Metro Weekly

Nicholas Rodriguez: A Q&A with the Sound of Music’s Captain von Trapp

Nicholas Rodriguez on nontraditional casting, becoming an LGBTQ role model, and the joy of Sondheim

Nicholas Rodriguez as Captain von Trapp, Photo: Julian Vankim

Looks. Charm. Smarts. Talent.

One could say Nicholas Rodriguez has it all.

Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith clearly gleaned on these attributes when casting the handsome actor to helm two of her biggest, most groundbreaking Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals of the past several years — Oklahoma! and Carousel. The former snagged Rodriguez a Helen Hayes Award in 2010 for Best Actor.

And now, Rodriguez adds yet another Rodgers and Hammerstein notch to his belt: The Sound of Music, arguably one of the most popular musicals in history. But even if you’ve seen the 1965 movie, starring Julie Andrews as Maria and Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp, countless times, you’ve truly not fully experienced The Sound of Music until you’ve seen it live.

“The movie glossed over the Nazis and the Third Reich,” says Rodriguez, noting that the current North American tour, directed by Tony-winning legend Jack O’Brien (Hairspray), reinstates “No Way to Stop It” from the original 1959 production, a song that alludes to “amoral political compromising” as the German threat pervades Austria. “Our production goes a little deeper.”

“I feel like this story — about standing up for your convictions, about creating your own family, whatever that family dynamic is — resonates within our community,” says the 40-year-old Austin, Texas native. “Also the idea that we need to take care of our communities — whether they’re the families that we’re born into, or the families that we create.”

To that end, Rodriguez supports SMYAL whenever he can, as a donor and a fundraiser. “I’m passionate about helping bi, gay, lesbian and transgender youth,” he says. “It’s very important to me to be able to talk about those kinds of things with our community.”

Rodriguez relishes the ability to act as a role model for LGBTQ youth, showing that it’s possible to be out, proud and successful, or, as he says with a laugh, “playing leading man roles and kissing the girl every night.”

“I’m so privileged to be playing Captain von Trapp,” he says, concluding an hour-long conversation deep within the inner-labyrinth of the Kennedy Center’s rehearsal rooms. “This is a man who absolutely stands up for his convictions, no matter what the opposition is saying. And that’s something that we find in our community that we have to do all the time.”

Nicholas Rodriguez as Captain on Trapp and Charlotte Maltby as Maria, Photo: Julian Vankim

METRO WEEKLYOnce again, you’re playing the lead in a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Are you drawn to them in particular, or is it just by chance?

NICHOLAS RODRIGUEZ: This is my third Rodgers & Hammerstein in D.C., and actually the eighth Rodgers & Hammerstein show that I’ve done — I love it. It just fits my soul, it fits my voice. And a lot of it has been nontraditional. I got to play Curly in Oklahoma!

MWOn that note, you’re playing a part that traditionally has gone to white actors.

RODRIGUEZ: Never did I ever assume that they would hire a Latino Captain von Trapp. When I got the call, casting director Rachel Hoffman said, “Jack O’Brien, the director, wants you to come in for this.” I was literally on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico, browner than I have ever been in a long time. “Hmm, okay. I’ll go in to play an Austrian Navy captain. Sure, why not?” I’ve just been really, really blessed. And both Jack and Molly [Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage] don’t get hung up on the color of skin. They want the best person for the job. I think race plays a very important part in theater when it’s a story about race, but these aren’t. These are just good stories.

MWDo you think there are roles that wouldn’t work because of your race?

RODRIGUEZ: I think it depends on the director’s vision and the concept. In our production, we have two people of color in principal roles, myself and Melody Betts, who plays the Mother Abbess, and both of us weren’t in the original production. We replaced Caucasian actors. It was just the best person for the job. And that’s what I love about this particular production — it doesn’t matter. I think the only person that it really mattered to was me. I was the one who was in my head about it.

MWIt clearly was inspired casting. And you’re surrounded by a great cast.

RODRIGUEZ: One thing I’m super proud about this production is that it digs deep into the sociopolitical aspects of the time. As opposed to just going for the hits and being cutesy. I mean this is some important shit that’s going down. And it’s easy to gloss over that for the sake of just keeping it light and family-friendly. It’s one thing both Jack and Molly, my two mentors, have in common. They always say, “Why are we doing this piece of theater now?” And if ever there was a time to be telling a story about family, and about standing up for your own principles against a difficult regime, this is the time to do it. So, I’m so excited that I get to stand on stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., sing “Edelweiss” and end with the line, “Bless my homeland forever.” It’s something I take a lot of pride in.

Charlotte Maltby as Maria, Photo: Julian Vankim

MWIt’s distressing to see the Nazi flags drop down as the backdrop for the 11th-hour talent competition.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. It’s very raw. We don’t gloss over it.

MWDo you ever have people wanting to sing along in the audience?

RODRIGUEZ: I’ve heard that it happens, but in the houses that we’ve played in, I never hear it. People tell me afterwards, “All the kids next to me were singing.” It’s not loud enough to where any of us can hear it, so I say, “Live your life. Let your freak flag fly.” As long as there’s not a little bouncing dot above my head, I’m good with it. Do your thing.

MWDuring intermission, many of the kids were singing “Do-Re-Mi.” Growing up with The Sound of Music, did you ever think “maybe one day…”?

RODRIGUEZ: Never. There’s a certain handful of shows that I thought, “Never would I ever.” There are certain shows that just lend themselves to traditional casting, and I always thought this was one of them. [The Von Trapps] are real people. There’s no way they’re gonna cast me. Plus, I just thought of Captain von Trapp as so old — because I first saw the movie when I was six or seven, and he was just this old, stern white dude. That was my second thought when they called me. One, I’m brown, and two, I ain’t that old! And then I realized that Christopher Plummer was 34 when he shot that film. He just seemed old because we were young. I turned 40 the week that I opened in the show in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in March. So it was a really great rite of passage for me. To go from playing Tarzan [on Broadway in 2007] and then having seven kids, kind of skipping my 30s altogether. I went from playing mid-20s to 40. So it was just kind of like, “Okay, well if I have to turn 40, at least I’m in this fabulous national tour with awesome people.”

MWHow much longer have you got with the show?

RODRIGUEZ: We’re here for three more weeks, and then we go to Cleveland for one week. And then I cry in my pillow because it’s over. It’s so fun. I don’t know the last time I was in a company that was this loving and nurturing — and by company I mean cast, crew, musicians. We hang out all the time. There’s no “us and them” division.

Obviously the kids, they don’t hang out with us at night, but we do stuff together. I took the kids all to a baseball game last week. And they all travel with a parent or chaperone, but even then amongst themselves — this is very rare — they all hang out together, by choice. They don’t have to. Most shows, the kids get really competitive. These kids are just super-tight, and their families are tight.

Paige Silvester as Leisl, Photo: Julian Vankim

MWThat comes across watching the show.

RODRIGUEZ: Does it? I’ve heard that from a couple of people, and it’s such a huge compliment. The one thing I have a hard time with, personally, is when I do the blowing of the whistle and they step forward, it’s hard for me as Nicholas not to beam with pride at the kids. I love the kids so much, so being the stern dad in the top of the show — I find that doesn’t get easier.

MWWhat were your own parents like? Did they encourage you to sing?

RODRIGUEZ: My father was a high school baseball and football coach, and my mother’s a radiological technologist, and I have a younger brother. I went to the high school where my dad was the coach, and I didn’t play football — I played basketball and tennis — but he had to get there so early for football practice in the morning, and the only thing that met before school that wasn’t football was the show choir. He said, “Well, go try that out. You can sing. You sing in church.” And I did and I loved it and I got bit by the bug. And then my choir director introduced me to the theater teacher, and the rest is history. I started taking voice lessons.

MWGiven you went to church, how was your coming out?

RODRIGUEZ: I didn’t struggle with it a lot. It took me a while to figure it out. I came out late — in my early 20s. Once I knew I was gay, I was ready to tell people. But telling my parents was definitely hard. You just don’t want to disappoint them. And their reaction wasn’t the best, but it was not awful either — I’ve heard much worse. And they’ve since come completely around. It took a solid, awkward year or so. They had just all these fears that built up because they didn’t really know anything about it, but now, it’s great. They couldn’t be more loving and supportive and nurturing.

MWWas your family particularly religious?

RODRIGUEZ: I was baptized Catholic and did first communion Catholic, but then confirmed Methodist, so I guess I grew up both. I don’t practice either now. I love the tradition, and I love so many of the teachings. But I definitely do not consider myself religious in any form. When I was in grad school, one of my main jobs was singing at various churches — so everything from Episcopalian to Christian Scientist, I’ve sat through it, I’ve sung through it. I was basically religious-for-hire. And I got to learn a lot. And one of the main things that stuck with me was just how divisive it could be. And that part really, really bums me out.

Austin Colby as Rolf, Photo: Julian Vankim

MWDid the struggle to accept LGBTQ people contribute to your distaste for religion?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, the Methodist church that I did go to was very open and accepting. My pastor went on a hunger strike to allow gay people into the Methodist church. It’s a sad story, but he killed himself in protest over gay rights. So I knew gay people my whole life, and we had gay people in our church my whole life. So it was more about other things. It was about watching various religions fight with each other — more than on just the gay issue. Women serving as bishops, just so many things. I got so disappointed with all the “thou shalt nots” as opposed to, what about just practicing kindness?

MWDid you study performing arts in college?

RODRIGUEZ: I went to college for classical music. I got my bachelors and my masters at the University of Texas in voice, and then I did a semester at the Mozarteum in Salzburg — where everything is The Sound of Music — studying Mozart. And then came back, moved to the city. I pretty much knew the whole time that I wasn’t gonna have a career in classical music, even though I’ve done a few operas and some chamber stuff — I just wanted that training.

MWHave you ever wanted to teach others how to perform?

RODRIGUEZ: I was a junior high teacher between undergrad and grad school — and I love teaching. My dad’s a teacher, my grandmother’s a teacher. I’ve taught master classes all over the country and for the Broadway Dreams Foundation and American University, Catholic University. Maybe someday I’ll end up teaching somewhere, but I won’t do it in lieu of performing.

MWWith this show, you have a bunch of kids that you get to teach and mentor.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, my gosh. I freaking love it. Well, they teach me, are you kidding? But no, it’s great. I also get to be a pseudo-dad a little bit. It’s fun.

Paige Silvester as Leisl and Austin Colby as Rolf, Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: Have you thought about having children?

RODRIGUEZ: My partner and I talk about it. There’s a selflessness to being a parent that I don’t have right now, but who knows down the line. I was the artistic director of the Broadway Dreams Foundation for four years, and traveling the country and working with young people all the time made me think maybe one day I’ll be a foster parent. Being a parent doesn’t mean having a baby. I’ve had so many teenagers in my life that call me dad and that call me for support — whether it’s emotional, financial, coming out. So I can definitely see opening up my home in the future, in that aspect.

MWDid you have a mentor growing up? You mentioned being around gay people pretty much all your life.

RODRIGUEZ: I remember being aware of it in high school. I did my first professional show in 1994. I was a senior in high school and I auditioned for a local equity production of She Loves Me. I played Arpad, a 16-year-old bike delivery messenger, and it was all of these professional actors. And the guy I played opposite was gay, and I knew him and his partner, who was another famous actor in town named Joe York. And I just looked up to them because Joe was the leading man in town and he was gorgeous and sang beautifully, and they had been together for 10 years at the time, so that’s when I started realizing that you can be healthy, productive members of society as gay people. So I got to meet their circle of friends, who to this day are some of my best friends. They come see everything that I do. Whenever I’m in town we get together. We would get together every Sunday and watch Queer as Folk and make pasta and eat, this group of bears and me. And never was there pressure about coming out or being gay. They just let me be. And then when I did finally come out, of course they said, “Oh yeah, we knew, but we knew you’d figure it out in your time.”

MWIs it a matter of time before you become a bear then?

RODRIGUEZ: I’m Mexican and Native American. I have like seven hairs. We could name them. [Laughs.] Gays, they’re always, “Why do you shave your chest?” “Bro, I don’t shave. This is natural. Half-breed.”

MWYour partner Matt Lenz is the Associate Director on this production. How did you meet?

RODRIGUEZ: We met in Austin, actually. I had just finished the tour of Jesus Christ, Superstar and I was home singing for a wedding. And I ran into the artistic director of my home theater, the ZACH Theatre in Austin. “What are you doing in town? Do you want to do Love! Valour! Compassion!? We lost our Ramone. Come to the theater and meet our director.” And that’s when I met Matt. We didn’t get together right at the time, not until the play was over, but that’s where we met. And I just thought he was awesome. He’s an incredible director, one of the nicest human beings on the planet. We’ve been together 14 years now. We live in Manhattan and we have a house upstate in Forestburgh.

Merwin Foard as Max Detweiler, Photo: Julian Vankim

MWIs it a rare thing, getting to work together?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I think in 14 years we might’ve worked together five times, maybe six. It’s fun, but it’s its own set of challenges.

MWWhat motivated you with The First Time, your debut studio album, which PS Classics released last year?

RODRIGUEZ: It’s something I had as a life goal, to record, and I was just starting to get around to doing it myself. And then I reached out to PS Classics, “I would love any advice that you have,” and I sent them a link to a couple of my things. And they responded, “If you’re willing, we’ll produce it and put it on our label.”

It’s all about things that were firsts in my life, first kiss, first heartbreak, first Broadway show. I worked with an amazing combo — jazz pianist David Budway, Ron Afif on guitar, Donald Edwards on drums and Neal Caine, who is Harry Connick’s bass player. And we just created these arrangements, and it was all things that I had just been wanting to do for so long, my interpretations of all of these different songs — everything from a gospel jazz version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to a sexy cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”. All covers except for my very first song, “Sometimes.” A friend of mine wrote a poem and I set it to music, and it’s one of my favorites on the album.

MWYou mentioned Love! Valour! Compassion!, and I wanted to ask you about playing gay roles. Would you like to do more of them?

RODRIGUEZ: I like doing good work. My character on One Life to Live was gay, and that was huge for me. I was already out, but I remember at the time having to face the decision of being out in the press, and unfortunately not everybody does it. One of the first interviews I did while on One Life to Live, [the reporter] said, “Well, as one of only two openly gay actors in daytime” — that’s how they started the question. And I thought, “Who is the other one? Because I know at least six gay guys on my show. But I don’t want to out anybody.” And at the time the other out person was Scott Evans, who is Chris Evans’ brother, Captain America. He’s a wonderful actor and good friend.

The reason I bring that up is that I never thought I would be the person marching in the front of the pride parade. I just thought that was gonna be somebody else’s thing. But once I was faced with the issue, there was no question: I had to tell the truth. And what that opened up on the show — being a role model in that way, was huge to me. It changed my life big time. If it ever stopped me from getting something because of bias, who cares? My life is so good now, and it means way more to me to be a leading man playing leading man roles, kissing the girl every night, and letting some gay kid know, “I could do that, too. I don’t have to be put in this little box. And I can play gay roles, too.” Who cares? Just be yourself and be good at it.

Teri Hansen as Elsa Schraeder, Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: How is kissing Maria every night?

RODRIGUEZ: It’s great. I mean, who doesn’t like to kiss? I’ve had some pretty exciting kiss scenes in my career, especially here in D.C. There’s no hiding in the round at Arena Stage. If you’re gonna kiss, you better go for it. But Jack had a very specific thing that he wanted in Sound of Music, and we had a lengthy conversation about it. He really wanted there to be that sense of innocence — I’m not kissing her, she’s not kissing me, we arrive at it together. My observation was, it may be her first kiss, but he’s got seven kids. They came from somewhere. So it’s just this fun little dance of, are we on the same page? It needs to feel like a first kiss, but then at a certain point, this man has done it a few times before. And look at those kids’ ages. They all happened bing, bang, boom. So you know the Captain has a healthy sex drive and he’s been waiting a little while for this, so he goes in hard.

MW: You’re proud to be playing a character who stands up for his convictions. Would you describe yourself as a political person?

RODRIGUEZ: Who’s not in these times? You have to be. The older I get, the more I get involved. But definitely this last election made me more political and made me pay attention to other state races around the country that I hadn’t been paying attention to. I was always a cause person — gay rights, gay marriage, gun control. I sang at the National March for Gun Control here in D.C. after Sandy Hook, but it wasn’t until this awful election that I had to actually get involved and speak up. It’s the first time in my adult life that I’ve found myself actively donating to campaign after campaign.

I’m usually a keep-the-peace kind of person or a middle-of-the-road kind of person, and if we don’t agree about politics, I just choose not to talk about it. This time I continued to talk, no matter who it was. I’m from Texas. I have a lot of Republican friends and this, to me, was not a Republican/Democratic issue. We’re living in crazy times right now. And I still don’t shy away from having the conversation. I would rather be very clear about what I believe in and what I will tolerate. Whereas before I found myself being more, “let’s just agree to disagree.” No. There’s no agreeing in that right now.

Cáitlín Burke as Mother Abbess, Photo: Julian Vankim

MWIt’s certainly a crazy time to be in D.C.

RODRIGUEZ: I’m excited to be here. I love that this community in D.C. — not just the theater community, but the gay community — has just been so welcoming. And I can’t wait to come back. It’s my home away from home.

The Sound of Music runs to July 16 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $49 to $169. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

For more information on the album The First Time visit thenickrod.com.

Nicholas Rodriguez as Captain on Trapp and Charlotte Maltby as Maria, Photo: Julian Vankim

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.