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PROFILE: James A. Rocco, Arts Leader and So Much More

Arts leader (and more) James A. Rocco.

If you want a story of doing it all in the performing arts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than James A. Rocco. Over the decades, the St. Paul-based artist has been a Broadway actor, director, choreographer, writer, and producer – to name just a few of the stylish hats he’s worn.

Perhaps most famous in local circles for his 12-year tenure as Vice President of Programming and Producing Artistic Director at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts from 2005-2017, Rocco began his professional career as a teenager. When Frank Sinatra decided that a new concept album was just the thing to reinvigorate his performing career, he hired The Four Seasons (yes, the same group featured in Jersey Boys, currently playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres) as collaborators. The Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio co-wrote the songs and stepped in as co-producer; Sinatra, wanting to pull out the stops and make a splash, hired an orchestra and additional background vocalists – including one James Rocco.

The resulting album, Watertown, dropped in 1970, and is currently considered one of the finest works in Sinatra’s catalogue. For Rocco, the gig also garnered some additional attention, an article entitled “How to Be a Teen Recording Star” in Modern Screen magazine.

Most teen stars end up as one-hit wonders. Not so for Rocco – at age 16, he was directing and producing his NYC professional debut with an Off Off Broadway revival of Nunnally Johnson and Bob Merrill’s Henry, Sweet Henry, at the Mercer Arts Center and the Lamb Theatre. Fittingly, the musical follows the misadventures of two love-struck teenagers; just as the teenagers navigated the calamities of adolescent infatuation, Rocco steered the production through the literal collapse of the original venue to a successful premiere at a safer location.

The next few years seem like grounds for a musical in their own right – a brief, 3-day flirtation with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, singing with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and a featured singer engagement with the Duke Ellington Band that turned into a touring musical gig, to name just a few. Fast forward to the 1980s, and Rocco was appearing as the Rum Tum Tugger in CATS on Broadway, before breezing over to The Wind in the Willows. (Broadway legend Nathan Lane played Toad during the show’s short but Tony-nominated run at the Nederlander Theatre.)

The next two decades are entirely too rich to do more than gloss over in a paragraph. International touring, directing, show choreography, producing a Top 40 Hit, concert vocals and recording artistry, producing theatrical shows and concerts – all of these coalesced into an artist who could seemingly do it all.

Dieter Bierbrauer as Bob Wallace and Ann Michels as Betty Haynes in the Ordway’s critically praised 2016 production of White Christmas, one of many shows that Rocco prominently cast with local talents. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Enter the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN. The Ordway as a public-serving institution turned 20 years old in 2005, and was looking for a visionary producer and administrator to bring in-house productions to the level originally dreamed of by Sally Ordway when the institution was first founded. (As with so many dreams, the original vision was curtailed for many years by the economic ups and downs of the 1980s.) The Ordway was looking for a rare combination of executive arts leadership and artistry; by this time, Rocco’s fedoras included serving as the interim artistic director of Stage One, producing/artistic director of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, and founding artistic director of Mandance.

Rocco’s official first day at the Ordway, January 6, 2006, was a comparatively balmy 34 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm welcome sowed the seeds for a string of critical and audience hits over a 12-year tenure, including stirring productions of The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, A Christmas Story, The Pirates of Penzance, and more – shows that featured mixes of local talent and high-powered stars from Rocco’s extensive network of connections. Nor did Rocco stay complacent in the executive suite – for A Christmas Story, for example, he donned his dancing shoes to teach youth tap classes before swapping hats to direct and co-choreograph. “The story has become a part of American culture,” Rocco noted, “And the stage version builds on that with amazing music and extravagant dance numbers” – to a whole new level of “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

With singing, dancing, directing, and producing in one body, it would be hard to express all of that in one role – nor was Rocco complacent. His visionary Broadway Songbook series at the Ordway featured him as the host to a glittering line-up of local talent, introducing (and sometimes singing in) an array of beautiful songs familiar and uncommon, served with intimate on-stage seating. Rocco being Rocco, there were also a few external diversions, like co-producing Come from Away on Broadway and the stage version of Magic Mike in London, and strolling a few blocks away to direct the odd show at Park Square Theatre.

Come 2017, however, it was time for the next stage, and Rocco turned in his papers at the Ordway to focus on the other aspects of his multi-faceted career. Grueling days of administration followed by long rehearsals had made it hard to say “yes” to directing invitations across town, much less out-of-town engagements. Writing passions, too, were hard to gratify with executive demands.

James Rocco (right) and Raymond Berg hosting a Broadway Songbook concert in the 2010s. Photo by Bernadette Pollard.

Whatever life outside of the Ordway is, Rocco’s creative next phase is the opposite of lower-energy. In 2019, Rocco was honored by The Broadway League and The Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds for three decades of “dedication, craft, and contribution to the theater” – all of which he was (and is) still very active at. In-between commissioning shows, singing, producing, and directing, he still makes time to serve on the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s New Works committee.

One post-Ordway interest that Rocco has pursued is helping artists cut through red tape. Along with Renee Prola (a long-time Ordway colleague), Rocco founded Thirty Saints Music Licensing, which helps organizations and producers obtain musical and other rights for theatrical use. In a world in which many proposed shows have been scuttled due to the difficulty finding who owns the rights to creative material (and, in some cases, getting those persons to return emails and phone calls), it’s a solution to a perennial problem in the music-theatre world.

James A. Rocco is one of the most celebrated, accomplished, and star-studded creative artists in the Twin Cities. Happy Birthday, James!

Basil Considine