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Farm to ‘Phantom’

Gay thespian Rob Lindley reflects on his journey from small-town Iowa to the Hobby Center stage.

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The small Iowa towns where actor Rob Lindley grew up didn’t even have movie theaters. 

Now, Lindley lives in the big city of Chicago and is starring as Monsieur Gilles André in Cameron Mackintosh’s new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic 1986 musical, The Phantom of the Opera. 

The tour’s next stop is Houston, where Phantom runs November 7–18 as part of Broadway at The Hobby Center’s 2018-19 season. 

Lindley, 45, says his father was a minister in the United Methodist Church, which meant moving every seven or eight years to a new congregation. 

It wasn’t until Lindley attended Central College in Pella, Iowa, that there was finally a movie theater nearby. But his sights were set on something bigger—namely, the Windy City. 

Rob Lindley

“It was where I would go for field trips and shows,” Lindley says, adding that growing up gay in a small town always made him feel like “a rainbow fish out of water.”

With a theater degree in hand from Central College, Lindley headed to Chi-Town and enrolled in the Conservatory at Second City. 

Lindley says he gained the confidence needed to pursue musical theater thanks to “having that one drama teacher in middle school” who told him, “You’re really good at this.” He’s also glad that members of his father’s church encouraged him to sing solos in the church choir.  

His first job out of college was touring with a children’s theater company. Then, after finishing his training at Second City, he joined one of the nation’s longest-running musical improv groups, Baby Wants Candy. The audience would provide performers with the title of a make-believe show, and they would improv the singing, dancing, and acting right then and there, as a full-scale musical. Lindley also taught for several years in the music department at Second City. He still returns to Second City occasionally to perform with Baby Wants Candy between his other gigs. 

Lindley admits he is not what is known as a “triple threat”—a performer talented in acting, singing, and dancing. Acting and singing are second nature. But dancing? Not so much. 

“Although my dancing could be threatening,” he laughs. “I don’t dance very well.” 

Lindley performs in shows that require what he calls “park and bark,” where you “stand and sing pretty.” Of course, in Phantom, everyone dances during “Masquerade.” 

“Of all the things in the show, that was the thing that stressed me out the most,” Lindley says. “Luckily, I had a very kind and patient dance captain. This is where you’ll see me sweat.

“I dance beautifully in improv shows,” he adds. “You’ll never see me in 42nd Street or Billy Elliott.”

Interestingly, Lindley was somewhat unfamiliar with Phantom of the Opera prior to being cast in the show. “I knew the music but had never seen it until my first day. I grabbed a ticket and went in to see it. I happened to be sitting with some friends, and I kept saying, ‘What’s going to happen next?’” 

This also gave him an opportunity to “beg, borrow, and steal” from the actor he would replace. But because he had no preconceived notions, Lindley says he brought a “fresh energy” to the work, and he could not be more thrilled to have that opportunity. 

“My character doesn’t enter for the first 10 minutes of show, so during the overture I’m in the dressing room,” he says. “Sometimes, I’ll just turn to my dressing room mate and say, ‘I’m in Phantom of the Opera,’ or I’ll be on the phone and I’ll be like, ‘I have to go. I have to be in Phantom.’”

Lindley says he believes Phantom has lasted for so many years because it can mean so many things to so many people. 

“Certainly the awkward outsider from a small town can relate to the recluse phantom,” he says. “I certainly think most of us can relate to a feeling of being an outcast and misunderstood. I can’t say that I deal with my feelings the same way he does. But I certainly find myself drawn in by his story night after night.”

As one might imagine, Lindley is a consummate professional, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had an onstage mishap or two. During one performance of Phantom, when he is supposed to say another character’s name, he said his own character’s name instead. 

“My eyes went like saucers,” he says, “And then, not slick at all, I corrected myself.” His “loving cast” won’t let him forget that fateful performance. “They’ve all started saying, ‘In André’s world, everyone is André.’” 

Lindley’s Chicago credits include Fun Home, Secret Garden, Angels in America: Parts 1 & 2, Caroline or Change, and Carousel. He has also appeared at Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut, Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida, and Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC—and he’s even earned a Joseph Jefferson Award for his directing work.  

Touring with Phantom of the Opera is a full-time job, and then some. But Lindley still manages to produce concerts in Chicago, including a cabaret show during the holidays. As for his theater bucket list, Lindley says although he is honored to have appeared in Angels in America and Fun Home, Sunday in the Park with George would be at the top of that list. 

This will be Lindley’s first time in Texas, despite the fact that his parents own a vacation home here. With any luck for Houston theatergoers and Lindley’s folks, he’ll fall in love with the Lone Star State.

What: Phantom of the Opera
When: November 7–18
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
Tickets and info: TheHobbyCenter.org

This article appears in the November 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Jenny Block

Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to a number of high-profile publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm. She has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs from Nightline to BBC Radio, and has spoken in bookstores and at events all across the country. Block is also a featured performer on Olivia Travel cruises and resorts.
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