INTERVIEW: ROBBIE ROZELLE On His New Album Songs From My Locker, Performing at 54 Below, Advice and
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Album artwork for Robbie Rozelle Songs From Inside My Locker (Curtis Brown)
Beloved cabaret icon, graphic designer extraordinaire, and multi-hyphenate Robbie Rozelle talks with RyeTheNewsGuy.com about the release of his album Robbie Rozelle Songs From Inside My Locker- Live at Feinstein's/54 Below. The live album was released digitally on June 26, 2020 (to coincide with Pride weekend in New York City), and the physical copy of the album was released on August 28, 2020.
The album was recorded over two sold-out nights in 2019 at the famed top-notch cabaret venue- Feinstein's 54/Below. Rozelle is no stranger to the renowned venue, having completed a seven-month residency there with his show Tuesday's at 54...with Robbie Rozelle and performing there many times throughout his career.
Robbie is a staple in the theater industry known for his work as the A&R Director and graphic designer for the Grammy-winning record label Broadway Records. He is also the person behind some of the most iconic graphic design work in the theater industry, from designing the updated Playbill.com website a few years back to designing some of the most iconic Broadway performers' websites. His other work includes producing, writing, and directing, including his recent producing credit on Jessica Vosk's debut solo album Wild and Free, which reached four Billboard charts in 2018.
In this interview, Rozelle talks about the album's inspiration, his favorite songs, the special connection he has to 54 Below, advice from an "accidental performer, and much MORE! Keep up with Robbie Rozelle by visiting his website and connecting with him all over social media at @divarobbie.
Where did the inspiration come from for Robbie Rozelle Songs From Inside My Locker?
The entire “Songs From Inside My Locker” has been a happy accident. It started as a one-off to entertain my friends. I have written and directed cabaret since moving to NYC – I like to say that I give sopranos jokes – and after each successful show would do it’s one night or week or whatever, someone at the club would say that I should do my own show. To which I always replied, “no one would come to see that.” Turns out, they would. So suddenly, I had to create a show. I have an allergic reaction to the standard cabaret format, so I needed to find a hook, and I just thought about all of the songs that have inspired me and got me through a very rough period in my life – high school.
I mean, who doesn’t want to relive that in front of 150 people who have all paid a lot of money, right? Josh D. Smith (my musical director and arranger) and I worked so hard to create something entertaining for that one night, and then kept getting asked back. So I decided to raise the money to record it live, and we sanded it down, replacing some things, and created this version of the show.
What was your favorite moment during the two-night performance at 54 Below for the show?
There are a few for sure – walking out the first time to that Merrily We Roll Along vamp, and just feeling the room burst with an energy that I have rarely felt. Singing with Bonnie Milligan is always my special treat – she’s done almost all of my shows (except when she was being a rock star in Head Over Heels on Broadway), and having Maya Days join us to recreate her Aida was so special – I can’t tell you the number of times I saw her do it on Broadway. And debuting this new mashup of “Tomorrow” and “Here Comes The Sun” that I created, which puts a beautiful button on the story we are telling, was a real thrill.
You are no stranger to 54 Below, having concluded your successful “Tuesdays at 54… with Robbie Rozelle!” – what is it about 54 Below that is so unique to you?
I really love that room – it’s set up beautifully to play, and has spectacular sound. The Tuesdays experience was a really special, beautiful residency. We were able to have so many Broadway stars come and play with us, and give over two dozen people their 54 debuts, while keeping it super-affordable. I really miss doing it; I miss writing jokes about what’s happening in theatre recently. I miss the front of house staff at 54, I miss working with my marketing person Dylan, I miss working with the MD Luke Williams. It was just a joy.
Which song on the album is your favorite and why?
It’s like choosing children, but I think my favorite is “I Have Found” by William Finn. It’s three minutes to catch my breath and just sit and simply sing.
Robbie Rozelle (Curtis Brown)
I understand that these songs are a mix of classics, signature medleys, and a new song. How did you develop the idea to intertwine the classics, medleys, and a new song into this show?
Josh and I started with a Google Doc and a dream. I made what I call the “vomit list” of possible songs. I looked for themes, knowing that I would be chronicling my high school days. Finding an opening number was the hardest – I think I looked at a dozen before I settled no “Let’s Misbehave.” Medleys are like crack to me – I have them in all the shows I work on, because they are interesting to the audience.
This album has not one but three debut recordings. “In Hell’s Kitchen” was written for me by the genius Michael Finke, a riff on a joke I tweeted. “The Kid” is the title song from the musical of the same name that was never recorded before; the writers were very gracious to let me be the first. And “Jam Tomorrow” from Alice in Wonderland has weirdly never been recorded, so that is a thrill. But everything is story-driven, it all tells my story. Sometimes in very funny ways, sometimes very darkly, but it all has a purpose to it.
You are a true multi-hyphenate in all that you do! It is particularly fascinating that you are the man behind many iconic designs and layouts such as Playbill, Broadway Records, and many other Broadway star websites. Did you go to school for graphic design? How did you get started in graphic design and being the “go-to” for Broadway graphic design?
I fell into it fully by accident. I didn’t go to college at all, let alone study graphic design. I used to layout my high school newspaper but was completely self-taught. The faculty advisor used to say that I could touch an electronic and intuit how to use it. I taught myself HTML to code websites because of my love of Carrie the Musical (this is true), and started the website that brought me my first bit of notoriety. Then I started working with record labels – first Fynsworth Alley, then PS Classics – doing web design stuff for them, which led me to Laura Benanti, and it just sort of spread from there. I was doing it all from my little apartment in Pennsylvania, very much out the fringes of the industry. I designed Scott Alan’s first album, which was the first indication that I could do that, and then people and labels started using me for that.
One day I decided that it was time to be in NYC. It was then or never, so I quit the day job that I was miserable at (I was managing a hotel in the Poconos) and moved here without a plan. I was still freelancing, doing the odd solo album for Ghostlight Records, and I saw Playbill was hiring for a part-time digital archivist (a glorified scanner), and I needed to eat so I applied. When they hired me, they expressed concern that I was overqualified for the job. I said, “hopefully, you’ll find other things for me to do.” And they did! I was with them for three years and then moved to my current position at Broadway Records, which is the perfect marriage of everything I love – preserving theatre music and designing for theatre. In a way, it’s a very full circle, as cast albums are what kept me sane and centered in my teens, and now I’m making them for someone else who may need to be kept sane and centered.
What is the best advice you have for others in the industry and want to do other things aside from just performing? (i.e., producing, designing, writing, etc.).
The best advice I have ever gotten is from Jan Maxwell, who said “You have to create your own projects. Choose yourself and others will choose you.” It’s the entire reason this album happened, it’s why anything in my career has happened. I bet everything on me, and I won.
Robbie Rozelle (Curtis Brown)
How have you kept yourself busy during this time? Do you have any projects in the works that you can reveal?
I wish I could say that I learned a new language and dropped to a size 30, but that’s a lie. Thankfully, Broadway Records is still putting out albums, so I’m still working. I’ve learned how to make sourdough. I was elbow-deep into a new cabaret show for Jennifer Diamond when everything shut down, and I know that when things start to re-open, we will pick that back up. I’ve done a lot of reflecting and learning, and I’ve been trying to use my platform to be an advocate and ally.
Do you think the world of cabaret and intimate performance such as what we have seen at 54 Below, The Green Room 42, etc. will survive this pandemic? In your opinion, when do you think we may start to see a return to live performance on stage?
I honestly don’t know – the beauty of the art form is that we are all in this little pocket of space, telling stories, and that’s not really aligning with the pandemic. We’ve all seen the photos of shows in face shields, and I just don’t know how that will work. Also, because these spaces are so small, financially I don’t know how that will work. I personally use a six piece band – The Two Drink Minimum – but smaller, socially distanced audiences means smaller paychecks. I really don’t know. But I am optimistic.