Age: “Whatever age you want me to be.”
Hometown: New York City. Born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Douglas now lives in Harlem.
Currently: Starring as Sebastian, Ariel's crustacean confidante in Disney's hit Broadway musical The Little Mermaid.
Life’s a Beach and Then You Dance: The son of Panamanian parents, Douglas spent most of his wonder years in a single-parent household on Coney Island. “My parents split when I was five, and my mother bought a place there,” he says. “We’d get up, go to the beach, go swimming. Everybody called it Florida.” Thanks to Mom’s love for the arts, Rogelio heard his calling at age eight. “We went to a friend’s recital and I saw this guy onstage tap dancing. I idolized him and wanted to be like him and Sammy Davis Jr.” Mom funded dance classes, and the young hoofer's instructors urged him to study ballet. “I was like, ‘No, I wanna do the jazz thing!’ They asked that dancer [I admired] to come talk to me. He said ballet was really important, that he took it and played football, too, and I was like ohhhhh-kay.”
By junior high, Douglas had become a triple-threat performer, which helped him win a spot at LaGuardia Arts High School made famous by Fame. The school attracted talent scouts ranging from the New York City Opera to platinum-selling pop stars. “I got picked as a backup singer for Mariah Carey’s Fantasy special,” he says, referring to the diva’s televised 1995 concert at Madison Square Garden. Dad was largely M.I.A. at this point, floating in and out of Douglas’ life and making one thing clear: “He was very machismo, very Spanish, and didn’t want his son to dance. It was all, ‘Go to school, get good grades. Become a lawyer, make money.’” Mom didn’t completely disagree. “Oh, she was thought it was a phase, too,” he says, laughing.
Testing the Waters:
Fish on Dry Land: Before long, Douglas landed his first summer-stock gigs, performing in Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma! at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. Being the only guy backstage who listened to A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes, he felt like the odd bird in the flock. “I was the hip-hop person,” he remembers. “Everyone else wanted to talk about Ethel Merman, and I was like, ‘So how ’bout those Knicks?’” He laughs. “But it all fit when we got onstage. We all had this common goal and love, to put on a show and do it as best as we can. Theater was one place where I found solace.”
A River Runs Through It: Offered a job at a retro-hip supper club in Chicago called the Black Orchid, Douglas relocated and began living the lush life—tap dancing in front of an orchestra, opening for Tito Puente and Jennifer Holliday. Then the Riverdance team called, and the boy from Brooklyn was off through Europe and China, then back to New York for a few nights on Broadway. “But I don’t consider that a debut,” he maintains. The work was grueling, “very strenuous on the body, and they don’t have understudies. So if you hurt yourself, you needed to go on anyway. They just reshuffled everybody so you’d be in the back or off to the side.” The jig was up when Douglas tore ligaments in his ankle, and he settled in back home for some r&r. “And a lot of Hostess cupcakes,” he adds.
What a Catch! Packing on the pounds while serving as a judge at dance competitions, Douglas decided to slim down and get back to what he loved. He landed parts in Celia, the 2007 off-Broadway musical about salsa singer Celia Cruz, and joined Holliday in the 25th anniversary staging of Dreamgirls in Atlanta before getting cast as the standby for Benny in In the Heights. “Everybody wants that Rent moment, to be part of something that’s new and youthful,” Douglas says. “For me, it was a fantasy come true to have it include hip-hop, salsa and all the music I listened to while growing up. It was like, ‘We get to do this on Broadway, for real?’” Even better, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler set aside several spots for ensemble players to do their own thing. “We were all like, ‘Just let loose? You mean we get to freestyle on a Broadway stage and it’s okay?’” He laughs. “That was exciting.”
20,000 Big Leagues Under the Sea: Meanwhile, Disney’s The Little Mermaid was becoming a hit right across the street, and Douglas was tapped to replace Tituss Burgess as the loyal crab who delivers the show’s two big numbers, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” A month into his run, he’s got Sebastian’s crab-walk down pat and even loosened up the choreography: “They’ve let me add movement to ‘Under the Sea,’ as much as the costume will allow.” Another personal touch is noticeable in Sebastian’s accent. “When he’s with Ariel, his guard’s down and he sounds more Caribbean-Spanish, almost Jamaican,” he explains. “But when the king comes, his voice takes on the accent you’d hear in Brixton, London, where a lot of Colombians live. They’re from Jamaica, too, but they have an English accent. And Sebastian can’t sound too street when he’s talking to the king!”