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My Hometown: New Milford native Rob McClure is a Broadway star who appreciates his roots


Not everyone can pinpoint the place and time where his life changed. And not everyone who achieves great success remembers who helped take him down that path.

Tony-nominated actor Rob McClure can remember the moment and hasn't forgotten his mentors. He loves to talk about the people, places and performances — every little "miracle" — that put him where he is now.

The New Milford native, who has wowed critics and audiences in "Chaplin," "Avenue Q," "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "Noises Off" (which ends its run next Sunday), walked around the firehouse-turned-theater that houses Bergen County Players in Oradell in February and fought off tears.

"The smell," he said. "It makes me want to cry. This place was so important to me."

It was a 1997 production of "Sweeney Todd" that changed his life. At 15, he auditioned but didn't get a part. When the director called to tell him he wasn't cast, he mentioned his interest in theater and asked if he could come to rehearsals.

"I just wanted to be in the building," he said. "I didn't care what I was doing. I just wanted to be around people who were doing this. … These people who were doctors and lawyers by day came here and did this at night — for free. They were actors to me."

In the audience on opening night, he cried when the surprise of the show was revealed. He continued to cry, he estimates, for an hour and a half. He ran across the street to the gas station pay phone, called him mom and, through tears, told her the musical's entire story.

"That was it," he said. "The moment."

The moment he became obsessed with theater, the moment he decided he wanted to, needed to, be around the theater and people in it as much as he possibly could.

"I got home and I remember thinking, 'Tomorrow there's going to be another 100-something people there who don't know that's coming. I have to be there when they find out,' " he said.

McClure went to every performance of "Sweeney Todd," spending his hard-earned money from working at The Bagel Factory on tickets for each night. He befriended the cast, went backstage, ended up being invited to the cast party and given a "Sweeney Todd" jacket he still has today.

"We wanted him to come [to the party] because he was like the show's mascot," said Frank Avellino, who directed "Sweeney Todd." "He was loved by everyone and he would always go backstage and talk to everybody. We just felt like he should be there. He was part of the team."

A few years later, Avellino directed McClure in the theater's production of "Oliver" and called his performance "stellar."

When McClure was starring in "Chaplin," for which he received a Tony nomination, Avellino organized a trip for Bergen County Players cast and crew to see it. McClure signed a show poster for Avellino: "To the man who created the monster — Sweeney Forever."

'So humble, so gracious'

"It's really truly an honor," said Avellino, who describes McClure as "so humble, so gracious."

"When someone can acknowledge you and say 'You did a thing that changed my life,' that's tremendous," he added. "It almost chokes me up when I think about it. I presented an opportunity and he really took it by the horns and made something gigantic out of it."

A performing career and the 2013 Tony nomination were an unexpected turn for the kid who first auditioned for a New Milford High School musical to pad his college applications.

"It was another thing to put on a college résumé," said McClure, 33, who was recently cast in the television pilot of "Drew" and will perform a solo show at bergenPAC later this month. "It was like, 'I'm going to do the bowling team in the winter and the play in the spring.' You know what I mean? It was just another thing."

He auditioned for "Bye Bye Birdie" at New Milford High School, and made it, but didn't do the show because he was in a state golf tournament. The next year, he took a part in the ensemble of "Anything Goes." At the time he didn't even know Bergen Players existed.

"Then someone told me — because they could tell I was into it — that there was a theater on Kinderkamack Road in Oradell that is doing a play about killing people and putting them in meat pies, and my 15-year-old brain freaked out," he said.

Nearly 20 years since getting that life-altering information and only a few hours from a Sunday matinee of "Noises Off," McClure explains how he still doesn't take his job for granted or give a half-hearted performance.

During his first professional role, in "I'm Not Rappaport" at the Paper Mill Playhouse, he shared a dressing room with Eddie Bracken. In his 80s, Bracken reminded the teen McClure that for somebody in the audience at each show it is their first time and for somebody it is their last. The words stuck with McClure. (In a favorite bit of trivia for McClure, as a teen Bracken shared a dressing room with Harry Hawk, who was on stage at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., when Abraham Lincoln was shot.)

The production of "I'm Not Rappaport" went to Broadway in 2002, and McClure went with it as an understudy. He got his Actors' Equity card, made his Broadway debut, and when the run was over, hit a lull.

He returned to his alma mater and spent four years running the New Milford High School musicals. That, he said, taught him more than any role to this day. He learned the responsibilities and value of everyone in a production, and it changed him as an actor.

"I had not learned the name of my [spotlight operator] until that point," he said as an example. "It's easy to say 'Oh, I'm the actor, I do the hard part. They just point the spotlight at me.' That's disgusting."

On a recent Sunday morning, he is all energy and appreciation as he talks, the only trepidation coming with the topic of his show at bergenPAC on March 23 — "Rob McClure: Smile."

"I'm terrified," he said of his first solo show, which will be "a celebration" in stories and songs, re-creating his journey.

'A story for every exit'

McClure lives in Philadelphia now and commutes to Manhattan for "Noises Off," but he is a Jersey guy. New Milford High School "shaped me," he said ,and every vacation until he was 21 was at the Pan American Hotel in Wildwood Crest. The second song in "Smile" is about the Jersey Shore.

Tony Danza, who starred with McClure in "Honeymoon in Vegas," will drop in and sing and dance a bit. There will be surprise guests, too, and a couple of very important people who maybe don't have the Danza-like name recognition with audience members.

In the movie of their lives, Matt Scott would be McClure's theater rival, the one he battled for the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards during high school and later for Broadway roles. But, in truth, after losing the Rising Star to him sophomore year and watching him perform, McClure said he wasn't jealous, he was awed.

"I did not know a kid my age could do that," McClure said. "It was the most extraordinary performance I had ever seen."

Scott won the Rising Star again the next year, then he and McClure tied as seniors.

"This kid I thought was God, we tied," McClure said.

They went to the Paper Mill's summer conservatory together and became best friends.

"The closest thing I have to a brother to this day," McClure says of Scott, whose Broadway credits include "Jersey Boys," "A Catered Affair" and "Sondheim on Sondheim."

The two will do a duet from "Sweeney Todd" "to celebrate the two huge influences in my life — Bergen County Players and Matt Scott," said McClure.

Then there's Maggie Lakis. McClure met his actress wife during a production of "Grease" at the Lenape Performing Arts in Marlton.

"New Jersey, man, it changed my life," he said. "I have a story for every exit."

Lakis will be at the bergenPAC performing with him as well. "In 95 minutes, I'm going to tell my story," McClure said.

The show's finale will include about 100 high school performers from various area schools and the Paper Mill. It may turn out to be an evening that sticks with some of those kids, provides them with the kind of inspiration he got along the way.

"I hope that night is the part of the story they tell," he said.