“Memphis” won Tony Awards for best musical and best original score before Robert Hartwell joined the cast, but that did not daunt the actor, who has known since he was a boy that Broadway was where he belonged.
“I wasn’t intimidated at all,” said Mr. Hartwell, who grew up spending summers with his father, William Hartwell of East Hampton. “I was honored that I was being entrusted with such a heavy role at my age. I understudy three male principals. I’m 24 and understudying Tony Award -winning actors. With that comes responsibility. I don’t party, I don’t drink that much. I have to be ready at the drop of a hat.”
William Hartwell leads the East End Unity program, encouraging at-risk kids to stay athletic and in school, and he and the rest of Robert’s family have stuck with him through the years.
The younger Mr. Hartwell said that at age 7 he started to take notice of musicals. He told his mother, who raised him in Raleigh, N.C., where he went to school, and she encouraged his exploration of theater. His aunt Charlene works at LTV, where, behind the scenes, Robert first started to express himself dramatically. In addition, Helene Leonard, who leads Stages -- a youth drama program in Sag Harbor -- gave Mr. Hartwell a critical lift when he was still young and impressionable.
“One day we walked in, some kids were rehearsing ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ I was 7 years old, I heard the music, and I was transfixed. The next summer, Helene gave me a scholarship to her summer program. She told me: ‘You’re going to be a Broadway star. You’re destined to do this.’ ”
If Stages, and Ms. Leonard’s mentorship, were important to Mr. Hartwell’s development as a professional actor, so, too, was the persistence of his mother, who aggressively advocated on her son’s behalf, helping him contact Kirstie Spadie, who played the white cat, Victoria, in Broadway’s “Cats,” when she opened a new dance studio in North Carolina.
Mrs. Spadie helped Mr. Hartwell get into the North Carolina School of the Arts, and after continuing his work with Ms. Leonard and branching out into classical ballet, Mr. Hartwell came back to drama in his senior year of high school. A friend of his bragged that he was bound for the University of Michigan’s celebrated Music and Dance school, where one needed to be able to sing, dance, and act, to get in.
“At that time I was only a dancer. But anytime someone gives me a challenge in life, it becomes my personal goal to show them I can do it,” Mr. Hartwell recalled.
After getting into Michigan, he starting auditioning for shows as he approached graduation, maxing out two credit cards to pay for flights back and forth from New York City as he made a play for a role that he eventually won in “Dreamgirls.”
“It was the most rewarding year and a half of my life,” Mr. Hartwell said of his tour with that show. “It made me such a stronger worker. But I knew I wanted more. I wanted to get to the next level, Broadway. I wanted to sing a solo.”
Do more he did, eventually auditioning for a role in “Memphis” and, when cast, learning his parts in just two days between the end of his run with “Dreamgirls” and the start of this, his current chapter. He sees himself as continuing his rapid rise in the near future, never complacent about his success and always hungry for more.
“I want to sustain a career. I want to be that boy that goes from Broadway show to Broadway show. I want to lead and carry a show,” he said.