If Nicholas Rodriguez isn’t the nicest guy in show business, he’d probably qualify for the top 10. In an often cutthroat industry, he tends to be considerate in ways that colleagues don’t soon forget. When, for instance, his co-star in Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” was replaced days before performances began, Rodriguez didn’t merely offer a warm welcome to the newcomer. He gave up his one day off to help her rehearse all of the show’s movement.
“I don’t know if I could have done it if weren’t for Nicholas,” says Eleasha Gamble, who played Laurey to his Curly in that acclaimed 2010 production. They’ve stayed so close since then that Rodriguez remains the friend she leans on. “If stuff’s going down,” she explains, “he’s the one I text.”
Decency could be listed on his résumé, under “special skills.”
“Being a leading man, that’s one of your main jobs.” he said over a recent lunch. “You’re only good if the people around you like you.”
So, one wonders, what is this gentlemanly actor doing playing Billy Bigelow, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical ruffian? In Arena’s big fall production, a revival of the team’s 1945 “Carousel” directed by Arena artistic director Molly Smith, Rodriguez has the showiest and thorniest role. Billy is a brute of a carnival barker in 1870s New England who thieves and hits his wife, in a story about a tormented soul and the redemptive power of love.
Although the musical ultimately leaves open an implausibly optimistic window — and Billy is accorded the extraordinary “Soliloquy” that comes near the end of Act 1 — the character is hardly one you associate with a clean-cut actor with a crystalline, classically trained voice and the strapping bearing of the kid in your class voted most athletic. Then again, to hear Rodriguez speak about Billy, perhaps there’s something to be said for being cast as a shady character, and retaining the ability to look on his bright side.
“I was at the point of being intimidated,” Rodriguez, 39, says of taking on such a dark role. “But that all melted away when I realized he was more like me than I was letting him be. He’s the archetypal bad boy, sure, but I find that he’s a showman. He’s deeply passionate about things. He goes full out.”
Yes, in some ways, like Rodriguez himself. “Every night, when I get to the end and I’m completely spent, I think: ‘Well, this is it. These are all the tools I have in the shed.’ ”
Arena has come in search of Rodriguez and his tool belt again and again. “Carousel,” which also features Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan, Kate Rockwell as Carrie Pipperidge and E. Faye Butler as Mrs. Mullin, is the seventh Arena show for the Texas-born, New York-based actor, since he first appeared with the company in 2010, in its production of “The Light in the Piazza.”
The relationship between actor and company has deepened, to the point that Rodriguez has become a recognizable commodity inside the theater complex on Sixth Street SW. And by virtue of his portrayals of Curly in “Oklahoma!” — a production so popular that Arena brought it back for an encore in summer 2011 — and now of Billy Bigelow, Rodriguez can stake a claim to being a Rodgers and Hammerstein stalwart, performing some of the most important roles in the canon.
It feels important, too, that he’s an out gay actor of Mexican (and Welsh and Cherokee) descent, putting his stamp on these quintessentially masculine American roles and showing us in the process an enduring resonance in the work of musical theater’s master storytellers.
“Nick and Rodgers and Hammerstein are ideally suited to each other,” says Smith, who along with choreographer Parker Esse is staging “Carousel” in Arena’s largest space, the Fichandler Stage. “And I think he’s ready for this challenge. He has a glorious voice — he understands melody, rhythm — it’s all in his body. He’s the classic leading man.”
The technique he honed as a voice student at the University of Texas was the academic polish that followed a childhood in Austin, the son of a high school football coach, during which he nurtured a love of music. “I remember doing a book report in eighth grade and we had to pick a career. I picked singing,” Rodriguez recalls, adding that as a teenager, he began getting good roles with local theater companies. One of them, at 17, was Arpad, the ambitious delivery boy in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “She Loves Me.”
After college, he moved to New York (and with exquisite timing: It was early September 2001). Those jobs that journeyman actors regularly take came his way, such as performing on cruise ships, which sent him around the world, singing the likes of “The Girl from Ipanema” for passengers on Royal Caribbean boats.
By the time Arena cast him in “Piazza,” he’d been on both the regional and international theater circuit, having understudied the title role of Tarzan in Disney’s Broadway musical, and gotten some television exposure in 2009-2010 as a gay high school teacher involved in a love triangle on “One Life to Live.” The part of Nick Chavez stretched out for months and gave Rodriguez an unusual platform to advance gay rights: His character was written as an advocate for same-sex marriage and the victim of a hate-crime attack.
These were all solid building-block credits — he also appeared in the 2010 movie “Sex and the City 2” — but the kinds of career-making parts that would have propelled him to a more rarefied level have not quite materialized. Not that fairly steady work in a field you love isn’t reward enough. It’s just that singing actors sometimes are forced to reassess the reasonableness of their aspirations.
“I thought I’d have my third Tony by now,” he jokes.
So Rodriguez finds his rewards in the knowledge that great roles await at places such as the MUNY in St. Louis and Arena and elsewhere. Smith, in fact, was so eager to have Rodriguez in her “Carousel” that she asked him to hold off when, two years ago, another company offered him Billy Bigelow. “I just always wanted to do it with her,” he says.
Now that he is playing Billy, he finds it one of the most exhilarating things he’s ever done. “It’s a roller coaster and an adrenaline rush,” he says. “It’s tricky subject matter, and I can hear the audible responses from the audience when they don’t agree with Billy’s choices. But one thing I have in my favor is Betsy Morgan, who plays Julie. I feel as if the audience is redeeming Billy because she does. She’s probably one of the most generous actresses I’ve ever worked with.”
And so flowed additional courtly words from the nicest guy in show business, once again spreading the professional love.
Carousel, music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Molly Smith. Tickets, $50-$109. Through Dec. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.