Peter Rothstein's production of "Next to Normal" will be his last as founding artistic director of Theater Latté Da. After 25 years of building the Minneapolis company into a nimble and accomplished boutique musical theater, he's taking over as the producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla.
Rothstein's work has made him a tent pole in the Twin Cities arts ecology, where a panoply of artists credit his care, vision and humanitarian approach to theater-making as being essential to their work.
"God, I'm feeling so tender about Peter leaving our community," said Sally Wingert, who starred in "Sweeney Todd" and "Master Class" under Rothstein's direction. "Peter handed me my career for the last 20 years."
Wingert wasn't the only one who felt that impact. Rothstein was committed to investing in Minnesota-based artists and developing new work even when times were rough.
During the Great Recession, he went for bigger shows with more actors while many theaters settled for one-person productions. When COVID-19 hit, he commissioned writers to keep doing their job. And he helped in fostering a partnership with Hennepin Theatre Trust to get local talent on Broadway touring productions.
He ends his run as artistic director at Latté Da with "Next to Normal" by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. The rock musical, which orbits a bipolar mother and the toll her worsening condition takes on her family, won three Tonys in 2009 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year.
We caught up with Rothstein, who was honored as Star Tribune Artist of the Year in 2015, about his highs, lows and in-betweens as he readies his swan song.
On his attraction to "Normal": I've always been drawn to unlikely subjects. And when characters are struggling to sing, it's just pain on top of pain. But singing is inherently hopeful in a musical. These characters are dealing with highly emotional and painful subjects in "Normal." There's loss and depression and family dysfunction. There's something cathartic in the act of singing it. We go to therapy to get things out — that's part of healing. In a musical that's what characters do, they get it out.
On listening to the audience: I was directing my very first show at "Disney's High School Musical" [Children's Theatre Company] and at the first preview, we finished the opening number, with full belts. I knew how to craft an applause point — the actors freeze, the lights change. And no one clapped. All of us were scratching our heads. The average audience member is probably 6. We realized, oh, they don't clap for the TV. So we put speakers in and pumped in fake applause to trigger the clapping.
On his proudest achievements: I would say the number of Minnesota-based artists and theater-makers we've been able to employ. We have a fierce commitment to support these artists and craftspeople, not just employ them but to fully give them a place to expand their craft. Tod Petersen was an actor who we helped become a writer to tell his story in "A Christmas Carole Petersen" [a holiday show about Petersen's relationship with his cookie-baking mother]. That ran for nine years.
On feeling validated: Shortly after I moved here after grad school, I was in "Love! Valour! Compassion!" at Park Square as Buzz, the theater wannabe that Terrence McNally wrote for Nathan Lane. It was a big deal because that was the first time that they were putting gay characters onstage. Everything I tried to hide as an actor was now being celebrated. I had never been so affirmed because he was such a beautiful character who would make you laugh hysterically and weep. So, I wrote Terrence McNally and thanked him for writing the play. Two months later, it came back, "Return to sender."
On meeting McNally 25 years later: I met him at "Ragtime" in Sarasota [which Rothstein had reimagined with a small cast]. It was the most stressful opening night I've ever had. Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the score, and Frank Galati, who won a Tony for directing the show, were in attendance. I told him what he has meant to me. [McNally loved Rothstein's work, and invited him to stage his last show, "Immortal Longings," which premiered in Austin, Texas, in 2019.]
On his last years with McNally: That was a really important time for me, the last few years of his life. I would leave rehearsal at 10 at night and drive to the intensive care unit and sit with him and rewrite scenes, rearrange scenes. And that piece ended up becoming an artist confronting their mortality.
On what he could have done better: I don't really do regrets. I do think about how we can be better at welcoming new artists. I wish we could've provided a platform to more new voices and stories. Our first show was "Lost in Boston," a cabaret of all these songs that had been cut on the road to Broadway. We were giving voice to discarded voices. I'd like to think that's that we did for 25 years.
'Next to Normal'
Who: Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Peter Rothstein.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends July 16.
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required at Wednesday and Sunday performances.
Tickets: $35-$53. 612-339-3003, latteda.org.