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    Mesmerizing Robert Hartwell of Motown the Musical Is Ready for the Spotlight

    motown2Motown the Musical features all the classics we love from artists like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, but pay extra attention to performer Robert Hartwell as he is a star in his own right and then some. Hartwell’s vocal range will knock your socks off, and you can’t look away once he takes the dance floor. His mastery of the basics is so complete that he’s in the magic zone, taking audiences with him for the incredible ride. We are absolutely mesmerized, and believe Hartwell has the talent to become one of the greatest stage performers of this decade.

    The University of Michigan honors graduate is already a seasoned pro, having previously been in the shows Memphis the Musical, Nice Work, Cinderella and Dreamgirls. You might also recognize him from his popular web series, “Broadway Quick Change,” where his interior design skills have him transforming the dressing rooms of some of Broadway’s hottest stars. He even redid the “Diana Ross Dressing Room” for Motown the Musical. Hartwell graciously took time out from the hectic tour for us.

    motown3SF Bay Times: You are such a talented artist. What do you enjoy the most- performing, interior design or…?

    Robert Hartwell: Thank you so much! I truly love it all. I get the most joy in the world knowing that something that I created brightened someone else’s day. The process for both creating a space as an interior designer and working on a musical as an actor are completely the same. You work so hard to get the job, spend countless hours rehearsing or sourcing materials for a room, and then the show goes by in 3 hours and I put all of my rooms I create together in 2 days so it’s tons of hours of prep work for such a small window of “show time.”

    It’s absolutely thrilling learning new choreography and figuring out how to make it work on your particular body, whereas it’s just as much fun running to different fabric stores searching for the perfect shades of fabric when I’m making a collection of throw pillows. The process is definitely my favorite part. I believe anybody can put on a show, but handling yourself in rehearsal with creating a role and also directing a crew in the construction of one of my interior design projects I believe takes real heart, patience, and craft.

    motownWe are all imperfect people trying to make perfect products, whether that’s onstage or an interior design job site, so with that I think you learn the most about yourself and those around you during the creative process. It’s so revealing, and if you take it always as a set up for growth, you will always come out with more joy than when you came in, and that’s truly why we do it.

    When I’m on stage sometimes after the show, I will walk through the lobby afterwards just to hear the audience buzzing about how great they are feeling after experiencing our work. However, when I’m designing a space for someone and we get to the reveal (moment), I get to see their bright smile and joy immediately. So I love both of them equally, but I will definitely say that to see a client’s reaction to a space over applause in the dark has a totally different feeling.

    SF Bay Times: Please tell us a bit about your background, who “Nana” refers to (Hartwell always thanks her in his bios), why she’s important, and how you first became interested in performing.

    Robert Hartwell: I’m originally from Raleigh, NC. When I was 7 years old, my mom took me to see a community theatre production as part of our Boy Scout programing. That day changed my life. Sitting in that theatre was the “a-ha!” moment of a lifetime. I knew in that moment that I was watching my life’s calling before my eyes. The following week, my mom signed me up for Raleigh Little Theatre’s creative drama camp and I haven’t stopped ever since.

    In Raleigh, I trained at the North Carolina Dance Institute under my mentor Kirstie Tice-Spadie. Kirstie is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and encouraged me at a young age to take my training to the next level. When I was 14, I moved away from home and went to boarding school at the North Carolina School of the Arts where I was a classical ballet major. I then went on to the University of Michigan, where I earned my BFA in Musical Theatre and graduated summa cum laude while earning the Willis Patterson Diversity Graduation Award. I moved to NYC upon graduation, and booked the Dreamgirls National Tour. After a year on the road, Dreamgirls closed on Christmas Day 2010, and the following day I started rehearsals for my Broadway debut in Memphis the Musical. I have also performed on Broadway in Cinderella and Nice Work If You Can Get It, where I was nominated for a Fred Astaire Award for Best Male Dancer in a Broadway Show before joining Motown the Musical.

    My first best friend in life was my Nana. My Nana was my mom’s mother and is my constant source of inspiration. She was an extraordinarily fabulous woman. She was the mother of her community in Brooklyn, and to be in her arms was the safest and sweetest feeling in the world. My Nana believed that I could do anything. We had a very special connection and there isn’t a day that I don’t feel her smiling down on me. Our ancestors paved a path for us to live out our dreams, and to do anything less than our best would be a slap in their faces, so for that reason I dedicate every performance to her. Of all of the amazing blessings life has brought my way, I truly think that she would’ve enjoyed Motown the most! When I’m onstage playing Tito Jackson singing “I’ll Be There,” I look into the audience and the way the lighting glows on us it feels divine in some sense. It’s very hard in that song not to think about Michael Jackson not being here anymore, but mainly in that moment every night gazing into the warm lights I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, Nana. We made it; we really did it!”

    SF Bay Times: Please describe your role in Motown and what it’s like to perform such iconic songs. And who are your own Motown favorite artists, either past or present?

    Robert Hartwell: My role in Motown is like being shot out of a cannon eight times a week! This show is a triple-threat dream because you get to do everything. Not only do we sing, dance, and act, but also everyone in the show has a moment where they get to step out and be featured. My role takes me through 25 costume and wig changes! I play: Paul Williams, the original founder of the Temptations; Robert Gordy (Berry Gordy’s younger brother); I sing with The Contours; and also end the show each night playing Tito Jackson of the Jackson 5.

    When the show opened on Broadway, I was still in Cinderella, so I remember seeing the show as an audience member for the time and completely “fangirling” out! I always tell my friends that you have to walk in the building 110% healthy and ready because what we are each required to produce in this show is a different level of intensity than I’ve ever experienced before. I love working hard, but this show requires a very fine-tuned focus. We aren’t just out there singing and dancing, but we are carrying on the legacy of the Motown brand that changed America. But, most importantly, we are honoring these iconic legends, some of whom aren’t with us anymore, so there is a great respect and desire in doing it right nightly. This show is much bigger than all of us onstage and to remember the political and social climate that these songs were birthed out of reminds you how important it is for us to tell this story with truth and full, passionate commitment.

    As far as my favorite Motown artists, I definitely have to say I always root for the underdog. What most people don’t realize is, yes, the lead vocalists were absolutely incredible but, if you really think about the Motown sound, it comes down to the background vocals and the instrumentation. So, I’m gonna take one for the underdogs and vote my favorite Motown artists as the Funk Brothers for music and The Andantes for background vocal session singers. The Andantes are on nearly every Motown recording, lending their voices and, without them, the sound would not have been filled out, and without the Funk Brothers there would be no beat. But also, I can’t get enough of Marvin Gaye. He just had it all. That’s a legend.

    SF Bay Times: Do you think that LGBT artists helped to shape the Motown sound, even if they cannot be acknowledged as such today? And what do you think of the civil rights gains that have affected the music industry over the years? We’d like to think that if a Motown artist were LGBT, he or she would not have to be closeted.

    Robert Hartwell: I absolutely think there had to be LGBT artists that helped to shape the Motown sound. I am now a part of the Motown family, and am carrying on the legacy of Motown, but every character I portray on stage is straight. If any of the people I portray were, in fact, LGBT, they would not have been able to be openly LGBT in the Motown world nor the mainstream music industry.

    One of my favorite lines in Motown is when Berry Gordy says, “I don’t make race music. I make music for all people…and pop means popular.” His goal was to get his music out there to all people, not just black people, and he did that not only with a revolutionary product, but also with impeccable branding. The acts that all went through Motown had charm school lessons and were expected to represent the brand in a certain way. Being openly LGBT at that time would have gone against everything that the brand then was trying to accomplish. We were fighting politically to be able to drink from the same water fountains and sit wherever we wanted to on the bus; as a nation we weren’t at the fight for LGBT rights yet. We are at that fight now as a country but, sadly, I still don’t think the mainstream music industry is ready to put LGBT artists on their labels in the same way they do their other artists.

    SF Bay Times: Have you been to SF before? If not, what are you most looking forward to visiting/doing? If you have been here before, please share your thoughts about SF and what you most enjoy doing when you’re here.

    Robert Hartwell: I have been to SF before! My first visit was in 2010 when I was on the Dreamgirls National Tour. Sadly, I was so busy with the show that I had no time to explore. I am determined to change that this time around! I’m most looking forward to biking across the bridge and visiting Alcatraz with my sister when she comes to visit!

    SF Bay Times: We are big fans of “Broadway Quick Change.” Have you re-done the dressing rooms of anyone in the Motown cast? If so, whose, and how did you transform the room(s)?

    Robert Hartwell: Thank you so much for watching! I recently just finished filming our 8th and final episode of “Broadway Quick Change” Season One on the day before I flew here to San Francisco! We’ve got some incredible things in the works and can’t wait to get started on our next season. I actually got the chance to makeover the Diana Ross dressing room at Motown on Broadway. When Krystal Joy Brown took over the role, I came in to bring fresh (energy) to the space. When the show hit its one-year mark, the producers and creative team invited me back to do a “Broadway Quick Change” on their green room. Both spaces were so much fun! I love it when a room reflects the greater goal of the space. Basically, I wanted you to walk into both spaces feeling the vast and rich history of the Motown family. Between the two rooms there are over 150 rare photographs from the Motown archives. The rooms are very special to me, and to see the cast taking them on and living in them and showing them off to friends and guests makes me so happy! You can watch both episodes on our website

    SF Bay Times: Please mention anything else that you’d like our readers to know.

    Robert Hartwell: Mr. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, and I share the same birthday, November 28th! I actually ended up getting the call that I booked the job on our birthday on Thanksgiving Day!

    Motown the Musical is at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through September 28. For tickets and additional information, please visit: