Frank Sinatra once sang… “Love’s More Wonderful The Second Time Around.” That’s true for theater too. The original premiere of Chicago on Broadway in 1975 ran for a year and a half…certainly a respectable run for the John Kander, Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse musical. However, the revival, which opening in 1996 is still running and going strong! Lucky for “Un-Block The Music,” I recently got to chat with the musical director Rob Bowman, who is just as enthusiastic about the show as he was 26 years ago!
“Chicago is my favorite musical,” Rob told me. “This may be corny, but on Christmas morning in 1975, I saw two square boxes under the tree and I was so excited to find A Chorus Line and Chicago soundtrack albums. I put on Chicago, heard the overture, and I pointed to my record player, and said… ‘that’s what I want to do!’ Even though I didn’t know what it was!”
Theater was always around Rob. Before Rob was born, his parents moved to Washington, D.C., when his mom said she wanted a career! Shocking coming from a long line of farmers living in the Shenandoah Valley! But they moved to Washington where his mom worked for the Pentagon for 47 years! “I was always going to the theater. I loved theater but never thought about working in it.” At least not consciously. “I started playing piano when I was 4 years old. I could hear music and just play. I started taking lessons when I was 7.”
Rob’s Dad died when he was 11 years old, and as the eldest son, he wanted to do what he could to help take care of his family. In high school, he used his talent to play in Old Town (Alexandria, VA) five or six hours a night. “I played Honky Tonk at the Fish market!” he laughs. “When I was in high school in the 1970s musicians were respected, but my high school did not do musicals. So, I played piano for other schools. I was always playing theater stuff like Jacques Brel is Alive and Well And Living In Paris, Guys and Dolls and The Fantasticks. I thought this theater stuff was amazing.”
Eventually, Rob went to Oberlin College where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Classical piano performance. “I was getting ready for my masters and I got a call to be Associate Conductor for The Wind and The Willows at Folger Theatre in Washington. I remember thinking I will do a couple of theater things because it is kind of fun. It started there and never stopped.”
In 2000, Chicago Producer Fran Weissler, wanted me to conduct the music for a workshop (in addition to his work on Chicago) with Broadway Legend Elaine Stritch. Fran said she had a good feeling about us. Elaine and I clicked from the beginning and we ended up being together almost every day for 15 years.”
In November 2003, the night Elaine got the living legend award, Rob’s aorta ripped open and he nearly died. He had an aortic dissection that saved his life, but it took him out of commission for a while. He was only in his 40s, but he had to learn how to relearn basic things like walking! And, he learned how to take care of himself. He eventually began working with Elaine again and then made his way back to Chicago on Broadway.
Like Phantom of The Opera, Chicago is a “must see” for anyone visiting New York. Admittedly, sitting in the audience, “Un-Block The Music” felt a different audience vibe compared to most shows I see. It’s important to keep the show fresh to bring back New Yorkers like me, and Rob says, “that very point is kept in mind when casting…thinking outside the box. So, many of those involved in the show have been for a long time, often leaving and coming back.”
The show has gotten a few shots in the arm even when those shots were unexpected. “I was working in Chicago when they were filming the movie. We just assumed the show would close once that came out. More than half the cast was auditioning for different shows. We kept thinking the writing was on the wall, but it did the opposite. It brought us a whole wave of people.”
“Un-Block The Music” spoke to Rob before the Golden Globe Awards this past weekend, but we spoke about the positive effect the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon has had on the Broadway show. Michelle Williams (who actually won the Golden Globe for her role as Gwen Verdon) played Roxie on Broadway in 2010. “She was one of the best dancers we ever had,” Rob said.
Michelle’s Golden Globe win has to be yet another shot in the arm for the show which is set in the 1920s. Now, we are in the 2020’s and whether or not you agree with what she said, Michelle’s acceptance speech the other night was empowering for women.
Chicago was a female driven show, when it wasn’t common, according to Rob. “It has a strut to it. There is nothing tiptoe about it. And, that power is felt and enjoyed around the world. I have worked with about 10 to 12 of the Chicago shows internationally, but additionally there are 11 productions of the show in Korea alone,” he said.
What is so mesmerizing about the show? Chicago is dark and funny. “Roxie shoots her lover in cold blood, but by the time she sings the song ‘Roxie’ later in Act 1, you are rooting for her. These two tough women (the leads, Roxie and Velma) sing a song like, ‘My Own Best Friend’, and it sounds like a Franz Schubert arts song. It looks like an English Tea. It’s such a brilliant piece of writing. The song is expected to be harsh, but it’s played for real and sung for real,” Rob says. “It is my favorite musical I can’t even tell you my favorite song; every moment is perfect.”
There is so much craft and detail in Chicago, Rob says. “When I conduct every night, I look at the musicians. (Producer) Fran Weissler told me years ago that the conductor is just as important as the principals. It’s all synergy like no other. I get hypnotized every performance.”
Rob told “Un-Block The Music” something that really hit home because I can totally relate, he doesn’t drink or smoke. He just loves music because “it is life changing. Yesterday, I did two shows, then had a rehearsal and still put the headphones on when I came home and listened to music for 3 hours. It’s the power of music and what it does to our souls!”
Chicago is a staple of New York at the Ambassador Theatre. What would Times Square in New York be without The Chicago girls handing out discount pamphlets? (FYI…my daughter is one of those girls who works for theatreMAMA, the living media agency that gives out those pamphlets. Check out the picture below.) By the way, for tickets, go to https://chicagothemusical.com/tickets
I will end this story with my favorite quote from Rob. The “show was a beautiful garden ( to start) and we just grew like Wildflowers.”
Picture is courtesy of theatreMAMA