Robert J. Townsend Talks SDMT’s ‘La Cage aux Folles’, His Broadway Debut in ‘Mamma Mia’ and Acting in San Diego
The past couple of months have been filled with firsts for Robert J. Townsend. In June, he made his Broadway debut in the long-running crowdpleaser, Mamma Mia. After that, he had another production to tend to: the birth of his first child.
So, what’s a Broadway star/new father do as a follow up? Star in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of La Cage aux Folles.
Townsend plays Georges, the owner and MC of La Cage aux Folles, which features a drag show starring the fabulous Zaza, who just so happens to be his partner, Albin. After twenty years of together, Georges and Albin face the hardest challenge of their relationship ever: meeting the conservative parents of their son’s fiance.
SDMT assembles some of the best casts of actors around and this show is no different. Alongside Townsend, the show also stars Broadway vet David Engel as Albin, James Vasquez as Jacob and and he told me, some “amazing local” actors.
I talked to Townsend recently about La Cage, acting in San Diego, his Broadway debut and living on five hours of sleep.
La Cage aux Folles runs from September 25 – October 11 at the Spreckels Theatre. For tickets and more information, go to SDMT.org.
First of all congratulations. You and your wife, Jill, just had a baby. Like, he’s still got that new baby smell.
Robert J. Townsend: He will be six weeks old on Saturday. He does have that new baby smell still. He’s really amazing and we’re really lucky, he’s a sweet kid. We’ve actually gotten to the point where we can get a five hour stretch of sleep at night, so we’re taking it.
So with the new baby, no sleep and all the reversals, how are you still able to be a functioning human?
Robert J. Townsend: It’s harder than I thought it would be and it’s also easier than I thought it would be at the same time.
There’s two things that go into it. As we got closer to the date of rehearsals and we weren’t sleeping nearly as much as the five hours, I literally looked at Jill one day and said, “Did I make a huge mistake in agreeing to do this?” And then I walked into rehearsal and I said, “Hey, listen guys, I just want you to know that I love you all very much. At some point, I could have a meltdown from fatigue and I’ll try not to yell at anybody. But if I do, just know it’s nothing you’ve done it’s just because I’m wiped.” And they’re like, “Oh no, we get it. It’s totally fine.” But it’s actually been okay. It hasn’t been too bad so far. But the show is so wonderful the cast is so fantastic, it helps. It’s fun to go to work. It’s nice to have a break.
And then the other side of that, at the end of the night, I come home and if I’m lucky to get a little smile from Chase then it just makes me so happy. He’s actually starting to smile at this point. So that’s makes it special too.
So it’s actually going pretty well.
You mentioned the cast. You’ve got a really good cast working with you.
Robert J. Townsend: Absolutely. Here’s the cool thing, you know because you’ve worked with SDMT, they make an effort to bring really, really professional and really talented companies to their productions. David Engel is in this. He did La Cage on Broadway in its first incarnation. He’s got a long history with the show and he’s spectacular.
Do you know James Vasquez?
I know who he is but I’ve never met him personally.
Robert J. Townsend: He’s a director now but used to be an actor and as this process was happening, they suddenly realized what an amazing casting idea it would be to use him. He’s a brilliant actor and he doesn’t get much of a chance to do it anymore. He so brilliantly funny, it’s just terrific. It’s awesome to pull him from behind the scenes and bring him back on stage again.
And we’ve got a ton of amazing local people. Just all these super-talented people to do this really beautiful show. It’s a sweet show and it doesn’t get done very often. It’s got a beautiful message of family, love and acceptance. And as are coming up on the presidential elections and gay marriage with the Supreme Court, it’s a perfect time for the show to come back out. It reminds us of where we were and where we’ve come.
I saw it a while back with George Hamilton in the same role that you’re doing.
Robert J. Townsend: Oh right.
He was good but, you know, he was playing George Hamilton. So I’m really excited to see you doing it because with him it was a bit gimmicky, you know what I mean?
Robert J. Townsend: Yeah. That’s kind of my thing, I try to approach every role that I do, whether it’s Dan in Next to Normal or Sweeney Todd or Georges in this, I want to play real emotions I want to play… Yes, he’s the emcee of the club and there’s a bit of panache and a bit of flash but he’s a real person who’s got a real relationship and they’ve got real issues with their son. I would play the reality of it as opposed to being a caricature or persona.
When I did Singin in the Rain, there was a tremendous rehearsal schedule. Once that rehearsal train starts, boom, it don’t stop until the show opens.
Robert J. Townsend: Correct, it’s very, very fast.
When you get there, how prepared are you on day one? Are you memorized? Do you already all of the songs?
Robert J. Townsend: That’s an interesting question. It’s changed a lot for us actors over the years, as you know. The rehearsal process time has gotten smaller and smaller because producing theater costs so darn much. It’s just a cost thing.
And so we have a bit of responsibility to come in more and more prepared each time. That just means that we’ve got to do our homework.
I used to not like working that way. I usually come in and really discover everything in the process. I’m actually a pretty quick learner in terms of memorization, so I was usually able to do it in the process. In this size role and this time frame of rehearsal, that was not possible.
But compounded on top of that, two months before my son was born, I got a call out of the blue and Mamma Mia on Broadway calls and asks me to come fill in for six weeks. So I did that and I started looking at it there but I was very busy, you know, doing all that stuff in New York. And then I came back for the last month before my son was born and had to get prepared for the baby and make sure that the nursery was all set up.
So I don’t think I had quite as much time as I would’ve liked to prepare. That being said, I still probably did more work than I usually do, which is ironic. [laughs] I knew it was a big chunk to chew and so I tried to come in as prepared as possible. I listen to all the songs, sung them and got them into my voice a little bit.
I was definitely very comfortable with the scenes. But you know, it always changes when you’re actually doing the scene with somebody and you’re doing the blocking. I tie most of my words were I am physically on the stage, that helps me just associate what I’m saying with where I am. It becomes more defined as we get there. The process was relatively quick getting it up but we still have to put our thinking caps on when we’re at rehearsal and make sure that we know what we’re saying.
I wanted to ask you about Mamma Mia. That was your Broadway debut right?
Robert J. Townsend: It was, yeah.
How did that happened? You said the call was out of the blue but did you have any inclination you’d get that call?
Robert J. Townsend: No, out of the blue.
It was funny because we always joke that whenever I call from a New York number, I always tell Jill, “Oh, Broadway’s calling.” And it never really is. I mean, sometimes it is. There’s casting directors that I’m friends with and have worked with many times and they’re always very good about getting me in for projects. But that being said, they’re not usually calling to see if I’m available for Broadway. It was a strange situation where somebody had broken their foot and somebody else got sick and they were like, “Oh my God, we need somebody now.” I hadn’t done Mamma Mia for… I think it was six years? And I had done a different part.
They call on Thursday. We agreed on Friday. I flew out on Monday and I was doing the show the next Friday. So literally a week after I got the call I was in the show in New York.
Wow. Holy crap.
Robert J. Townsend: Yeah, it was fast. It was fast. You want to talk about that kind of rehearsal process being fast? Luckily, I had done the show for a year and a half on the road so I knew mostly what I was getting into, so this was sort of a refresher. But I was doing a different understudy track that I had done before so I had to learn all that. It was fast. But it was a blast. And it was really wonderful. I had such an amazing time doing the show on the road it was wonderful to go back to the show anyway. And then also, they just closed this past Saturday permanently and so it felt very nostalgic and very special to be able to go be part of the Broadway company right before closed. And they were very embracing and very lovely and I had an incredible time.
I almost didn’t go because Jill was two and half months out from delivering. If anything happened… I was very nervous. And she was like, “Honey, this is your dream, you need to do this.” She was very supportive which was amazing. And so it happened. It was really, really cool.
That’s awesome. I’m so happy for you.
Robert J. Townsend: Thank you. It was just a nice little universe gimmie me, you know? Because we’re settling in San Diego, we left New York and I wasn’t planning on going back. And the universe is like, “Okay, well how about you have a Broadway show right before your son is born.”
How long have you been in San Diego?
Robert J. Townsend: Jill and I moved back technically two years ago. But, that was another funny story because Jill came back and was getting the house set up. I stayed in New York for an extra month and I flew back a month after that. As I got to the airport in San Diego, I turned my phone on and got a message from New York. It said, “Hey Robert, Jersey Boys wants to see you again.” So, I flew back to New York two days later, did my auditioned for Jersey Boys, booked Jersey Boys and flew out to join the tour five days later. So then I was on the road for a year. Jill was here for two years, I’ve been here for a year.
Nice. What a great story.
Robert J. Townsend: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s a life of an actor and I’m lucky to have a supportive wife who understands that I love what I do and she’s always like, “Go do it. Go do it.” And now we get to stay home and have our baby boy and be a happy family in San Diego and do cool stuff here.
How do you like being actor in San Diego?
Robert J. Townsend: It’s incredible. San Diego is a thriving actor community. It’s a thriving theatrical community. And so, what I’ve always said to people is that good work happens where good work happens. And I think we’re so lucky as actors here in San Diego. There’s a ton of great work that’s happening all the time. We’ve got multiple fantastic theaters to work at and they’re always doing great projects.
I think that San Diego is arguably one of the top… We’re definitely in the top five theater communities in the country. You’ve got New York and Chicago. And you can toss it up between San Diego and maybe, I don’t know, Seattle?
We’re very fortunate with the opportunities we have and I’ve gotten to do some amazing things here. I always knew we’d live back here in San Diego at some point. Years ago I knew that would happen. There’s so much that we can do it’s incredible. I’m thrilled.