This week, Playbill's new weekly feature, How Did I Get Here—featuring not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—spotlights Rob Bowman, the musical director and conductor of the record-breaking, Tony-winning revival of Chicago at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre.
Bowman has a long association with the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, having served as the musical director and conductor for the musical's recent U.S. tour and 1997's first national touring company. He's also been the music supervisor for companies in Paris, Berlin, Holland, Australia, Stuttgart, and Seoul. His Broadway credits also include the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music, All About Me, and A Change in the Heir—plus Elaine Stritch At Liberty, part of his 15-year musical partnership with the late, Tony-winning actor. He is also the composer and arranger of Hot Mikado.
In the interview below, Bowman charts his journey to Broadway and shares several memories collaborating with the unique, monumental talent that was Elaine Stritch.
Where did you train/study?
I started playing the piano when I was four, began taking lessons at seven, attended Oberlin Conservatory and James Madison University, and received a Bachelor's of Music degree in Piano Performance from Catholic University of America.
What are the responsibilities of a music director before a show opens? What are the duties when the show is up and running?
This answer could take up most of this page, but in a nutshell, anything that is played or sung, in rehearsals and performances, falls under the jurisdiction of the music director (if there is a music supervisor, this changes somewhat). Rehearsals are always so creative, challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, and a lot of fun as you explore every note of the score and do your best to bring out the intentions of the composer, lyricist, director, choreographer, and the creative staff.
When working with the cast, the music director experiments with keys, where to breathe, where to place the vocals (mixing, belt…), articulation, etc., quite often working on the arrangements themself. It’s also important to help make the transitions from scenes to songs flow as seamlessly as possible, and most of all, and this goes for both singers and the orchestra, is how best to tell the story through the music.
What made you decide to become a music director? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
I started out professionally as a solo jazz pianist, but everything changed when I began to accompany singers and instrumentalists. The collaboration was just so exciting to me. It still is!
What do you consider your big break?
Washington, D.C., in 1983 when I first began playing for composer revues, which led me to assistant music director at the Shakespeare Theatre at The Folger’s production of The Wind in the Willows.
What was your first Broadway credit? How did that job come along?
Oh boy, that would be A Change in the Heir, which opened at the Edison Theatre in April 1990, and closed in May. I had worked with its director, David H. Bell, a few years earlier on several new musicals, including Hot Mikado. I was in my late 20s, and to join the Broadway community then was a dream come true. And, it still is now.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
Probably when I had my aortic dissection (aorta ripped open) in 2003. I was pretty sure I’d never be able to conduct again.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
It’s a toss-up between my fellow performers, who have such dedication to their craft, and to all the teachers that have changed our lives and have inspired so many of us.
What is your proudest achievement as a music director?
In addition to my association with John Kander, Barry and Fran Weissler, and my time at Chicago—it would also be my nearly 15-year association with Elaine Stritch. What I learned from her about music and lyrics...and life. So grateful.
Can you share some memories of Elaine?
We had just opened Elaine Stritch At Liberty on Broadway. I was home in bed asleep, and my phone rang around 2 AM. I knew it had to be Elaine (no one else called me regularly in the middle of the night), and all I could hear was this wild, uncontrollable kind of sobbing and weeping and a few attempts at trying to say something. I was scared, I thought maybe she was having another hypoglycemic attack. I said, “Elaine, are you alright? Talk to me. I’m calling 911!” I started to hang up, and she was able to yell out, “Rob! … Rob! … Stop! … Listen!”
She took a moment and finally said very slowly, “The Times...The New York Times…the review, it just came out. It’s a love letter. Rob…they still like me.” There was a long pause, and she could barely get out the words: "They still…like me!!!” She was so overwhelmed, she broke into tears again, and the two of us cried and laughed without saying anything for a very long time before finally hanging up. In our nearly 15 years together of rehearsing or performing pretty much every day, I was so lucky to have shared so many powerful, intense moments together. Maybe none more than the one that late evening.
Here are two smaller Elaine moments… God knows, I have so many of them!… During one of our rehearsals, Elaine and I were struggling a bit with a new song. We couldn’t make it work. We sat for about a minute in silence. She then came up with a great solution to our problem. She smiled, turned to me, and said, “You know, I didn’t just lick it off the ground!”
Elaine and I were at opening night of August: Osage County, the curtain came down after the first act—it was so good, so intense. She turned to me, looked at the stage, and with a bit of a laugh said, “That is some heavy furniture."
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Stay true to your passion, hopefully find that one special someone, and baby, dream your dream!
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
Nothing, the joy is in the journey!