While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most actors into a hiatus, 10-year Broadway veteran Robert Hartwell, ’09, has never been busier. Four years ago, Hartwell — who has appeared in five Broadway shows, including “Hello, Dolly!” and “Motown the Musical” — launched The Broadway Collective. The musical theater, youth education program boasts a 97% success rate for getting students into top musical theater college programs. Although he already offered some online instruction, he shifted all his in-person classes to Zoom and a private Facebook group in March. Since then, the number of students taking part in his program has nearly tripled.
Recently, Hartwell shared with Michigan Alumnus the lessons he learned from his childhood and time at U-M that have helped him on stage and off.
If something grabs you, take note. Hartwell was 7 years old when his mother took his Boy Scout troop to a free performance of “The Ice Wolf” in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he grew up. “That was a transformative day for me,” Hartwell says. “They were putting all us little first-grade boys back into the van, and nobody could find me. I had already snuck backstage, where I was talking to the actors and trying on costumes. I found my home that day.”
Turn a “no” into a “yes.” Hartwell focused on ballet in high school, hoping to land a spot in a ballet company. But then he learned of U-M’s top-rated musical theater program from a friend who had already been admitted, Benton Whitley, ’08. Hartwell decided to switch his focus to acting. Dance, however, had already taken its toll on his grades. He attended Otterbein University for a year, “lived in the library,” and earned a 4.0. That same year, he earned an audition at U-M and a place in the musical theater program. “I was so excited I fell on the floor crying,” says Hartwell, who was about to attend his grandmother’s funeral. “I felt she was giving me this huge blessing as she left the earth physically.”
Work hard, but take in the moment. As a transfer student at U-M, Hartwell knew he had just three years to absorb all he could. “I felt like I was playing catch-up,” says Hartwell. “I felt like I had to prove to myself and everyone else that I deserved to be there.” If he could now repeat his time at U-M, he would try to spend more time just being a student. “You can do that and be a student with a strong drive to succeed. Those two things can coexist.”
Believe in the Michigan family. After U-M, he moved to New York with no money. He stayed with Whitley (now a casting director) and his aunt for two months and found an agent. When a “Dreamgirls” role came up, he auditioned, won the part, and toured with the show for a year. Soon after, casting director Rachel Hoffman, ’99, offered Hartwell his Broadway debut in “Memphis.” “You’ve got to trust the love around you,” says Hartwell. “The Michigan family thing is real.”
Help others. Hartwell was in “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler four years ago when he decided to stop performing and put his energy into teaching young people how to sing, dance, and act on stage. “My teachers at U-M taught me how to be an educator. I really started building The Broadway Collective at U-M and didn’t know it.” One of his first students — a trained dancer who had neither sung nor acted before — just finished her first year in U-M’s Musical Theatre Program. “That was the most full-circle moment,” says Hartwell. “We’re not looking to build performers. We’re building people.”
Jennifer McKee, ’93, worked for more than a decade as a staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News. She is now a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications.