Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero is one reason Hartford’s TheaterWorks has been a star in regional theater in New England.
Hartford’s TheaterWorks is a crown jewel in New England’s cultural scene, known for over 30 years as a theatre company that showcases non-traditional plays and new works that are far from mainstream. At TheaterWorks this past season, Richard Dreyfuss starred in Relativity, a new Mark St. Germain play about Albert Einstein; food chef Rossi was profiled in Jacques Lamarre’s deliciously funny Raging Skillet; and audiences were treated to a sensitive production of the award-winning musical Next to Normal, a poignant story of a family’s dealing with bipolar disorders. Even the holidays get a different twist with the annual Christmas On The Rocks, a series of playlets that turn traditional Christmas tales into hysterically funny non-traditional laughs.
Rob Ruggiero, the visionary producing director of TheaterWorks since 2012, and a member of the theater’s artistic leadership for 24 years, has put the intimate downtown Hartford theater on the national map. He’s directed over 50 productions for TheaterWorks, and stewards the theater’s other plays and musicals.
The road to TheaterWorks began in Milford, Massachusetts, where Ruggiero grew up. He attended Stonehill College. After school, he started as an actor, but held a variety of jobs, from running a frame shop to working at a nursing home, to starting a non-professional theatre. But, he wanted to direct, so he went to Rutgers. He was teaching at Rutgers and directing in regional theatres, building a solid free-lance career, when he met TheaterWorks’ founder, Steve Campo. He was invited to Hartford. He kept coming back, until he moved to Hartford in 2010.
Ruggiero’s artistry extends beyond Hartford. His Broadway credits include Looped (starring Valerie Harper in a Tony-nominated performance) and High (starring Kathleen Turner). Off-Broadway, he conceived and directed the original musical revue Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn. Ruggiero conceived and directed the world premiere musical portrait of Ella Fitzgerald entitled Ella, which has been seen on more than 24 regional theater stages nationally. His production of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical Follies won awards in St. Louis this year.
Ruggiero is also a familiar face at Goodspeed Musicals, down river from Hartford in East Haddam, Connecticut, where he’s staged La Cage Aux Folles, Fiddler on The Roof, The Most Happy Fella, Carousel, and Showboat. He received Connecticut Critics Circle Awards and Broadway World Awards for those musicals. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization now licenses his version of Showboat for regional theater productions.
Currently, Ruggiero is working on his 10th production at Goodspeed, a revival of Rags, the famous musical flop of 1986. Featuring a book by Joseph Stein, who wrote Fiddler On The Roof, music by Charles Strouse of Bye Bye, Birdie fame, and lyrics by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz, Rags told the story of European Jews trying to make a new life in America, after arriving on Ellis Island. The musical starred Teresa Stratas, an acclaimed Metropolitan Opera star making her Broadway debut, alongside veteran Broadway actor Larry Kert, and up-and-coming star Terrence Mann, who’s now Artistic Director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series. Rags closed after a handful of performances, but a cast recording was made. The musical developed a cult following because of its exquisite score, and Goodspeed, masters of reviving musicals that deserve a second chance, are reworking Rags, with Ruggiero at the helm.
“We are completely revisiting Rags, with Stephen Schwartz and Charles Strouse actively involved in the process. David Thompson is revising the script penned by the late Joseph Stein. We’ve refocused the role of the leading lady, dropped some characters, rewritten or added others,” says Ruggiero, who added that Goodspeed, known for giving neglected musicals a second chance, has been working on it for months. Rags runs October 6 through December 10.
Top image: Christiane Noll and David Harris from Ruggiero’s production of Next to Normal, photo by Lanny Nagler