Nicholas Rodriguez has been delighting musical theater audiences over the past few years with his work in such shows as Broadway’s Tarzan and Off-Broadway’s The Toxic Avenger, and he made a splash last year on the ABC daytime drama One Life to Live as gay activist Nick Chavez. Now, he’s taken on the role of the young, lovestruck Italian shop clerk Fabrizio in Arena Stage’s production of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ The Light in the Piazza. TheaterMania recently caught up with the actor to talk about this project and his daytime experience.
THEATERMANIA: Is doing this production your first exposure to the show?
NICHOLAS RODRIGUEZ: No, I auditioned for the Broadway show back when I was in Los Angeles doing The Ten Commandments. I remember seeing it for the first time at Lincoln Center and it was breathtaking. It felt like something that could never be recreated.
TM: Did you instantly see yourself as Fabrizio?
NR: I kind of immediately connected with all the characters. For example, when Clara sings about wanting something and reaching for it, I understood that. But I love Fabrizio, because he has both the passion and the innocence at the same time. The challenge as an actor to play him is to be open to those feelings.
TM: Fabrizio both speaks and sings in Italian. Was that difficult for you?
NR: I studied Italian in school and I went to college and graduate school for classical music, so, in a way, singing in Italian is getting back to my roots. As far as comprehending the lyrics, it was fairly easy for me. It would have been harder if he spoke Russian or Chinese. But singing in Italian requires a different amount of clarity; we spent a lot of time during previews finding ways to get the audience to understand what I’m singing about, since they don’t understand the actual words.
TM: What has the Arena Stage experience been like, especially working with your director (and Arena artistic director) Molly Smith?
NR: I’ve never worked at Arena before, and it blows me away how detail-oriented they are about the artistic process. We had a four-week rehearsal. Molly is incredible. She works like we’re doing the show for the first time ever. We just talked about the piece for the first three days, and during the whole rehearsal process, she let anyone who wanted to ask a question. She’s also not afraid to try something else, even if something’s working, and I admire that. Her process requires an intense amount of trust, but I thrive on that. In the end, she sets an environment where success is the only option, and so everyone is striving for the same goal.
TM: What has it been like working with Hollis Resnik, who plays Margaret, and Margaret Anne Florence, who plays Clara?
NR: Hollis is the real deal when it comes to theater. She’s great to learn from and to watch. We’re always talking about the text and bouncing ideas off each other. She told me at our second rehearsal that we’re cut from the same cloth. Margaret’s work is just breathtakingly simple. And there’s so much trust between us, which makes it easy.
TM: Has working on a soap opera affected how you approach theater?
NR: My work here has definitely been informed by the work I did on TV. Being on One Life to Live taught be to more immediate, to realize you might not get a second chance to do a scene. I even treated rehearsal like “I only get one take so I have to make it good.”
TM: You were only supposed to be on One Life for a few days, and you ended up there for seven months — and as part of a groundbreaking storyline involving three gay characters. What was that like for you?
NR: It was a surprise — and a blessing. There was an overwhelming fan reaction and from the media about that storyline, and it’s been great for me to see how the gay community is longing for these non-stereotypical characters. In a lot of ways, I felt like Nick was very similar to me. He was in the forefront of gay activism, and I relate to that. That’s why I thought I couldn’t lie about being gay while I played someone like him. It all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to be worried about being typecast as a gay man. I guess if I had time to think it through, I might have been scared.
TM: Your character became a bit of a villain towards the end, lying in order to get back with his old boyfriend, Kyle, and trying to break up Kyle’s relationship with Oliver. How did you feel that about the development?
NR: I was getting scared towards the end about how they were going to write him off, and I was afraid that he was getting too malicious. So I chose to play him as scared; he was the victim of this gay bashing — and that’s why he did what he did. They wrote this great final monologue for Nick, and I worked on it for weeks, and then, when I saw the script, it had been cut down to two lines. So I went to the writers and I showed them my work and they put the whole thing back in. I was so happy I stuck up for myself.