Dance Lessons From Broadway Pros
Robert Hartwell’s onstage education in “Nice Work If You Can Get It”
The ensemble of Nice Work If You Can Get It is filled with veteran Broadway dancers, so by comparison. Robert Hartwell is a newbie. After all, he’s just 25, and this is just his second Rialto job. Still, he’s an undeniable scene-stealer, with a joyous movement quality and expansive stage presence that recently earned him an Astaire Award nomination.
It no surprise that a young dancer can shine in this particular show. A collection of classic Gershwin tunes set to a brand new story about gangsters, dames, and cads in the 1920s, Nice Work is directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. She’s made her reputation on period pieces like this one—Anything Goes, Wonderful Town—and her showstopping dance numbers especially demonstrate that “old-fashioned” stories can feel exciting in the 21st century.
Hartwell has the explosive energy and bright-eyed showmanship that Marshall’s choreography needs: As an uptight Prohibition officer in an early number, he slices the air with severe arm swirls and sharp pop jumps. Later, in the rollicking celebration of “Lady Be Good,” he delivers showgirl-shaming kicks, spot-on turns, and lunges in which his long legs seem to stretch to both sides of the stage.
Yet despite his achievements—and years of training in acting and dance—Hartwell says he relies on his collaborators for valuable lessons.
During his first Broadway gig in Memphis, the story of a white disc jockey who brought soul music to popular radio, he got an immediate lesson in pushing past his perceived limitations. “When I first saw the show, I was intimidated by the athleticism of the dancing and high octane belting,” he says. “So when I got to audition, I decided, ‘Regardless of the outcome, I will go in and try and do my best.’ When my best friend was hired a week later as my partner, I was even more inspired to be learning alongside my friend. Most people in the cast were enjoying their Broadway debuts, just like me, so we figured everything out together.”
In Memphis Hartwell also understudied four roles, and he had to develop a strategy for mastering all that material. “I printed out the score and script four times and put them in four different binders, using different color highlighters with Post-it notes in different colors for stage directions,” he says. “Onstage, I could see which color was highlighted right in my head.”
Now, Hartwell is studying the habits of the stalwarts who surround him in Nice Work. “This is a seasoned, mature cast, like a band of brothers: I try to soak up as much information as I can from being around them,” he says. “They’ve done so many shows and know how to handle themselves for the long run. They never complain about being tired, even though they have newborn babies and are doing eight shows a week. I’ve always felt like I have to crank out 200 percent in a wild performance. They’ve shown me I can give my best, and that’s more than sufficient—versus killing myself.”
Meanwhile, working with Marshall has been an education in preparation and specificity. “The team didn’t have a lot of time in terms of rehearsal, but Kathleen is a master,” Hartwell says. “She spent tons of time in preproduction and brought clips and research to show us her vision and style. Then, in rehearsal, she knew exactly what she wanted and wasted no time.”
He adds, “She knows all the choreography backward and forward, instead of counting on an assistant. Seeing her do full-out splits in rehearsal for my favorite number, ‘Lady Be Good,’ I knew I was in a special moment. I learn from that dedication, and hope to keep my spot on Broadway by following that example.”
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City
Photo of Hartwell (mid-air) by Joan Marcus