For as long as he can remember, Robert Hartwell has always needed more than one creative outlet. The SMTD alumnus said he gravitated toward musical theatre because it would allow him to hone several skills, rather than focusing solely on singing, dancing, or acting.
After graduating with his musical theatre degree in 2009, Hartwell moved to New York with $200 and two credit cards, but without any acting jobs lined up. Although Broadway is notoriously competitive, Hartwell was confident in his education and his ability. Sure enough, he was soon landing roles in hit shows (Cinderella, Memphis, Nice Work If You Can Get It), and booking national tours, including Motown the Musical, in which he’s currently appearing. The show will take him to 25 cities between now and next July.
Despite this hectic “gypsy” lifestyle, Hartwell has found the time to add another talent to his list of accomplishments: interior designer.
During his run as an ensemble member in the original cast of Cinderella, Hartwell launched a web series on BroadwayWorld.com titled Broadway Quick Change (broadwayquickchange.com), in which Hartwell and a supporting team give “makeovers” to the dressing rooms of Broadway stars.
The show had its genesis at a Thanksgiving dinner at Hartwell’s home. “A castmate told me I should do interior design,” Hartwell said. “I have seven chandeliers in my apartment, and he said, ‘No one lives like this in New York!'”
Hartwell was intrigued by the idea because he’s “obsessed with fabulous spaces” and “glued to HGTV.” He decided to spice up the dressing room of his Cinderella producer with paint, a chaise lounge, and-naturally-a signature chandelier.
Today, Hartwell and his team of eight Broadway friends have designed 14 dressing rooms, making the behind-the-scenes spaces of New York’s theatre world-which are often surprisingly grim-a lot more dazzling. The lucky clients have included Carly Rae Jepsen (Cinderella), Kelli O’Hara (The King & I), Krystal Joy Brown (Motown), James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin), and SMTD alumna Jenni Barber (Wicked). He’s also redesigned green rooms and the dressing room for Birdland, the legendary New York jazz venue, which was his favorite project to date.
In addition to conceiving of and implementing the design plan, Hartwell hosts each of the show’s short episodes. With his exuberant energy, abundant warmth, and endless smile, he nails the role, which calls on him to introduce the segment, interview the artist, consult with his team, shop for design elements, and ultimately orchestrate the all-important “reveal” before the episode close.
When looking to jazz up a space, Hartwell is careful to incorporate his client’s taste into his own vision. He’s not afraid to take the lead when clients haven’t defined their style, but says that “loads of personal touches” and “pieces with staying power” are key for a powerful transformation.
Due to his performance schedule, Hartwell designs most of the spaces virtually, but he loves to frequent local mom-and-pop shops as often as he can to find unique additions for the rooms.
“It’s a lot of work and crazy hours, but together we’re able to make magic happen,” he said. “It’s actually the perfect way to marry my two passions. Through this experience I learned that you don’t have to choose. You can absolutely have it all; you just have to get creative.”
Hartwell’s passion for musical theatre began at age seven, after attending a local community theatre production. He recognized musical theatre as a great way to express himself artistically. Attending U-M became a goal early on; he knew it would get him where he belonged: on Broadway.
“I was a transfer student, so I didn’t have four years, I had three. I wasn’t admitted after senior year of high school, and that made me want to work even harder; I had this burning desire to do whatever it took,” he said. “I hit the ground running and did absolutely everything because I was so excited to take full advantage of the opportunity.”
During his time at Michigan, Hartwell was cast in Tommy, 42nd Street, Big River, Good Boy, and Carousel. He also received the Willis Patterson Diversity Award for his efforts at making the program more inclusive for underrepresented students. This, he said, was a great honor because “there’s no greater gift than making something better for others.”
Hartwell considers the expertise and instruction from his SMTD professors and instructors the hallmark of his education. He singles out the opportunity to work with emeritus voice professor George Shirley, whom Hartwell cites as one of his biggest inspirations.
“You just feel this immense sense of pride to be accepted into this very prestigious institution, knowing that you’re in the company of so many talented people,” he said.
Hartwell believes his Michigan education has opened doors, and he continues to be inspired by the School’s legacy of successful alumni.
“People have high standards for SMTD grads because they know what we’re capable of, but you can’t rest on your laurels,” said Hartwell. “I have to uphold that standard, for myself and for others.”
While balancing his acting career and Broadway Quick Change may sound overwhelming, Hartwell said he’s happy with his packed schedule-but being organized definitely helps.
“The only way this lifestyle works is to fully commit to the craziness,” he said. “I literally walk off the plane and up to curtain for half-hour call. It’s such a thrill; what exhausts most people energizes me.”
When asked about the possibility of an interior design show on television, Hartwell said it’s all about finding the right project at the right time. For now, he’s content to make the stage a little bit brighter and backstage a little more fabulous, one meticulously scheduled week at a time.
By Stephanie Shenouda, a LSA senior studying English and political science.