The seventh-grader was devastated. Peter Rothstein ran weeping to his mother after being bested for a role as one of the Von Trapp children in the Grand Rapids Players production of “The Sound of Music.”
“That was a defining moment,” Rothstein said, telling childhood tales at a small dinner party. “I had thought I was good at this [theater], and that this was what I was going to do.
“But when you fail, you find out how much you really want something. It was the first time in a pretty blessed childhood that I didn’t get something I had wanted so badly.”
Rothstein learned that success is not guaranteed, regardless of talent. Serious study, discipline, a broad imagination, appreciation for collaborators and a deep sense of gratitude would become the ingredients that have made him the Star Tribune’s 2015 Artist of the Year.
In truth, he could have won this honor almost any year, going back to 2007, when he directed 13 shows in 12 months, including the premiere of his “All Is Calm,” which has become a Christmas classic.
This year Rothstein mounted a big-stage production of “Oliver” at the Pantages Theatre, directed “Peter Pan” for Children’s Theatre and “Choir Boy” at the Guthrie, won an Ivey for Ten Thousand Things’ “Romeo and Juliet” and staged “Into the Woods” for his own Theater Latté Da.
And this does not include the crown jewel — a razor-sharp production of “Sweeney Todd” that packed the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis for six weeks and topped year-end “best of” lists.
“He’s a good Minnesota boy,” said Joe Dowling, former Guthrie director, who’s a big fan of Rothstein’s. “There is a kindness and gentleness about him, but absolute steel when he needs to get things done.”
Sally Wingert, who played Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and has become one of Rothstein’s favorite actors, said simply, “He’s sort of handed me my career the last few years, hasn’t he?”
Hockey and the arts
Rothstein’s face lights up when a dinner host recalls his brother, John, as a star of the Grand Rapids hockey team that won its first state championship in 1975. Rothstein’s family means the world to him, and he is eminently proud of his five older brothers, all of whom enjoyed distinction on the ice.
Peter, youngest of 11 children, quit the game in fifth grade.
“I scored one goal in five years, and that was disqualified because I pushed the puck in with my hand,” he said.
The Rothsteins were not, though, defined only by hockey. If you wanted to play sports, you also had to take piano lessons through the 10th grade. And Peter’s five sisters, growing up before Title IX took hold, focused on band, choir and academics.
The family was prominent in Grand Rapids. Gene Rothstein worked at a savings and loan, and started a real estate firm. Jean Rothstein attended mass every day, helped to serve communion to shut-ins and nurtured her large Catholic brood.
Summers were spent on Lake Pokegama, where the family played volleyball, swam, fished and water-skied.
“There was a lot of singing around the piano,” said brother Tom Rothstein, now president of a Twin Cities marketing firm. “My mom, coming from an Irish Catholic family, felt like the place was our Hyannis Port on Pokegama Beach.”
Peter was generally “the last kid picked on the playground for athletics,” Tom said — adding charitably that it was because he was the youngest. “He embraced 4-H. He was obviously a talented kid, did a lot of painting and had a great sense of humor.”
Rothstein was “never the leading man” in Grand Rapids high school productions, but his director, Diane Olson, remembered that his skills matured because he took the work so seriously.
“He was assistant choreographer, assistant director, vocal coach, sold ads in the program, recruited fellow classmates for the drama club,” Olson said. “He didn’t fit the hockey mold, and I remember at one point he said the theater was a place where he could feel his own talent.”
Rothstein graduated from St. John’s University and then picked up an MFA in directing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He came to the Guthrie as a directing intern under Garland Wright and performed and directed around town — earning good reviews for his sense of humor as an actor.
His own company
In the 1990s Rothstein reconnected with Denise Prosek, a theater pal from Grand Rapids, and asked if she’d be music director for a cabaret he was putting together. She was game, and what would become Theater Latté Da began its evolution.
“It was so much fun we decided: Let’s do another one,” Prosek said.
Rothstein encouraged actor Tod Petersen to expand a sketch he had performed at the Rothstein cabin. “Oh S#!%, I’m Turning Into My Mother” became a small hit. In 2000, the company established itself in the Loring Playhouse, and Rothstein and Prosek started slowly to grab the attention of Twin Cities audiences with well-wrought work that was full of heart and meticulous in its attention to detail.
Petersen’s “A Christmas Carole Petersen” became a holiday favorite for several years with its campy sense of charm. A pared-down “La Bohème” became a Parisian street musical that showed how less could be so much more.
Dowling became curious and went to see the opera.
“I started to make sure I saw everything he did,” Dowling said.
He was not alone. Latté Da burst its seams in the 140-seat Loring; in 2007, the fastest growing theater company in the Twin Cities realized it would need bigger venues. Rothstein asked his old college friend Kim Motes to become full-time managing director to get the administration up to snuff with the artistic growth.
There also was a moment of tension as Rothstein’s reputation put him in demand at other theaters. “There was a question about the right mix and his priorities,” Motes said.
Rothstein made it clear that he wanted to stay in Minnesota and that Latté Da was his chief pursuit. The company’s annual budget has grown from less than $100,000 in 2001 to upward of $1.5 million in 2015.
Everyone likes him
Reporting a story about Rothstein can get tedious.
Everyone likes him, respects him, says lovely things about him. There are no skeletons, no juicy stories of drunken tirades or that time in rehearsal when he pushed over the director’s table and stormed from the room.
When Wingert is asked how Rothstein shows anger, she gets a little angry.
“He has never in my presence raised his voice,” she said. “He’s the anti-anger in a creative process. He is one of those leaders who lead by example. You don’t want to disappoint Peter and you don’t want to be the one who causes a fuss. You want to rise to his occasion.”
Dowling used Rothstein several times at the Guthrie.
“Actors adore working with him, and that comes from the heart of the man himself,” said Dowling. “He has a great combination of being skilled and kind and generous.”
His mentor at St. John’s, Tom Darnall, said he recognized Rothstein’s values recently as he browsed the Latté Da website and saw a mission statement.
“It says, ‘We act with integrity and gratitude,’ ” Darnall said. “That is how I would describe him. I felt that from him as a student.”
Rothstein, who is 49, and his partner, Omar Guevara, live in the upstairs of a Mediterranean-style stucco duplex in south Minneapolis.
They just bought a small cabin near Balsam Lake, Wis., and dutifully head up to the Rothstein compound each summer to celebrate his mother’s birthday. Two years ago, for her 90th, there were 98 family members present.
Rothstein and Guevara met at the YMCA. “I know,” Guevara said, laughing at the cliché. “He was on the elliptical, waving his arms.”
“That’s how I block shows,” Rothstein said. “It helps me to be moving — the elliptical, the StairMaster are my favorites.”
He gave Guevara his phone number and said that if he ever wanted show tickets to give him a call. “That was my pickup line.”
There are signature mileposts in the growth of Rothstein and Latté Da: “La Bohème,” “The Full Monty,” “Cabaret,” “Master Class” and “Sweeney Todd.”
Yet, he might point most proudly to work he has helped to create, such as “All Is Calm” and “Steerage Song,” a 2013 pageant with music about European immigration circa 1900. He also talks about the new work he has fostered for other artists, such as two world premieres coming in the new year and the continuation of Latté Da’s Next program.
“He’s more and more interested in developing new musicals and creating a space for artists to work,” said Motes, his longtime friend. “That’s his legacy piece, his lasting impact on the world.”
Not bad for a chubby kid, the baby in a big family who couldn’t score a legitimate goal in schoolboy hockey and was beaten out for a coveted role as a Von Trapp singer.
“Your order in a large family never changes,” said Tom Rothstein, commenting on his little brother. “But he’s probably the most accomplished of all of us.”
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299