To say that James Rocco grew up in the theater is no exaggeration. Over a cup of coffee, the vice president of programming and producing artistic director at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts shares his story with enthusiasm, peppers the conversation with good humor and includes a vignette about the role the Mississippi River played in bringing him to the Ordway a decade ago.
A native of New York, he was tap dancing at age 3 as the youngest member of the Art Linkletter Totten Tots, a traveling dance troupe. They weren’t on Linkletter’s TV program in the late 1950s, and Rocco admits he “has no recollection” of meeting Linkletter, but the experience, Rocco says, “just led to everything else,” including a role in the Broadway production of Oliver!
In spite of his success as a child actor, right around the time Rocco was preparing to graduate from high school (he had also attended Lincoln Square Academy, an elementary school for professional child actors), his father surprised him with a suggestion. “He said, ‘You love to read. Why don’t you become a librarian?’” Rocco recalls with a smile. “I said, ‘Well, Dad, I’m going to keep performing.’ My parents had always been very supportive of me, but my dad didn’t think I could make a living.”
In 1973, an off off-Broadway show that he produced and directed Henry, Sweet Henry at the Mercer Street Arts Center in New York drew a lot of publicity due to an unexpected event at the venue.
“We were in the middle of the final tech rehearsal,” Rocco says. “All of a sudden, water started pouring through the ceiling.” Younger than his actors, as well as many of the other performers in the building, Rocco nonetheless experienced what he calls “a moment of clarity,” efficiently shepherding them out before the structure collapsed. The story, including Rocco’s role, was front page news in the New York papers; Rocco considered it a larger triumph that he was able to collect his relatively undamaged set and costumes three days later. And the show truly did go on—the off-Broadway Lambs Theatre offered Rocco the use of its venue.
Admitted to the Stella Adler School of Acting for post-secondary education, Rocco lasted only three days. “The dean called me into his office and told me they didn’t expect me to collaborate with the instructors, but to learn from them,” Rocco says. “I’d been around directors for so many years, so [collaboration] was natural to me. And I realized I was ready for my adult career.”
After a brief stint as a chef (“I come from an Italian family—I was used to cooking,” he says), Rocco began to pursue his theatrical passions with a vengeance. He worked as a singer with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, as well as with the Duke Ellington Band. He toured with the musical Sophisticated Ladies and later played the role of Judas in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar. His career took him all over the globe as an actor, singer, producer and director of such musical theater treasures as Oklahoma, Singin’ in the Rain and Crazy for You, just to name a few.
And then the path wound to the Mississippi River. When a friend invited him to the Twin Cities, Rocco came “on a lark,” he says, and saw the Ordway for the first time, noting its proximity to the Mississippi. “I’m obsessed with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” he says, adding that the river, along with the strong arts community in the Twin Cities, compelled him to stay.
Since 2005, Rocco has produced shows at the Ordway including Sound of Music (returning in December), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which toured Japan) and the December 2014 production of A Christmas Story. Renee Prola, the company manager at the Ordway who has collaborated with Rocco on various productions, says Rocco’s passion for the art and artists, as well as his “infectious personality,” draws people in who want to work with him. Prola recalls a particular audition in 2007 when more than 700 singers and dancers waited for hours to try out—and everyone was given the opportunity to audition.
“It was important to him to meet as many local artists as possible,” she says. “I feel that set the tone for our future productions and auditions.”
This includes Pirates of Penzance, which Rocco is directing, on stage at the Ordway from August 4 to 16. “Pirates is a classical musical comedy,” Rocco says. “The language is incredible, it’s funny, and it makes social statements.” Rocco produced and directed a 2013 production of the show in Seattle at the 5th Avenue Theatre, which he says was “an unbelievable hit, with ticket sales through the roof.” Many subscribers said it was the best show they’d seen since Spamalot.
In these weeks leading up to the show’s premiere, Rocco and his cast are in rehearsals six days a week, several hours a day. The last week is tech week, where cast and crew are working up to 10 hours a day. “You don’t just turn on the lights on opening night [and find that] everything is beautiful,” he says.
In addition to the larger Ordway productions, Rocco also directs the popular Broadway Songbook series, spotlighting different musical eras. In October, the production is Songbook of the ’70s. “I see these performances more as symposiums; if you are interested in music, this is a chance to see six people who love music sit on the stage like it’s their living room and talk about music,” Rocco says.
Above all, Rocco continues to want to share the love of music and theater he has had since he was a child. “Musical theater belongs to everyone,” he says.
In 2013, James Rocco was recognized by Broadway Salutes in New York City for his 25-year contribution to theater.
For more information on Ordway productions, visit their website here.