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Broadway Bobbie.

Overnight sensation is a term usually applied to actors. But with his revival of Chicago, Walter Bobbie has catapulted to the A-list of Broadway directors. In early 1996 he mounted a New York concert version of the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical as part of City Center's Encores! 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 director Bob Fosse. "We dressed everybody in Fosse's favorite colors: black and flesh," he says with a laugh. The cast 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. It spawned a London production and two national touring companies, one of which opens in Los Angeles May 6; all the productions together gross more than $2 million a week. It also earned Bobbie a Tony Award and an Olivier Award nomination for Best Director.

Of course, like most overnight sensations Bobbie had spent all of his life preparing for his close-up. "Growing up in New Jersey, I'd put on a sombrero and sing `we're havin' a heat wave' at the church annual variety show," says Bobbie, a handsome 53-year-old with graying hair and clear blue eyes. In eighth grade he, got a stereo for his birthday and a bunch of LPs, including Oklahoma!--the first of many show albums. "I memorized album covers the way some guys memorized baseball cards," he recalls. He studied accounting and literature at a Jesuit college in Pennsylvania until his mentor told him, "Forget about being a priest. Go live your life." After graduate work at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Bobbie moved to New York and worked his way up the Broadway ranks from the original production of Grease! in 1972 to Jerry Zaks's 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. He took three weeks off from playing the role of Nicely Nicely in Guys and Dolls to stage a well-received cabaret revue of Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs. That led to first directing for and then running the Encores! series until Chicago hit pay dirt.

As a veteran chorus boy steeped in show tunes, Bobbie's the kind of director who loves performer-driven shows. "I grew up on shows that were built around not just great actors but great personalities--`We're doin' a show for Merman!'" he offers as an example. And as the multiple companies of Chicago attest, Bobbie has a penchant for multicultural casting. African-American actor Jasmine Guy will play a leading role, Velma--filled by Neuwirth on Broadway--in Los Angeles, as she has in Chicago, Boston, and Washington. In the other road company, visiting cities including Cleveland, Denver, and Providence, R.I., the prison matron Mama is being given an extra butch boost by lesbian comic Lea DeLaria.

Now preparing a Broadway version of Dean Pitchford's 1984 movie musical Footloose for an October opening, Bobbie has become a major deacon in the Church of Musical Comedy, which has a huge and passionate gay congregation. Still, Bobbie bristles at being considered a gay artist. "I'm a man who's gay; I'm not a gay man," he says. "That's important to me." And he's quick to dispel the myth that gay people run the world of musical theater. "You know, we think of it as just a bunch of campy queens dancing and singing and playing show tunes. But when you move up into the producing world of musical theater, the muscle and finance of Broadway theater is very straight. The funny thing is," he adds, "those guys know more about show tunes than anyone in the world. I'm now surrounded by a lot of straight musical theater queens!"
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Title Annotation:theater director Walter Bobbie is directing 'Chicago' and 'Footloose'; Spring Music
Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 12, 1998
Previous Article:At long last, love.
Next Article:Rufus Wainwright.

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