Local actor Robi Hager talks about his upcoming role in RAGTIME at Arden Theatre Company

-Brenda Hillegas


Arden Theatre Company in Old City will open their 2019-20 season with the winner of the 1998 Tony Awards for Best Score, Book and Orchestrations, RAGTIME.  The musical is written by the award-winning composer/lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once on This Island, Seussical and Lucky Stiff), playwright Terrence McNally, and based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

We spoke with local actor Robi Hager about his role as Younger Brother in RAGTIME and his past work on Broadway (including Spring Awakening, How To Succeed…, Bye Bye Birdie, and Doctor Zhivago), and why the great people of Philadelphia should see the show at the Arden between September 19th and October 20th.

Q: You’re back at the Arden Theatre in RAGTIME. Tell us a bit about your character.
A: Younger Brother is an interesting guy. He’s a bit of a sad man who lacks direction in life. He defines himself through his relationships with others. He falls in love with the “idea of love” and “ideas” in general. He goes from fantasizing over Evelyn Nesbit to obsessing over an anarchist cause introduced to him by Emma Goldman to joining Coalhouse’s gang of revolutionists, where he finds some sort of purpose. I find this character an exciting challenge for me. I’m a bit of a revolutionist myself especially given America’s current political and social climate.

Q: Were you familiar with RAGTIME before joining the cast? What did you do to prepare for your role?
A: Not really. I only knew two songs from the show before joining the company, but the more I listen to the soundtrack, the more I love it. I think Younger Brother is a combination of several revolutionaries in history. Throughout the show he develops a strong ambitious attitude to stand up against injustice and inequality. History has shown many people with these qualities including Che Guevara, Malcom X and, mentioned in the show, Emma Goldman. I think the fire that lives in Younger Brother has bits and pieces from these historic icons, so I plan to play with and find a relationship between them. Younger Brother, however, comes from a privileged background so there’s a bit of balance to play here. So many of these revolutionist don’t come from the kind of world Younger Brother comes from, so I’m excited to explore that dynamic while working on the role.

Q: RAGTIME takes place very early in the 20th century. How does the story still relate to America today?
A: This question has many answers, but I’m sure we can all agree that immigrants DO get the job done, and this country is a country of immigrants. It always has been. How we treat each other despite the color of our skin, gender or ethnicity, is monumental to the enriching of future generations. We can’t stay behind. I think producing Ragtime today is a message to wake up and do something to help that. The racism and police brutality depicted in the show are still happening in this country today. We need to recognize that and fight for change. Vote!

Q: What’s your favorite song from RAGTIME?
A: “Wheels of a Dream”, hands down!

Q: You’ve worked in a few shows on Broadway. What has been your favorite Broadway experience so far?
A: That’s tough because each Broadway show has been magical in its own way. Nothing beats your Broadway debut though and performing at the Tony’s with Spring Awakening. Working on Doctor Zhivago, despite its short run, was a breath of fresh air. Not only was the company fantastic, but performing new work written by Lucy Simon was an immense joy.

Q: What’s your earliest memory of musical theatre (seeing a show, performing in a show, etc.)?
A: Beauty and the Beast in Mexico City. I was twelve years old and I remember how the lights dimmed in the house at the top of the show and the prologue music began. Then, the most magical visuals and sets appeared on stage and that’s was when I knew I had to be involved in theatre.

Q: You are the creator/producer of a musical called Basic Witches. When can Philadelphia see this show again?
A: That’s a great question! Any theatre company out there wanna do a queer musical? 🙂 I would really love to bring this show back. It was such a blast; the cast and crew were a pleasure to work with. Not only was it a joy to create something new, but I also learned so much about the many beautiful rainbows within our queer community, and how many stories are ready and eager to be told. We have to be better about writing more Trans stories! I’m really hoping to get something going for October 2020. Maybe a New York run? Who knows. Follow us at @basicwitchesmusical.

Q: You’re also working on a Mexican musical, how is that going and when can we expect a release?
A: I am! I am extremely excited about it. I’m still in the middle of it and hoping to get a staged reading up either this winter or early 2020. We are in a difficult time in America. Our immigration policies, our southern border and our foreign communications are being controlled and manipulated without proper moral values. That’s neither helpful nor ethical to citizens of both the US and Latin America. As a Mexican-American, born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico, I hope to shed some light on reasons for why we are where we are and how together we can find solutions without having to build a wall that will further divide us. If you’d like to hear updates on this musical, follow me on Instagram at @robihager.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do or places to eat here in Philly?
A: Favorite thing to do in the summer is Spruce Street Harbor Park! I always recommend Lucha Cartel in Old City and Chick’s in Point Breeze for a great meal.

Q: Why should everyone in Philly come see Ragtime?
A: Sadly the struggles depicted in Ragtime are still occurring in our society today. We need to shine a light on that and call it out. We should not be the same country we were 110 years ago. It’s time for a conscious revolution, a waking up. But also because the music is gorgeous and we have a stellar cast! I think that’s what excites me the most. So come to the Arden and enjoy this powerful piece of theatre with us!

Single tickets to Ragtime are on sale now. Prices start at $18. For more information, visit ardentheatre.org.

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