Actor, dancer, and singer Robert Hartwell has success on and off the stage — and is bringing his talents to NC Theatre.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre
Robert Hartwell remembers seeing his first musical, The Ice Wolf, at Raleigh Little Theatre in the early ‘90s, when he was 7 years old: “I thought, OMG, my entire life is changing — I want to do exactly what these people are doing.”
These days, Hartwell is at the peak of a successful Broadway career, having taken the stage in Hello, Dolly!, Memphis, Cinderella, and more, and is also running his own theater education business and working on a reality television show. But, he says, all this success is rooted in the cultural opportunities he found in Raleigh. “It was amazing what I could do in my own backyard of 919 — few people that I meet have this same affinity for their hometown, and for what their state provides artistically,” says Hartwell. “Local theater became my background, my foundation. I learned to read a play, to memorize my lines, to recite a monologue. I got cast, and I learned rejection.”
Hartwell’s mother, Elizabeth McNeil, knew early on that her son was destined for the stage — and that he would do whatever it took to get there. “There was no maybe or if, it was always when. There was never a backup plan to being a performer,” she says. “He’s just got it in his fiber, he was focused.”
She recalls Friday night trips to Blockbuster, where Hartwell would pick out movies starring Fred Astaire and Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. He’d organize cousins or neighborhood kids into plays, creating his own costumes and scripts, passing out tickets door-to-door with his little red wagon, and demanding perfection from his cast. “He was very strict, he’d have them crying if they didn’t know their parts,” McNeil laughs, “but the parents would say, Hey, you said you wanted to do this! And people would come to the performances, knowing they would be amazing.”
Hartwell started training in theater and dance from an early age, taking advantage of the electives at Raleigh Christian Academy, but he says that Raleigh Little Theatre and the North Carolina Dance Institute “raised me artistically.” His first dance teacher, Kirstie (Tice) Spadie, was a particularly strong influence — “She’s my everything!” he says — who started preparing him for a Broadway career in elementary school. “She picked him up and nurtured him,” says McNeil.
Hartwell went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem for high school. There, he says, he learned both arts skills and maturity. “I wasn’t stoked to be away from home, but to me high school felt like college, and college felt like grad school,” he says. He went to University of Michigan for college, graduating summa cum laude, and getting more dancing, acting, and singing chops through their theater program. “I was blessed to have a mentor, professor George Shirley, the first Black tenor to sing a leading role with the Met Opera, the oldest, wisest man ever. He laid into me the idea of being around like-minded people,” Hartwell recalls.
He got himself an agent and moved to New York City after college in 2009, with the support of his grandmother and aunt in Brooklyn. (His mother remembers him helping out his Nana, a nursery school teacher, by performing as a clown for the little ones.) Soon, he was cast in his first show, part of an international tour of Dream Girls. “That tour felt like finishing school; I got to meet other Black performers and understand that experience,” Hartwell says. “I was one of the youngest people in the cast, but got to learn from people whose shows I’d admired forever — Aida, The Lion King — and learn from their stories of the industry.” It was something, he says, that he couldn’t have learned at school. At Michigan, he says, there were 80 people in his program, but only nine who identified as BIPOC and few teachers of color: “It’s one thing to get an education, but it’s another to know that there are holes you can’t fill without getting experience.”
After Dream Girls, he moved back to New York, where he booked his Broadway debut, part of the ensemble of the original cast of Memphis. He performed in that for two years, then did four more Broadway shows back-to-back — Nice Work if You Can Get It, Cinderella, Motown the Musical, and a revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler. It was a decade of performing eight times a week, every week.
All along this successful but grueling run, Hartwell understood his love and passion for education. He’d spent his off hours teaching for arts organizations and soon created his own curriculum to monetize his artistic strengths. “It was really one of my directors who said, you have a gift and you need to share it,” Hartwell says. “He said, I’ll be here to support you, just don’t lose focus on touching families and making a difference in their lives.” He started The Broadway Collective in 2016, an online education platform to teach young people the skills they need to get into big-time theater; it also offers immersive summer programs in New York for aspiring performers.
In 2019, Hartwell was hired to direct Memphis at North Carolina Theatre here in Raleigh. “It was such a gift, such a full-circle moment, to come back here 20 years after my first role with them, to direct what was my Broadway debut,” he says. Melvin Gray Jr., a local actor in the Memphis ensemble, remembers the energy with Hartwell on board. “I went in to audition, and Robert just had this huge grin — he’s so sincere, so welcoming,” Gray says. For him, working with Hartwell was an inspiration: “Coming from the same area, seeing a Black male, like me, having success, it’s so invigorating for me. Like, if Robert can do it, maybe I can do it, too.”
That March, director and crew came together for a production that felt special in many ways. “Everyone’s heart was so invested — it’s a story of love and following one’s dream and race relations,” Hartwell says. “It’s such a rich and important story to tell.”
For Elizabeth Doran, NC Theatre’s president and CEO, Hartwell’s involvement was the key. “There’s an intensity and beauty in how he directs. He’s from Raleigh, so there’s a sweetness, but he is a powerful performer and he makes others want to work as hard as he does,” she says. “The cast wasn’t doing just any production of Memphis, they were doing Robert’s production, with all the energy and glowing positivity that comes from working with this man.”
Nights away from its debut, with Memphis fully staged and rehearsed, the pandemic shut everything down. It was crushing. “We were in this bubble of love and art and creation — these shows are ethereal, that’s the powerful thing about musical theater — and it came down like a hammer,” says Doran. They ran through the play one last time before sending everyone home. “It was incredibly emotional, coming together in this moment of uncertainty,” says Gray. “You could feel the love in that moment, each of us thinking, we’re all here, we’re going to be together, we’re gonna get through this.”
The silver lining to the dark time: Hartwell had gotten to know Eric Woodall, NC Theatre’s artistic director, a Benson native and Broadway casting director who’d been recruited down to North Carolina after 27 years in New York City. Last January, despite the ongoing pandemic, NC Theatre brought Hartwell on as an associate artist, a role designed to bring a Broadway perspective to season planning, casting, choosing a theme and works for the season, and supporting the theater’s youth program. “NC Theatre has a dual mission as both a professional theater and teaching theater,” says Doran. “It makes sense for us to have a master artist on board who doesn’t just perform for the audience, but works to develop local talent further. Plus, we loved working with Robert.” Woodall agrees: “He’s not just a performer with many Broadway credits; his positive energy is infectious, it rubs off on everybody involved.”
So for the last year, Hartwell’s been part of the NC Theatre family, joining monthly meetings with the local crew, lending his expertise to production and planning, and serving as a critical but supportive audience member on every opening night (with his mother as his date). “My job is to support Eric’s vision; we complement and push each other,” says Hartwell. “We’ve been Raleigh boys at different times, so it’s great to move home and make art in the place that raised us.”
This month, Hartwell was set to direct Sister Act. For those who remember the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, this production will be a departure, one that relies less on jokes based on race and class and more on a multicultural cast to recenter the plot about celebrating the human spirit and coming into one’s own. “We have a responsibility to do a better job at telling stories, full stop, and it’ll be fun for the audience to see, for example, a congregation of nuns that look different from what we’ve seen before,” says Hartwell. “It’ll sound different, too — the delicious and powerful sound of a cool, multicultural vocal palette.” The production fits with NC Theatre’s season theme, “finding your voice,” and also reflects its commitment to diversity in its performances, from the subject matter to the cast to the backstage team.
Gray, one of the first actors cast in the production, was excited to work with Hartwell again. “Robert is so understanding that it makes you willing to try anything,” he says. “He knows you’re doing your best, but he’s open to ideas. He’s this killer dancer, actor, and performer, and when he’s up there, it’s like, how can I move my body like that?”
Alas, the production was postponed to September, another victim of spiking Covid rates. “We have adapted over the course of this pandemic and are grateful to our artists and audiences for adapting with us as we make changes to keep everyone safe and healthy,” says Woodall. Doran agrees: “We are grateful to have a solution which allows us to postpone instead of canceling, so we’ll still be able to enjoy Sister Act this year.”
In the meantime, Hartwell will be busy: he’s already working on a totally different project, renovating an 1820s home in western Massachusetts, for a totally different media: television. It’s a joint production between HGTV’s Property Brothers, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and Discovery+. After an Instagram post about buying the home went viral — the sellers expressed doubt that he, a young, gay Black man, could afford the all-cash sale — producers approached him to follow his renovation. The show will film through 2022 and debut in 2023, focusing on the renovation of a grand, columned mansion that hasn’t been a proper residence for 60 years. “There’s a portion of the show that will follow my life, and I hope they’ll catch me directing,” says Hartwell.
And come fall, Hartwell will be happy to share the fruits of his successful career with Raleigh audiences. “I can’t wait to sit in the theater where I saw my first Broadway play for a show that I directed and choreographed,” says Hartwell. “It’s going to be perfect.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.