ease the venue back into major original productions (the Ordway, under the guidance of Rocco’s predecessor, Lynn Von Eschen, produced about one new show a year for its smaller McKnight Theatre, but nothing on the main stage). It won’t be easy: much has changed on Broadway since the 1990s. Like many business sectors, Broadway has consolidated, with just a few companies (hello, Clear Channel) controlling the production, touring, and marketing of shows; this oligarchy, along with skyrocketing production costs, has led to fewer new shows being created in the past 10 years. But the Ordway and St. Paul boosters know how much excitement a major new production can generate for a city. And Bakken believes that potential funders, largely recovered from the post-9/11 recession, are ready again to back new artistic creations.

“We have to do it within our economic means, over time,” says Bakken. Partnerships are one way to do this, working with other venues across the country to produce new shows. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, for instance, which opens at the Ordway next month, was co-produced with another theater. The Ordway also has a financial stake in the musical version of Legally Blonde, which, if it’s a hit on Broadway, will be on its way to St. Paul. “In the future,” says Bakken, “we will have to rely less and less on the shows managed by these big national distributors and more on a network of theaters like us—a producers’ network of people in the same [situation] that we are, who have the same kind of pressures and opportunities.”

Bakken describes Rocco’s role as an “emissary,” someone who can build bridges to potential partners. Even with his programming duties, Rocco will still be producing and directing—“job-sharing,” as Bakken puts it—at other arts centers around the country, keeping his hand in the game. The Ordway, in turn, will have access to staff at these other centers.

Rocco couldn’t be more excited, and not just for the work ahead. “I’ve been traveling 40 weeks a year almost my entire adult life,” says the man who has opened shows in Tokyo, London, Singapore, and elsewhere. “I’m just grateful to sleep in the same bed every night.”

AT AGE 16, having graduated early from high school, Rocco directed and produced his first major show in Manhattan, which literally brought down the house. Or, rather, the house came down around him; the 40-some-story building containing the theater Rocco was working in collapsed while he was in it. Miraculously, not only did Rocco survive, but so did the show, as another theater troupe was sufficiently intrigued both by Rocco’s youth and his predicament to offer him their venue. The show, appropriately enough, was about precocious kids in New York—not that the irony registered with Rocco at the time. He was simply doing what he enjoyed. In some ways he’s still that kid today, virtually unstoppable in pursuit of his dreams.

Rocco was born in Queens. He began tap dance lessons at age 3 and got his Equity card (meaning he acted in his first professional show) when he was in middle school. Commercials, theater gigs, and a stint in a Manhattan school for child actors followed. Rocco was a fan of both Dick Clark and Fred Astaire. (He posed for an early photo holding a rock-’n’-roll record in one hand and his tap shoes in another.) And he still loves both dance and pop music. But he’s also obsessed with a somewhat more obscure entertainer, George M. Cohan—the actor, dancer, composer, and producer who in the early 20th century became America’s first show-business superstar and the father of the modern musical. His songs include “Give My Regards to Broadway” and, indeed, he was known as “the man who owned Broadway” in the decade before World War I. To Rocco, Cohan’s work represents the perfect mix of entertainment and ideas.

“He wrote ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ which basically created the concept of the American Dream,” Rocco says of Cohan’s patriotic song about a self-made man. “Yeah, he’s corny now, but you know, we listen to old songs from the ’80s and they sound corny. This man planted an idea in our consciousness that still exists, and this is all through musicals!”

Rocco’s enthusiasm—when an Iowa newspaper asked him to comment on the Des Moines’ Civic Center’s successful booking of Broadway hits, he exclaimed, “Omigod, you’re cookin’, good lookin’!”—may be just what the Ordway needs now. The venue opened in 1985 after St. Paul philanthropist Sally Ordway Irvine challenged her community to help her create a performing-arts center that would offer “everything from opera to the Russian circus.” In addition to its theatrical season, the Ordway hosts the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera, and numerous local dance and theater groups. It’s come a long way since the enormous deficits and reputed squabblings among tenants that cast a shadow over the place a decade ago. This is in part due to the financial diligence and expert management of former president Galligan. But Galligan was never the gregarious impresario that the heads of other arts organizations are—Joe Dowling at the Guthrie Theater, Osmo Vänskä at the Minnesota Orchestra—and now, as the center prepares for a major leap forward, the time might be right for such a leader.

Financially, every year is “still a bit of a struggle” for the Ordway, according to Bakken, and so a task force was recently formed to establish a long-term plan for stability. The group helped secure this year’s $7.5 million in bonding for such upgrades as new windows and a new sound board. Now, more work must begin on growing the yearly capital campaign. Rocco is all-too-aware of the facility’s needs: “The stage floor has been sanded so much that the [Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra] will fall through if we sand it again,” he remarks. But his networking skills, not to mention the publicity that any major show he books would generate, may prove invaluable in drawing attention to the center.

It’s not just self-interest that would push Rocco to rally support for the Ordway. He believes that musicals can engage audiences in social issues as much as any other art form—perhaps even more effectively, given that messages can be sugared with music and dance. “A lot of people think [musical theater] isn’t cool,” he says, “but think about this: Oscar Hammerstein dealt with racial relationships in Show Boat and in South Pacific pretty graphically, covered up in what seems to people nowadays like this really sweet romantic show. He did this 20 years before the ’60s, so in some ways planted the seed that led to many of the thoughts that came later about diversity and acceptance. I’m hoping that I can subtly show people that musical theater really has changed the American culture.”

This isn’t to say that the Ordway is going didactic. “You can subtly enhance people’s lives while you totally entertain them,” Rocco says. The perfect musical—it’s what Rocco’s been chasing his whole life. “It’s up to me to understand the evolution of this form, and to see that there’s an importance to it,” he says. “George M. Cohan really did speak to the people of his era. And Oscar Hammerstein spoke to his.… What is it that I have to offer to the continuing evolution of American intellect through musical theater? I guess you’re about to find out!” MM

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

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