ďOvernight sensationĒ is a term usually applied to
actors. But with his revival of Chicago, Walter Bobbie
catapulted to the A-list of Broadway directors. In early 1996,
he mounted a concert version of the 1975 Kander & Ebb
musical as part of City Centerís ďEncores!Ē series,
which each year revives three forgotten American musicals with
stellar casts for one weekend only. Bobbie conceived the
stripped-down version of Chicago as an homage to Bob
Fosse -- ďWe dressed everybody in Fosseís favorite colors:
black and flesh,Ē he says with a laugh -- and corraled a
cast that included Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Joel Grey,
and Ann Reinking (who also choreographed). The show was such a
smash that it transferred intact to Broadway, spawned two
national touring companies and a London production that
together gross more than $2 million a week, and earned Bobbie
a Tony, a Drama Desk, and a London Evening Standard Award for
I interviewed Walter Bobbie at the Paramount Hotel in
Manhattan. Beforehand, I met Chicagoís
publicist Peter Sanders, who gave me an interview Walter had
done with the Metro Weekly, a gay paper in Washington. I scanned it quickly to
read his quotes about being gay, just to get a sense of how to
proceed with him. Walter arrived 15 minutes late, sweaty and
flustered because of traffic snarls around Lincoln Center.
Heís a stocky man with clear blue eyes and short graying
hair, nicely dressed in a light-colored sports coat and
matching trousers, white shirt. He and Pete talked about the
GLAAD Awards the night before. Pete reported that Lea deLaria
closed the show and was a big hit, singing ďWhen Youíre
Good to MamaĒ (sheís going into the Toronto production of Chicago).
Pete mentioned that Tony Bennett performed before Lea. I
asked, ďWhat was Tony Bennett doing at the GLAAD Awards?Ē
Walter said, ďCruising!Ē
Itís funny, Walter, as I was preparing to do this interview,
I was fretting a little bit about how to present you as a gay
artist in the Advocate,
since you havenít worked on specifically gay shows. Then I
realized, Wait a second, youíve become a major deacon in the
Church of the Musical Theater, which has a huge gay
congregation, and thatís your contribution to the tribal
(His eyes go blank
and wide with barely concealed terror.) I donít think of
myself as a gay artist. I donít think Iím in denial about
who I am, but it doesnít seem essential to what I do. My
politics is the light-one-candle version of gay politics. I
think itís important for me to live my life and know who I
am. [Iíd read the same
quote in the DC gay paper.]
As a gay man, itís my notion politically to simply be
able to function in a very straight world and let it be a
non-issue. Because I find in the world of theater, even the
world of musical theater, is a very very straight world. You
know, we think of it as just a bunch of campy queens danciní
and singiní and playiní their show tunes while they parade
around the house. But when you move up into the producing
world of musical theater, its a boysí club. Whatís
important for me is to go in there as a creative person who
happens to be gay and simply function man-to-man with these
men, who are really the muscle and the finance of the Broadway
theater. Because Iíll tell ya, thereís not a producing
house in this town thatís gay. Itís a real straight world.
And yet there are
hardly any musicals that arenít directed by gay men.
Oh, I donít think thatís true at all. I donít know
what peopleís personal lives are, but Fosse wasnít gay.
When I think of great musical theater directors like Gower
contemporary directors? There are a lot of gay directors these
Good. I think itís good. I donít know. Please, donít
misunderstand me, I donít have an issue with this. Itís
how Iíve chosen to live my life. But I donít prefer to
live in a gay ghetto and go to Fire Island for the summer. I
donít prefer that. I have a little house out of town
thatís on the straightest block in town. The math teacher
lives next door. They have a basketball hoop for their kids on
the garage. My neighbors next door have two kids. I play with
their children. It has been as important to me to hold on to
that part of my place in the world as it is to sit down with a
bunch of friends and just have a campy old night of dish and
screaming. Thatís my personal politics, and how that affects
me as a creative person I really donít know. I just know
itís important to know who I am so I can go anywhere in the
world and do what I want to do. Because people are not going
to let me do what I want to do because Iím gay or not gay.
People are going to let me do what I do because they think I
can create some excitement in the theater or I can create a
financially viable piece of entertainment for them. So I think
itís essential that I not walk into a corporate situation
and think that my personal politics has to be an issue. I
think itís important for me to know itís a non-issue.
Is this about me being a gay person, this article?
Iím just having a
conversation with you. Itís a funny thing about interviewing
people for the Advocate
that you need to feature their gay credentials. Often Iím
talking to people who are working on plays that have gay
content, and thatís what we talk about. I just noticed that
wasnít the case with this interview, and I brought it up
because it was on my mind. But I wonder if you think itís a
total coincidence that so many of the makers of musical
theater are gay -- I mean, performers, costume designers, etc.
Iíll tell you what Iím thinking about. I was talking to my
friend Stephen Holden, who went to see Liíl
Abner over the weekend, and he said he loves the
ďEncoresĒ series, that thereís nothing else like it
because of the intense gay vibe in the house, the love in the
audience for those shows and those performers.
And I would love a cup of coffee! (The waiter arrives to take our order.)
You look a little
shocked by what I was saying about the Encores series.
Iíve never done an interview where the reason someone was
talking to me was because I was gay. Iím feeling
uncomfortable. My personal struggle with my sexuality has been
so hard-earned, if you will. How Iíve absorbed it into the
way I live my life is deeply personal, and I hate it being
made generic in some way. I think the struggle that any gay
man goes through is so particular and so specific to how he
was raised, where he was raised, his religious background. I
think itís so complex that I donít want to trivialize it.
I own it. I admit it. I embrace it. I live it. I have a great
relationship, all of those things. I would answer all of those
questions. But whatís interesting to me is who I am as a
complete human being, and I think being gay ... itís been
important for me to realize itís a very small component to
this man. So to reduce to me what I have properly made
right-sized in my personal world is to somehow diminish me. I
just say that to you because I donít know how to bullshit my
I appreciate your
saying that, and I apologize for making you feel uncomfortable
with my question. Let me give you a perspective that I have.
Often when youíre interviewed in the New
York Times, they feature everything about you but they
leave out the part that youíre gay. In the Advocate,
I want to include all of who you are, and NOT leave out the
part where youíre gay. Thatís all Iím saying.
My mother would be thrilled (he laughs, nervously).
Does your mother subscribe to the Advocate?
It comes to the beauty shop every week.
Where does your
lives in Tampa, a town called New Port Richey.
Did you grow up in
No, I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, then we moved to New
Jersey about 45 minutes out of the city. A little town called
Lincoln Park. Then I went back to school in Pennsylvania, then
to Washington D.C. Iíve been in New York now longer than
Iíve been anywhere else.
Did you study theater
I actually started out as an accounting major in college. I
tell you, my struggle was hard-earned! There was no theater
department. I was a literature major with a minor in
philosophy. It was a Jesuit school called the University of
Scranton, a surprisingly good Jesuit university. After that, I
said, ďWho am I kidding?Ē My counselor and mentor said,
ďYouíre not going to be a priest. Forget about it, go live
your lifeĒ -- and I thought, ďTheater!Ē I went to
graduate school at the Catholic University of America. I took
literary criticism with Dave Richards, Susan Sarandon and
Chris Sarandon were there at the time.
You hadnít done
theater before you went to Catholic University?
We had a drama club, and I did the clubís dramas. High
school and college.
What was the first
show you did?
In kindergarten, I put on wooden shoes and sang ďIím a
Little Dutch Boy.Ē (laughs)
I was fabulous. Believe me, when I entered, it made a noise! (laughs)
I always just did it Ďcause it was fun. Nobody encouraged me
or discouraged me. I did the church annual variety show at St.
Josephís in Lincoln Park. Put on a sombrero and sing
ďWeíre Haviní a Heat Wave.Ē (laughs) Seemed like a good idea at the time. I just had an instinct
I was given a stereo for my birthday when I was in the
eighth grade and a bunch of albums, one of which was the
soundtrack for Oklahoma!
The reason I got it was not that I asked for it but because my
cousin Eleanor worked for Capitol Records and my mother got
the records wholesale. I played Oklahoma!
over and over again, I thought it was just so cool. Then I
just started buying musical comedy albums. Some guys memorized
baseball cards. I memorized album covers. I knew who designed
everything, who lit it, who did the costumes, who did the
orchestrations and dance arrangements. I never saw a Broadway
show Ďtil I was a sophomore in college.
What was it?
How to Succeed in
Business at the then-46th Street Theatre. Robert Morse was
gone, it was Ronnie Welsh. It had musical staging by Bob
Were there other kids
in Scranton who were also into musical theater?
When I went back to the university, weíd do a play in the
fall and a musical in the spring. A teacher in the English
department would always do some off-beat musicals like The
Fantasticks, Little Mary Sunshine, Ernest in Love. It was
great fun. We had some talented people there at the
When you went to
Catholic U did you know you wanted to go into theater
Oh yes. I applied to graduate schools and doctoral
programs. I also thought I might want to design. So I applied
quite widely. Started doing theater.
Did you come to New
York directly after school?
Yes. I did one show at the Olney Theatre in Baltimore, Life with Father -- dyed my hair orange to be one of the Day boys.
Came to New York and got my Equity card with one professional
credit and started to work. My first job was standing by for Dames at Sea off-Broadway, then taking over at the end of its run
when it moved to the Plaza 9 Room. Then I did 4 or 5 shows,
all of which went down quickly, except I was in the original
cast of Grease in 1972. Iíve been an actor ever since. Iíve never done
Now you have this
successful exciting second career as a director.
Something Iíve always wanted to do. I tried and it just
wouldnít happen. So I basically gave up. Iíve always
worked in the New York theater with the very best people, and
it seemed that directing wasnít meant to happen. I had an
Off-Broadway play and a Broadway musical, twice I
half-financed it, and I just gave it up. It wasnít for lack
of connections. Itís hard to work for 15-20 years and then
try to re-identify yourself in any business.
Then out of nowhere, because of some people Iíd
directed industrials for when I first got off the bus, I was
offered to do the Rodgers and Hammerstein revue at Rainbow
& Stars. I went to Jerry Zaks, Ďcause I was in Guys and Dolls at the time, and I asked if he would give me a
three-week leave of absence. Jerry is in many ways responsible
for my career. I think heís a wonderful director, and heís
been a loyal friend and supporter to me. I was in a big hit in
a great part, and I wanted to go direct this revue. It was
clear to me and to Jerry that this was not some out-of-work
actor looking for something to do so he thought heíd direct.
I had a passion for it. And he actually gave me a leave of
absence, and I went to do that. Suddenly, the community and
the critics decided I seemed to know what I was doing. We got
surprisingly supportive reviews and then that led to my being
asked to do the first Encores, which Jerry starred in, Fiorello.
Then being asked to take over the series and working
eventually at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Shakespeare
Iím glad to hear
that Jerry Zaks is featured prominently in the story, I guess
because I remember seeing you in Guys
and Dolls, and Jerry Zaks came out of being a performer
think he understood how much it meant to me. Because frankly,
they didnít have to let me do that. And it was also very
moving to me when I asked Jerry to do Fiorello.
We had worked together as actors in Grease,
but he hadnít been onstage in a long time. He had a shelf
full of Tonys. And in his position in the industry, that he
would lend himself to me as a director continues to be very
moving to me, very trusting on his part. Iím grateful to
Is he a sort of role
model for you in making that transition from actor to
Role model? I donít know, I just think heís talented
and if you look at him, you go, Gee, itís possible, you can
do that. A lot of wonderful directors including Mike Nichols
and Gene Saks came from being actors.
Had you studied that
lineage to convince yourself it was possible to transish from
acting to directing?
think the best thing for me as an actor was I was always
around great directors. There I was in a room with Dan
Sullivan or Gerry Gutierrez or Tom Moore or Jerry Zaks or
Ellis Rabb. Even when I was in a bomb, I was around such
talent. You canít learn that in class. Stand in a room and
watch those guys direct. Iíve always been in good company.
So you didnít start
the Encores series, someone else did.
I directed the first one. The initial committee was Ira
Weitzman and Judith Dakin and Ted Chapin was chairman of the
board. Iíd known Ira forever from working at Playwrights
Horizons. He invited me to direct the first one. We jumped in
and didnít know what we were doing, but we discovered so
much in the process of doing it that we figured out how we
might do the series. When they asked me to take over, I felt
like Iíd been waiting my whole life for that. They passed me
the ball and I caught it.
Sounds like something
youíd been preparing for since you were a kid.
I didnít know I was preparing for it, but I had been. I
knew the literature and I thought, ďGee, why donít I just
follow my taste and see if anybody likes it?Ē Somebody gave
me a budget and a theater -- it was thrilling. Also, as I
said, I was surrounded by the very best people. I called in 25
yearsí worth of favors. When I went to do Fiorello, I called William Ivey Long, and I called Chris Chadman,
and I called Jerry Zaks, Faith Prince, Adam Arkin, Phil Bosco
and Donna McKechnie -- so this first weekend was like a party
everybody wanted to get to. I just called my friends, and they
showed up for me. I still get...(he
starts to cry) Maybe itís because Iím tired...
No, take your time
and feel your feelings. Iím very moved when you say that.
For people of such established talent and celebrity to
trust me.....(he cries)
I would feel that was
a very big deal and be moved by it.
I work in a business that is simultaneously incredibly
cynical and powerfully generous. I feel very privileged by
what I get to do.
interesting in hindsight to look back at what seemed like
people doing you a favor, and now everybodyís dying to get
in the door for those things.
They do. I remember Tyne Daly saying, ďIs there anything
I can do?Ē I said, ďYes, if I call any of your friends,
tell them to say yes.Ē
Youíve had a pretty
good track record of getting amazing people to say yes.
We did very much. Of course we had Jay Binder, whoís a
great casting director and a friend. Youíre right, now
itís become something people want to do. But that first
year...I remember calling Gregg Edelman and asking him to do
this small part in Fiorello,
and he said, ďOh, I canít, itís not big enough and Iím
busyĒ and all that stuff. And I said to Jay Binder,
ďLetís not cast it, leave it alone.Ē Then the next week
we got Jerry Zaks, Faith prince, Phil Bosco, and Gregg called
back to say, ďHave you cast that yet?Ē (laughs)
I said, ďNo, come on over and play, itís gonna be one-week
stock with the A team, youíre gonna have a good time.Ē Now
someone like Gregg would never do that role in the revival,
but he came over for the week and played.
How can you say no?
Itís a limited run, itís like a party, you donít have to
give up your life to do it.
youíre surrounded by all the people you want to work with
anyway. So by the time we got to Chicago and I called Ann, I
said Iíd love you to do this, she instantly showed up. She
took her students and did a lab for me, months before, just to
see how we might be Fosse-esque without all his staging. It
was all casting. Two weeks before, I said, ďAnn, you have to
do Roxie.Ē I just picked up the phone and called Joel Grey.
Iíd been asking Jimmy [Naughton] to do an Encores for three
years and finally he could do this one. It came together in a
way that, believe me, if you were doing it on Broadway with
the $5 million already in the bank, you could hardly put
together. But somehow people had nothing to lose and
everything to gain. Great great cast. And we never even
auditioned the dancers. Jay Binder and Annie and I just
interviewed our favorite dancers. We wanted something for
everyone: short, tall, fat, skinny, young, old, whatever
youíre in the mood for, itís up there, but everyone had to
be sexy. No matter what they looked like, they had to have
great sexuality. I wanted some people whoíd done Fosse and
were mature. I wanted grownups up there. And to see John Mineo,
who did six shows with Fosse, still up there. But in rehearsal
we realized weíd forgot to ask these people if they could
sing. We never auditioned at Encores in the beginning, we just
turned into this whole industry. Do you miss doing Encores,
and did you do it just enough?
I still like talking to them and being on the board. Were I
free, I would do another one, Ďcause I think the series is a
terrific opportunity to see musicals in New York City that
weíre never gonna see. You are more likely to live in
Pittsburgh or Cleveland and see Liíl Abner or One Touch of
Venus than you are in New York City. ĎCause what we can
do is $5 million revivals here. So thereís a whole
generation of theater students, the oldest thing they know is
Andrew Lloyd Webber. Thatís why we did Chicago. I thought this is a great score written by two American
masters, and there was a whole generation of kids who had no
idea Kander and Ebb had written this thing. We didnít try to
create a Broadway hit. We were just doing a show we believed
I think itís wonderful to do Liíl
Abner. I think those Johnny Mercer lyrics are great. And
nobody should spend $7 million reviving it. But for the
weekend, donít you wanna go hear those things in the
original orchestrations? As someone who loves the literature
of musical theater...one of my favorite things we did at
Encores to this day was Out
of This World. I think Encores has the chance to take
something by Cole Porter that was not one of his hits and say,
ďLook what this guy could do even on an off day.Ē Itís a
terrific score. The book doesnít work at all, but the score
Itís funny how
Encores has entered the universe of musical theater in such a
way that I heard people say during previews of Paul Simonís The
Capeman they should skip the Broadway production and go
right to Encores.
told Fred Ebb in 20 years weíre gonna cut even more of the
book of Chicago and do it at Encores again.
So seriously Walter,
do you recognize any connection at all between gay culture and
musical theater culture? Iíve heard the story so many times
of people who were in 8th grade and their parents plied them
with Broadway show albums. It such a passionate thing for gay
It is passionate. And I guess in terms of other industries
the number of gay people is higher than at IBM or Xerox or
Or the fans of
musicals, theyíre hardcore.
Theyíre very passionate. Itís important to them.
What do you think
I donít know. I know it happens at the opera too, and I
donít get it. They sit there and go crazy. Itís midnight
and I want to go home. After 5 or 6 hours Iíve had enough
singiní. I donít know. I donít know. If I knew...
Iím just curious
because when you described your childhood interest in
musicals, it is the classic story of being swept away hearing
Broadway cast albums and knowing thatís your life and
getting excited about making shows.
interesting thing is -- I am now surrounded by a lot of
straight musical comedy queens. There is a hierarchy of muscle
in the Broadway theater, and these guys know as much about
show tunes and musical comedy as some gay musical comedy
queen. But I donít know why. You sit a child on the floor
and put a saxophone and a football and a chess game -- why
does the child pick up one thing and not the other? I think
the child picks up musical comedy because heís sensitive (laughs)
... but I donít know why. I was not around it at all. I just
ended up there, and I took to it. I loved all that Broadway
razzmatazz. Maybe I didnít end up an opera queen Ďcause I
didnít want to lie on the floor and stab myself. I wanted to
get up and sing. Iím not a therapist! Iím not doing a
research paper here! Iím just trying to stage a musical
comedy, fer Chrissake! (weíre
laughing throughout this)
One of the
interesting things about you as a director, Walter, is that
you seem to be open to casting people of any color. Is that
something youíre conscious of?
a performer, I love performers, so every production of Chicago
is performer-driven. Annie and I cast 19 people and then we
go. Thereís no one who looks like Johnny Mineo in any other
production. They donít attract the same parts. Weíve got
Ute Lemper, Bebe Neuwirth, Jasmine Guy, and Stephanie Pope all
playing the same part. Clearly, weíre not cookie cutters. We
find people who are fascinating and who will hold an
audienceís attention who still manage to tell the same
Itís so unlike many
Sometimes William Ivey will re-do the costumes for each new
actor. He made a whole set of costumes for Karen Ziemba. Which
in some ways makes it high maintenance, but everyone has a
sense of ownership that way. I think itís true of the
tradition of musical theater. Thatís why Iíve liked
Encores and the series -- musical comedies were built around
performers. Very often they had the star and the theater
before they had a note written: ďWeíre doing a show for
Merman!Ē ďWeíre doing a show for Martin!Ē That
tradition is one I grew up on. I heard all these personalities
on the album. Not that itís good or bad, but the shows
arenít built that way anymore. Producers are very very happy
because no matter who comes or goes in Cats, Phantom, Les Miz, itís doesnít matter -- they donít have
to put somebody above the title to keep the interest going.
But I love that tradition of personalities in musical theater.
You have that in musicals in a way you donít in dramatic
theater. Willy Loman is a challenge for any able actor, but
thatís very different from saying ďWho can we get to play
Dolly?Ē When youíre looking for a personality, youíre
not just looking for a great actor -- youíre looking or
somebody who can bring their essence to the stage. Annie and I
are drawn to fellow performers. We invite that. You canít do
that all the time.
Iíve really enjoyed
talking to you.
Iíve needed a good cry for a week.
I was touched by
that. It was very sweet. Go on, I donít want to keep you.
Iím a man whoís gay, Iím not a gay man. Thatís
important to me.
Interviewed for the Advocate, 1998