Three simultaneous productions of the musical Irving Berlin's White Christmas are playing in the United States at the moment, all directed by Bobbie in a fall rehearsal process one imagines was a little like a Marx Brothers movie.
Did a wide-eyed Bobbie dash in and out of doors every five minutes to address different scenes of the three concurrent rehearsals? Was one door marked "Boston," one "San Francisco" and one "Los Angeles"?
Sort of, Bobbie told Playbill.com on break from rehearsals in October.
The franchise that began as one production (with some 30 performers) in San Francisco in 2004 has spawned two more troupes this year. Next year, although nothing has yet been announced, more cities will likely welcome the Broadway-quality show, which boasts such classic songs as "I Love a Piano," "Sisters," "Blue Skies," "How Deep Is the Ocean?," "Count Your Blessings," "White Christmas" and "Happy Holiday."
Bobbie, the Tony Award-winning director known for Chicago, Sweet Charity, Footloose and Encores!, talked to Playbill.com about the second year in the life of the hot new property. Playbill.com: How do you avoid chaos when rehearsing the three companies of some 100 performers?
Walter Bobbie: Organization. The Producing Office [run by producers Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller] is really on top of it. They wanted to make this happen so they did a lot of things to insure we could. We have two floors of 890 Broadway [the Manhattan rehearsal hall], we have two full rehearsal sets, we've got I don't know how many rooms down there. I also have nine stage managers, three for each production; three conductors, three associate conductors, dance captains. There are all these little units. I have an incredible team. We came back from last year and the first thing we did was get together in January and say, What did we learn? What should we do? How do we make this happen if this were suddenly done in multiple companies? [Production supervisor] Michael Passaro's an extraordinary stage manager, and the way he and my associate director Marc Bruni have helped me organize this plan is quite remarkable. I know it sounds foolish, but it's actually possible! We also have our technical supervisor, Brian Lynch, revising a few things [from last year] so things are pre-set [for the rehearsal room]. [Actors'] Equity allowed us to do costume fittings over the summer before we were in rehearsal because we have something like 900 costumes — 300 each production. All of these things were enormously helpful.
Playbill.com: In 2004, for the world premiere of this new production, the creative team was still discovering the show?
WB: We were writing it, rewriting it. Although we had done many, many drafts before we began rehearsal, we were refining it in the room. We go into this year knowing how it works. We created a template for rehearsing the show.
Playbill.com: What was the casting process like?
WB: Jay Binder, our casting director, started casting the show last spring. We were in auditions, I think, by March or April at the latest. We didn't want to lose a lot of people to summer stock — it's impossible to do casting in the summer. I thought, if we lose people to other jobs [in the time between spring casting and October rehearsal], since we have 100 parts to cast, if we lose 20 we already will have cast 80.
Playbill.com: Your directing associates are important to the process, because you can't always be in the room…
WB: I do a lot of the detail work with my associates there with the cast so the cast understands I am both empowering my associates [for] when I am not there. And also I'm very clear about what I think the direction and the pacing of the scene is.
The first week and a half of a musical — learning notes, harmonies and steps — there is just so much information to absorb that the director really takes a second seat there until they have a lot of that stuff under their belt.
Playbill.com: How did you get involved in White Christmas? Did The Producing Office call you?
WB: Yes. They called me. I told them what I thought of the project and what the project needed, and they were interested in my ideas. I've worked with The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization many times — Ted Chapin and the Berlin sisters [Irving Berlin's daughters], I guess they were in my corner in terms of who eventually came onto the project. My first real directing job in New York [Broadway's A Grand Night for Singing in 1993] was a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. The first thing I did when I took over as artistic director at Encores! was Berlin's Call Me Madam. I think all of those rights-holders had some confidence in my participation. Kevin and Jeffrey and I have been wanting to work together for a while. They let me bring on an additional team that I've worked with to help finish the work and shape it and really turn it into something I thought was sturdy enough. You really can't put that  film ["White Christmas" starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye] on stage, although you feel like you see the film. But the film has six songs in it. We needed to take the heart and basic narrative of that story and find out how to make it a full-bodied stage musical comedy.
Playbill.com: David Ives adapted classic musicals for the concert stage for Encores! at City Center. You brought him into White Christmas?
WB: I brought David Ives on. We've worked together as actor, director, producer. We have a shorthand. Basically, it was sort of like the old days where we had the commitment of a production and the agreement of the Berlins, but we were designing and writing all at the same time. I think David must have written at least six drafts over the course of a couple of months, and I think we went into rehearsal with a seventh draft. We continued to write in rehearsal [in 2004]. I think the concepts for how the show would behave and how it would work were there [at the beginning of the process] — the agreement with the estate about folding in additional songs was there, except for a few rules like "you can't use anything from Annie Get Your Gun." All the principal songs from the movie are there but a lot more has been interpolated. [Three musical numbers from the picture — "Choreography," "Gee, But It's Good to Be Back in the Army" and a long minstrel-show sequence — are not in the stage version.]
Playbill.com: Did you do major surgery to the script or score in the 2005 rehearsal process?
WB: No major songs are going, no. One throwaway thing is going. A one-page scene has been added to help clarify some things. We were quite fortunate with what we came up with [in 2004].
Playbill.com: This is a style of show from an era when personality was vital. Considering the rehearsal process is so massive, is there room for individual personality to be encouraged?
WB: I think there's always room. I've never had an experience that let me learn this lesson over and over as much as Chicago…where we invite personalities to embody these significant characters. I always look for the character in the soul of the person. If that character is in their soul, then how their personality informs it will vary. What Jay Binder has done so beautifully is — I believe we have three very, very well-matched companies. In each company there is a wonderful balance to tell the same story, but I wouldn't want to take anybody from one company and just plop them in another company. We haven't done it that way. We put together three specific companies and I think there is room for those personalities. These are performer-driven shows. Graham Rowat, Brian d'Arcy and Stephen Bogardus are three very strong men [in the Bing Crosby role in, respectively, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston] with three very specific spines and they'll each bring a different kind of wit and intelligence to the role.
Playbill.com: Is "optimism" the metaphor for this show's story?
WB: I think "optimism" might be simplifying it. What I like about the story is that all the conflicts are about really decent, well-intentioned people misunderstanding each other in a very critical way. There are no villains but there are some real clashes of will because people are only partially informed as to other people's actions. There's genuine consequence to that. What I like is that the tension of the show is between decent people. It's also a time when good manners and male bonding was different than it is now: Where being a good guy was an admirable thing, where a military leader had genuine respect, not just power. It's about a general who's had great impact on his men. Two of his men end up being great stars. By serendipitous means they end up at his inn in Vermont, which has fallen on hard times and bring their show up there and secretly invite his battalion up on Christmas Eve. It's about the men that he trained coming back and giving him a touch of his former glory — and his dignity — back.
Playbill.com: Do you think "old-fashioned" and "traditional" get a bum rap these days?
WB: I had an interview last year, I forget the journalist's name, and he said, "What new thing do you think you can bring to this material? Is it going to be edgy and relevant?" I said, "What is your problem?" [Laughs.] "It's a Christmas story!" Is it an edgy story? No. But what I love about this production is that I think it feels fresh. It doesn't feel like a revival to me. It feels like a show that takes place in 1955 but was written now. The other thing I like about it is I don't think it's falsely cheerful or stupidly optimistic. I think it's about genuinely decent people being exceedingly generous with each other — suddenly understanding what someone else needs and giving them not a present, but a gift. What they give is something you can't buy, and that, it seems to me, is the heart of every Christmas story.
For more information about the three White Christmas productions, visit www.whitechristmasthemusical.com.