Some might say Anwar Robinson’s sweetest moment was as a finalist on "American Idol," but the star of the touring company of "Rent" was having a sweet moment, or at least a moment in a sweet place the other day. He was talking on his cell phone from Hershey, PA, where during nice weather the smell of baking and roasting chocolate really does fill the air. On this day it was about 10 degrees outside and while Robinson was hoping to see Hershey Park, he says "I don’t think they’ll be open today."
Robinson has been touring with "Rent" since October. The show comes to the State Theater in New Brunswick on Wednesday and Thursday, January 16 and 17. The first leg of the tour lasted about two months and covered the Midwest and some Southern states, Robinson says. The second leg, which came just before the holidays, was in Japan. It was Robinson’s first time there and he was impressed by "the level of respect people have. The pride they take in whatever they do is a refreshing thing."
The dreadlocked, distinguished Robinson is a Newark-born music teacher who gained fame in 2005 when he became the seventh-place finisher on American Idol. Robinson, 28, was raised in a "Brady Bunch" atmosphere, he says, meaning that his home had children from different parts of his family around. He was raised primarily by his mother, Elaine, a former dancer who spent time in the 1980s performing with Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater’s student company and has worked "in retail" for the past 27 years. He adds that during the summers he spent a lot of time with his father’s side of the family as well.
Robinson’s mother brought a small keyboard home for him when he was a toddler. "That’s where it all started," he says. Robinson began playing with, and then on, the keyboard, listening to gospel music as well as R&B, jazz and hip-hop. All of this came with his blended family’s encouragement. "My family has always pushed me hard to do my best in music," Robinson says. "They’ve been supportive of whatever decision I’ve made. I am one of the more blessed ones."
After elementary school, Robinson auditioned and made the roster of the Newark Boys Choir School. "I had a great music teacher in elementary school who noticed that I had good musical instincts, that I was able to match pitch to voice at an early age, and she figured that I had that and the good grades to make it to the Boys Choir School." While there, from fifth through eighth grade, he strengthened his music reading and ear and learned choral music, as well as classical and jazz music. Robinson also studied piano and got a good academic foundation, he says. "We were very much geared toward high schools that would prepare you for college. We had a high rate of graduates – about 85 percent of our graduates attend college. That was the ethic we were raised under."
After a year at Newark’s Arts High, Robinson moved to Montclair with his family and entered Montclair High School, where he became assistant choir director and accompanist for the school’s gospel choir. Ten years ago, he left Montclair and came to Princeton to study music at Westminister Choir College, now Rider University’s Westminster College of the Arts.
He encountered not a little bit of culture shock when he came to this area, thanks to his years in Montclair. "That was interesting," says Robinson. "You have to understand, I came from Newark, and I knew Newark and New York like the back of my hand. Then there was Montclair, which was, like, utopia. I didn’t understand how that town operated. There was no such thing as a 24-hour store there. But I loved it there. In Princeton there were so many trees, more trees than I had ever seen."
Robinson reminisces about hanging out in Palmer Square and eating the decadently high amounts of beef, pork, and cheese in the hoagies – none of which he eats anymore. "The `college 15′ came on quickly that (first) year," he says.
Academically, Robinson was in his element at Westminster. As a music education major, he says "it was very intense, but in a good way." He is especially complimentary of Frank Abrahams, who chairs the music education department, and Evelyn Thomas, director of academic support services at Westminster. "Everywhere you went – voice performance, piano performance, music education, music theory, arts and music – the instruction was top-notch. Everyone was an expert in their field. It was so great the way the entire staff was so committed."
He says the music education degree he earned from Westminster in 2001 "comes in handy every day." Between 2001 and 2004, Robinson taught music, first at Grover Cleveland Middle School in Elizabeth and then at Thomas Edison Middle School in West Orange.
After the school year ended in 2004, on a lark Robinson and a few friends decided to drive to Washington to audition for "American Idol." "I was going to teach summer school, so I had one free week. To audition for the show we did the whole sleeping on the concrete thing, the waiting on line. And the audition lasted three days. I had to go home and come back the following Saturday. It was a very exciting time for me."
Robinson ended up placing seventh in that year’s "American Idol"; country heartthrob Carrie Underwood won. He wouldn’t trade his experience on the show for any in the world, he says. It was "fast-paced, a crash course in the music business. Your face becomes embedded in millions of people’s heads. It’s a bit hard to reconcile at first but one day when I come back to speak, or to sell a project, down the road, people will be, like, `I remember this guy.’ It is a positive start for the rest of what you can do with your career."
Right now Robinson’s career is the theater. He never thought he would get the chance to perform in "Rent," which enjoyed a long run on Broadway and has been made into a movie. "The day we were supposed to see it (when Robinson was in high school) I had to work." He has had to adapt himself to the new medium but he is enjoying the work but admits the travel is hard. The company either performs or travels at least five days a week, and it sometimes has two shows in a day. His coping strategies? "I sleep a lot, and get lots of water and Vitamin C."
Rent, Wednesday and Thursday, January 16 and 17, 8 p.m. State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Contemporary musical inspired by Puccini’s "La Boheme." Co-starring Anwar Robinson, a finalist in the 2005 "American Idol." $40 to $65. 732-246-7469.