Beloved director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell dies of cancer

  • Award-winning director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, who died Monday from ovarian cancer, made her Goodman Theatre directing debut in its 2014 production of "Brigadoon."

    Award-winning director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, who died Monday from ovarian cancer, made her Goodman Theatre directing debut in its 2014 production of "Brigadoon." Photo courtesy of Liz Lauren

Updated 5/29/2018 8:48 PM

Director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, one of the greats of Chicago area theater and a fixture at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire for nearly 25 years, died Monday of ovarian cancer.

Rockwell, 49, leaves behind a husband and son.


Social media reflected an outpouring of grief from a theater community described as heartbroken by the loss of a "true Chicago theater success story," said Marriott executive producer Terry James in a prepared statement.

Drury Lane Theatre artistic director William Osetek echoed those thoughts in a prepared statement.

Monday "the Chicago theater community lost a best friend, a second mother and a champion," he said.

One of the area's pre-eminent theater artists, Rockwell received Joseph Jefferson Awards for directing Drury Lane Theatre's celebrated 2010 revival of "Ragtime" and for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's 2015 U.S. premiere "Ride the Cyclone," which transferred to off-Broadway.

She also earned Jeff Awards for choreographing Drury Lane's "Billy Elliot The Musical" in 2015 and Goodman Theatre's 2014 production of "Brigadoon." Goodman's was the first major revival of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical, and Rockwell was hand-picked to helm the show by Liza Lerner, daughter of lyricist/librettist Lerner.

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Rockwell "traversed a highly successful theatrical path throughout Chicagoland's major theaters and beyond," said James of the Evansville, Indiana, native.

Rockwell began her Marriott tenure as a dancer/actress. She took over as choreographer and director of the theater's children's shows and finally as director/choreographer of Marriott productions including "Nunsense," "42nd Street," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "A Chorus Line" and "October Sky."

Rockwell earned accolades for "Sweeney Todd," "The Sound of Music," "Oliver!" "Miss Saigon" and "West Side Story" at Oak Brook's Drury Lane.

Between 2012 and 2014, she helmed "Hair," "Annie," "The Music Man," "In the Heights," "42nd Street" and "Mary Poppins" at Aurora's Paramount Theatre.


Rockwell directed Marriott's 2017 revival of "Mamma Mia!" while having chemotherapy treatments on her days off. She never missed a day, James said.

"Whether nine months pregnant with Jake choreographing "Pinocchio" or staging Chicago's first regional production of "Ragtime" in 2 weeks, she is and will always be a rock star," said Osetek.

Describing her ascent to the pinnacle of her profession as herculean, Osetek praised Rockwell for her vision in focusing Drury Lane's revival of "Miss Saigon" "on a mother's determination and not on a helicopter."

According to Osetek, Theodore Chapin, president and chief creative officer of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which controls the rights to the legendary team's works, was so impressed with Rockwell's fresh, clear-eyed 2011 revival of "The Sound of Music," he asked Drury Lane to send a video of the production to Lincoln Center "so it could be preserved forever as the quintessential production of the show."

Goodman artistic director Robert Falls praised Rockwell on the eve of 2014's "Brigadoon" opening.

"There are very few people in town who are both as experienced as Rachel, and who have the love of the craft of making musicals as Rachel," he said. "She always goes to the heart at the center of these classic musicals."

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