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Theater Latté Da Founder’s Final Curtain Call

Peter Rothstein put MN on the map for musical theater. Before heading to Florida for a new gig, he’s directing one last show.

Allen Weeks|

Rothstein (right) during rehearsals for ‘Into the Woods,’ staged by Latté Da in 2015.

“This show has sold out every performance so far.” 

That statement could be true for any production put on by Theater Latté Da these days. The Twin Cities institution, based out of the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis, has made local hits out of classic musicals (Chicago, Ragtime) as well as brand-new stage properties (All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical). 

But that quote isn’t from 2023. It’s from a 1996 Twin Cities Reader blurb about Coffee in a Cardboard Cup, the first musical cabaret Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek produced together, at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. Two years later, the duo would officially found Theater Latté Da.

“Peter just has this vision of sort of knowing what’s on the cusp of popularity,” says Prosek, “or what the community needs to see.”

Minnesota’s musical theater visionary will be heading to Florida soon with no plans to return. Rothstein, the founding artistic director of Latté Da, took up a similar position in July at Asolo Repertory Theater, a company with significantly more clout and triple the budget. But before he heads back to Sarasota, he’s got one more show for us: Macbeth and the Weïrd Sisters, an in-development piece performed in workshop format as part of Latté Da’s Next Festival.

It’s a fitting end to Rothstein’s tenure as one of the most consequential theater artists in Minnesota’s history. While the Grand Rapids native has helmed over 150 productions in the Twin Cities (not just at Latté Da but at institutions of all sizes and missions, from the Guthrie to Ten Thousand Things), he’s built his reputation on reinvention; directing shows in ways audiences have never seen before, challenging theatergoers with innovative forms, and shepherding boundary-pushing new work.

For example, in 2017 Rothstein set Man of La Mancha in a modern day immigration deportation center. The production was so well received that he brought it to Asolo last May. In 2022 he took a stab at trying to fix Stephen Sondheim’s notorious 1981 flop, Merrily We Roll Along. Ann Morrison, one of the Broadway show’s original stars, came up to see his version. “Peter found a lovely way of introducing the piece not written in the script,” she says. “I really enjoyed that vision.” 

This week, he’s prepping for a two-show workshop of a take on Verdi’s opera. “[But it’s been] reorchestrated for a rock band,” Rothstein excitedly explains on the phone, the band echoing in the background as he steps out of a rehearsal room. 

Although Rothstein graduated with an MFA in directing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he had to sing and act for his bread when he moved to the Twin Cities before becoming a working director. 

One of his early efforts was at Illusion Theater alongside its cofounder Michael Robins. At the time, “he had mostly thought about being an interpreter [of other artists’ shows],” Robins recalls of early talks. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, but directors can create things, you know.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, really?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, do you want to work on something?’”

Rothstein not only created the 1996 cabaret 'Wake Up and Dream' with Illusion’s Michael Robins, he starred in it.Illusion Theater

That something turned into 1996’s Wake Up and Dream: A Gay Cabaret, which took Great American Songbook tunes written by gay composers and placed them in a queer context. It was so popular that they developed it into a full mainstage production a year later, Hey Boy! The original cabaret came out of Illusion’s Fresh Ink series, a new works program similar to Latté Da’s Next.

One of the first shows Latté Da produced was 1998’s Oh S#!%, I’m Turning Into My Mother, the precursor to Tod Petersen’s holiday classic A Christmas Carole Petersen. Despite the troupe’s infancy, Rothstein brought the production to New York and ran it at a cabaret room in the West Village.

The same thing happened with another early effort, Power Balladz, a show he directed and co-created with Mike Todaro and Dan Nycklemoe outside of Latté Da. Despite the 2010 hair-metal revue floundering Off-Broadway in the shadow of Rock of Ages, another '80s musical that happened to get to NYC first, Todaro says that “Peter brought a much needed sensitivity and a depth to the show that took it to a whole new level.”

Douglas Lyons, a Broadway actor and theater maker who just finished a run in the Tony-winning revival of Parade, says there are two key elements to Rothstein’s success: “A keen eye and a big heart.” 

“He saw potential in us and brought Five Points to Minneapolis,” says Lyons of the musical he co-wrote and premiered at Latté Da in 2018. “I've had the gift of working with him on both sides of the table, and one thing is consistent: He cares about the stories we tell and the impact our stories can make on the world.”

The impact Rothstein has made on the Minnesota theater scene is not just in creating an institution where audiences can rely on affordable, Broadway-caliber shows in the intimate, 250-seat Ritz. He’s helped raise up an entire community of artists, and taken Minnesota from its status as a song-and-dance flyover state to a hub for musicals in this country. 

“Ultimately, it's his human connection with all artists that make him beloved,” Prosek says. “He makes you feel that you as a human mean something to him, not just your skills or your ideas—you… He's one of a kind.”

So while Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the man who put Minnesota theater on the map, looms large on the facade of the theater that bears his name, the man who put us on the map for musical theater has received a much more reserved commemoration: Yesterday, two tribute plaques were installed in the lobby of the Ritz above the theater entrances. They read: “The Peter Rothstein Stage.” 

IF YOU GO:

Macbeth and the Weïrd Sisters 
7:30 p.m. August 10 and 14 
The Ritz; find tickets at Theater Latté Da’s website

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