As an actor, dancer, singer, choreographer, stage director, writer, and conceptual artist, Walter Bobbie (b. Scranton, PA, 18 November 1945) has worn a surprising number of theatrical hats. With experience both on and off Broadway, he has been twice nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Guys and Dolls, 1992; Polish Joke, 2003), twice nominated for a Tony Award® for Best Book of a Musical (A Grand Night for Singing, 1994; Footloose, 1999), and winner of the 1997 Tony® and Drama Desk Awards, plus an Outer Critics Circle Award, for his direction of the 1996 revival of Chicago. Chicago also traveled to London, where Bobbie was nominated for a 1998 Laurence Olivier Theatre Award. He was the Artistic Director of the New York City Center Encores! concert series for three years, and continues to serve on its Board.
Bobbie grew up in Scranton as part of an enormous Polish immigrant coal-mining family – he had 48 first cousins on one side of the family alone. One of his earliest memories was wondering, at age four, how a person could get out of Scranton. He went to the University of Scranton, a Jesuit college, with the purpose of becoming, first, an accountant and then, a priest, but finally graduated with a major in Literature and minor in Philosophy. He had been taking part in amateur and school theatrical productions since kindergarten, and after college earned his Masters degree in theatre from The Catholic University of America.
The first Broadway show Walter Bobbie saw was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, “maybe in 1964. I came in to New York from college in Pennsylvania … I practically had to be held down in my seat.” He returned to New York in 1965 to see Maureen Stapleton’s unforgettable performance as the Mother in The Glass Menagerie. From this point on he knew that theatre was what he wanted to do, and, fortuitously, it is all he has ever done. He never had to put in time as a waiter.
Success did not come immediately, however. He suffered through “three bombs in a row,” a one-performance musical flop on Broadway in April 1971, an off-Broadway show dead-on-arrival, and a four-performance dud, The Grass Harp, starring Barbara Cook, in 1972. Then Bobbie struck pay dirt with the role of Roger in Grease. Although the reviews were not good, audiences loved the show and kept coming back, bringing their friends. It had opened with expectations of failure at the Broadhurst Theatre, and had to be moved to the Royale, where it remained a fixture for nine years and the rest of its 3,388 performances.
During the later ’70s Bobbie was involved in four more musicals (Tricks 1973, Going Up 1976, I Love My Wife 1977, A History of the American Film 1978), but these were short-lived or otherwise disappointing. He decided to stop auditioning for musicals and focus on his acting skills, with an eye to becoming a director. He went to Louisville, then Sundance, then the Playwright’s Horizons Theatre, the Jewish Repertory Theatre, and INTAR in New York. Wary of being labeled a lightweight, he also refused to do commercials.
In 1989, Walter Bobbie was a short-time replacement for Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes! at the Vivian Beaumont, but soon he was back exclusively on the legitimate stage in Café Crown at the Brooks Atkinson, Limbo Tales at the Greenwich House Theatre, Psychoneurotic Phantasies (playing Freud) at Playwrights Horizons, and Getting Married at Circle in the Square Uptown. He even appeared on Law & Order and NYPD Blue. Somehow all his efforts at getting started in directing came to nothing.
Then in 1992 his old friend Jerry Zaks (who had played Kenickie in Grease twenty years before, and had directed the revival of Anything Goes!) asked him to reinvent the character of Nicely-Nicely Johnson – whose rotund image originally projected by Stubby Kaye in the 1950 show and subsequent film was practically indelible – in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. The smashing success of this show, with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince driving its 1143 performances, is legendary. Even without a fat suit, Bobbie’s delivery of the eleven o’clock showstopper “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” was a sensation.
But suddenly, out of the blue, in the middle of the run, Bobbie was offered an opportunity to direct a three-week engagement of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue at Rainbow and Stars. Director Zaks understood how much this opportunity meant to Bobbie and granted him a leave of absence. To Bobbie’s astonishment, “The community and the critics decided I seemed to know what I was doing [as a director]. 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 [Encores!] series and working eventually at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Shakespeare Festival.”
Another project to which the Rainbow and Stars revue had led was a full-fledged Rodgers and Hammerstein revue at the Roundabout Theatre in 1993, A Grand Night for Singing, for which he wrote the book and directed. He received a Tony® nomination on this occasion for Best Book of a Musical.
Faced with the challenge of casting Fiorello! for Encores!: Great American Musicals in Concert – a proposed series with an entirely new and untested approach; that is, minimal sets, full original orchestrations, and a limit of five performances at the City Center – Walter Bobbie discovered that his hard work of the past twenty years had built him a supportive and enthusiastic network of friends, with Jerry Zaks at its center. The Fiorello! cast fell into place almost effortlessly. “When they [the Board of Directors at the City Center] asked me to take over, I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for that. They passed me the ball and I caught it.” Meanwhile he received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical – Guys and Dolls. Bobbie’s Artistic Directorship of Encores! would last only three years, during which time he staged four of the nine productions, but his relationship with the series, in one capacity or another, remains active.
It was the very success of his fourth staging – Chicago – in 1996 that forced Bobbie to take leave of his executive position. This revival of Chicago, meant as a tribute to original choreographer Bob Fosse although newly choreographed by Ann Reinking, with Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, and Joel Grey in the cast – all engaged for Encores! by Bobbie without audition – was so popular that it moved directly to Broadway. It now (2012) holds (and continues to extend) the record for the longest-running musical revival ever presented on Broadway.
Bobbie has returned to the City Center’s Encores! series both as a director (Tenderloin 2000, Golden Boy 2002, No, No, Nanette 2008) and a comic actor (Face the Music 2007). In 2000 he was awarded Tony® Honors for Excellence in Theatre in recognition of his contributions to the series.
Many other projects have followed Bobbie’s Chicago triumph: in 1998 he co-wrote the Tony®-nominated book and directed the Broadway production of the musical Footloose; in the same year he directed the Roundabout Theater production of Twentieth Century with Alec Baldwin, Tom Aldredge, and Anne Heche. Then in 2002 he co-wrote and directed The Road to Hollywood, a new musical presented at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. 2003 saw his return as an actor in six roles in Polish Joke at the Manhattan Theatre Club, earning a Drama Desk nomination as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play. In 2005 Bobbie directed Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell in a benefit concert of South Pacific for Carnegie Hall, and staged the Tony®-nominated revival of Sweet Charity with Christina Applegate.
Irving Berlin’s musical White Christmas under his direction had limited engagements on Broadway during the holiday seasons of 2008 and 2009, for which Bobbie received a nomination for the 2009 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical. The show had three separate offshoots in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, and traveled to Minneapolis, Detroit and the United Kingdom as well. Bobbie also directed the New York premiere of The Savannah Disputations at Playwrights Horizons in 2009, and the new Terrence McNally play Golden Age at the Kennedy Center in 2010.
Bobbie has also directed for the New York Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Sundance, the O’Neill Center, and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Currently in a limited run (7 February 2012 – 17 June 2012) at the Lyceum Theatre under his direction is David Ives’s Venus in Fur.
Walter Bobbie told an interviewer for The Advocate in 1998, “I like to go where I feel useful,” adding these personal comments: “I don’t think of myself as a gay artist. I don’t think I’m in denial about who I am, but it doesn’t seem essential to what I do. … [W]hen you move up into the producing world of musical theater, it’s a boys’ club. What’s 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 I’ll tell ya, there’s not a producing house in this town that’s gay. It’s a real straight world.”
– Lucy E. Cross