Walter Bobbie knows just a bit about Scranton, Broadway and all that jazz.
Well, maybe more.
Since making his way to New York City decades ago after graduating from University of Scranton, the Tony Award-winning city native built a resume full of starring roles and star-making directorial efforts, including 1996’s Broadway revival of “Chicago,” which continues to run there.
Legendary choreographer and actor Bob Fosse staged the original “Chicago” on Broadway in 1975. It ran for two years, but the revival has completed nearly 9,000 performances, won six Tonys — including one for Bobbie’s directing — and is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. This weekend, Broadway Theatre League of Northeastern Pennsylvania brings the national tour back to Scranton for five shows from Friday, April 13, through Sunday, April 15, at Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave.
Bobbie, 72, had hoped to visit to his hometown “to be able to share the moment” with the “Chicago” audience, but his return to the Broadway spotlight — portraying Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, in “Saint Joan” — prevents that. The play about St. Joan of Arc — whose cast also includes Condola Rashad and Jack Davenport — opens Wednesday, April 25, at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York City.
The grandson of Polish coal miners, Bobbie described his beginnings in Scranton as modest. He and his family moved out of the city when he was about 11, but Bobbie returned to study at University of Scranton. During a trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, he saw “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” on Broadway and thought, “I’m coming back here. This is what I want to do.”
“Saint Joan” marks Bobbie’s first Broadway acting gig since he played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the early ’90s’ “Guys and Dolls” revival. His career there began with 1971’s musical “Frank Merriwell” and picked up speed when he originated the role of Roger in “Grease” in 1972.
Bobbie acted in several other productions in the ensuing years but also developed a desire to direct. He helmed little projects here and there, he said, and conceived and directed the Tony-nominated musical revue “A Grand Night for Singing.”
“Nothing’s overnight,” Bobbie said. “It’s just that sometimes you have the opportunity to really leap forward in a way you couldn’t have planned or imagined or dreamed.”
He started directing for the “City Center’s Encores!” concert series and became its artistic director. After he directed “Chicago” for the series, he said, it “took off like a rocket”and moved to Broadway within a year.
At the time, the O.J. Simpson murder trial had recently transfixed the nation, which Bobbie felt made “Chicago’s” story of the interplay of crime and fame timely. And that “topic has never gone away,” he added, enabling “Chicago’s” record-breaking run. While the 1970s version came across as more of a satire and indictment of America’s judicial system, Bobbie said, today the story seems like “more of a documentary.”
“Basically, it’s about getting away with murder,” he said. “It’s about the use and abuse of celebrity. … As much as it is a lot of razzle-dazzle and a lot of toe-tapping, it also leaves your mind engaged.”
Bobbie and Ann Reinking — who starred as Roxie Hart in the original show and the revival, which she also choreographed — wanted to honor Fosse’s “theatrical imagination” but not replicate his ’70s version, Bobbie said. The pair started by reworking three major numbers, such as by making “Cell Block Tango” look “like one of those great Fosse chair numbers,” Bobbie explained.
“I think that one of the nicest things that’s ever been said to me (was) by the great agent of Sam Cohn. … He said, ‘If Fosse was alive today, this is how he would do it,” Bobbie said.
Eager to direct, Bobbie did not think about the show’s potential success at the time but rather his commitment to things and how they stimulate the imagination.
“(Scenic designer John Lee Beatty) and I decided early on … that we wanted to put the band in a jury box on stage,” he said. “We compressed them. Everybody should be trapped in this show. We continued to use visual metaphors that kept informing our process. And then we had all this joyous music with this singular dance vocabulary.”
Paulette Merchel — Marywood University’s former theater program director, chair of Broadway Theater’s education committee and a relative of Bobbie’s by marriage — said tears filled her eyes the first time she saw “Chicago” on Broadway, in part because it put into perspective all Bobbie had achieved. Bobbie presented “Chicago” in a more abstract, minimalist way that “makes you stop and think,” Merchel said.
“To see something that from the first moment was exciting and fresh and different and compelling and contemporary,” she said. “I appreciated it immediately as a new era. He was part of a new era of getting the message through musical comedy out in such a different way.”
The public tells whether a show succeeds, Bobbie said, and they certainly did that with “Chicago.” Besides running for decades in New York, it spawned several tours and an Oscar-winning film adaptation.
Since earning his Tony, Bobbie has gone on to direct such Broadway shows as “Sweet Charity,” “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” “Footloose” and Steve Martin’s “Bright Star.”
“I feel blessedly part of the theater community, and I have since I got here,” Bobbie said. “I don’t know how that happened. I got off the bus and started working. If they wanted to get rid of me, they missed their shot 40 years ago.”
Bobbie has returned to Scranton through the years and said he feels honored to know the community has supported him during his career.
“All I can say is that if you’re in Scranton and you’re interested in the arts, stay there, make a difference in the arts, or do what I did and follow your dream. … I’ve been all over the planet because of ‘Chicago’ alone, (not) including my other work,” he said. “It’s important when you’re in Scranton to dream big, and if not, stay in Scranton and make a difference, because it’s a remarkable community.”
If you go
What: “Chicago,” presented by Broadway Theatre League of Northeastern Pennsylvania
When: Friday, April 13, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 14, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 15, 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Where: Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave.
Details: Tickets cost $42 to $77 and are available at the box office, ticketmaster.com and 800-745-3000. For more information, visit broadwayinscranton.com.
What: “Saint Joan,” starring Scranton native Walter Bobbie
When: Now in previews; show officially opens Wednesday, April 25
Where: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York City
Details: Tickets cost $65 to $145 and are available at telecharge.com/Broadway/Saint-Joan/Ticket. For more information, visit manhattantheatreclub.com.
Dance workshop and talkback
Broadway Theater League of Northeastern Pennsylvania will offer a jazz dance workshop with members of “Chicago’s” touring company Saturday, April 14, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Ballet Theatre of Scranton’s studio, 310 Penn Ave. The program is open to intermediate and advance student dancers and dance teachers. Admission is $25 and includes a ticket to that day’s 2 p.m. “Chicago” performance. Reservations are required by today and can be made by calling Broadway Theatre League’s office at 570-342-7784.
Following that 2 p.m. show, Toyota of Scranton will present a talk-back with “Chicago” representatives in the Scranton Cultural Center theater. The free talk-back is open to workshop students and anyone from the public who wants to stay after the performance.