WALTER BOBBIE

  
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 best director.

          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 culture.

(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 Champion...

What about contemporary directors? There are a lot of gay directors these days.

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 way through.

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).

Pete Sanders: Does your mother subscribe to the Advocate?

It comes to the beauty shop every week.

Where does your mother live?
She lives in Tampa, a town called New Port Richey.

Did you grow up in Florida?
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 in school?
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 for it.

          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 Fosse.

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 university.

When you went to Catholic U did you know you wanted to go into theater professionally?

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 anything else.

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 Festival.

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 himself.
I 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 him.

Is he a sort of role model for you in making that transition from actor to director?

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?
I 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.

Itís also 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.
And 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 asked people.

Then Chicago 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 in.

          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 is worthy.

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.
We 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 men.

It is passionate. And I guess in terms of other industries the number of gay people is higher than at IBM or Xerox or Macyís.

Or the fans of musicals, theyíre hardcore.

Theyíre very passionate. Itís important to them.

What do you think thatís about?
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.
The 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?
As 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 story.

Itís so unlike many long-running shows.

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