PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Walter Bobbie

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Walter Bobbie Few works of contemporary art can boast the long life span of English writer Nick Hornby's 1996 novel "High Fidelity."
Walter Bobbie
Walter Bobbie Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The book, about Rob, the owner of a vinyl record store who has an extensive knowledge of pop music but no clue when it comes to women and relationships, has become a cult classic on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2000, it was converted into a hit movie starring John Cusack, with the locale switched from London to Chicago. Now, it has become a Broadway musical (set in Brooklyn), with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Amanda Green and a book by David Lindsay-Abaire — all making their Broadway musical theatre debuts (though Lindsay-Abaire has seen his play Rabbit Hole bow on Broadway and Kitt has worked the Rialto as an arranger and conductor). Guiding the team through the process is experienced hand, director Walter Bobbie, piloting his first original Broadway musical since 1998's Footloose. Bobbie, fresh from staging the 10-year anniversary show of his long-running hit Chicago, talked to Playbill.com about the view from inside Championship Vinyl, "The Last Great Record Store on Earth."

Playbill.com: How did you become attached to High Fidelity?
Walter Bobbie: I was called in by the producers to talk about the project. At that time, they didn't really have a script. They had a CD of about six songs that Tom Kitt and Amanda Green had written. Just by happenstance, I was a big fan of Nick Hornby. I had read all his stuff. I was in London working on Chicago and I thought, "Who is this guy?" I sort of fell in love with his writing.

Playbill.com: So you've been working on the project for a number of years.
WB: Yeah, one and a half or two years.

Playbill.com: Did you draw inspiration only from the novel, or did you use the film as well?
WB: I think we learned from both. We were trying to figure out how to make this a musical which is very different from a novel, and just trying to find out where the motor for this show was. Since the producers had absorbed the rights to both of those properties, we freely borrowed from both places. There was something about the structure of the film that was intriguing, but it was the sensibility of the novel and Hornby that we tried to let rule the piece.

Playbill.com: My experience has been that most musical theatre artists are thoroughly disconnected from contemporary pop and rock. Did you have to give yourself a crash course in the type of music these characters would listen to?
WB: No, I've had the radio on for the past 30 years. Also, as an actor, my first show in New York was Grease. I was in the original cast of that. Although I don't have the knowledge that these…uh…what's the word I'm looking for? Playbill.com: You were never a record store geek?
WB: I was never a record store geek, but I've had the radio on, and I think some of the references they're drawing from are not just contemporary but stretch back quite some time.

Playbill.com: It seems the composing team was trying to create a score that was evocative of the kind of music the show's characters traffic in.
WB: Yes, I think to. I think it pays tribute or homage, rather than being satirical or trying to make fun of great artists. I think it tries to honor.

Playbill.com: What changes had been made in the show since the tryout in Boston?
WB: The main thing we realized when we went out of town is that the novel is a first-person narrative and more and more the show had to be about Rob. Our show had to be a first-person narrative if it was to track that character in his journey in romance.

Playbill.com: So you created more audience address for Rob?
WB: Yeah, we created more audience address. We gleaned our ideas specifically from the novel. Every time we really needed to talk about something, David Lindsay-Abaire always went back to the novel to find the voice for Rob. There was also a character, the drunk, who was in the movie, and hung around the shop. We found that character was a bit of a cliché. So we took that part and turned it into another character called The Most Pathetic Man In The World.

Playbill.com: Bruce Springsteen plays a major role in Rob's world.
WB: It's his fantasy. He wished he were like Bruce. We stretch that fantasy where Bruce comes and teaches Rob how to let go.

Playbill.com: I understand that Bruce Springsteen is big idol for Kitt.
WB: Oh, yeah, I think so.

Playbill.com: And Amanda Green has worked in one of her musical idols, Lyle Lovett.
WB: Yeah. (Laughs) It's personal with them. They worked in the things that they love.

Playbill.com: Have the Hornby fans been coming out of the woodwork and going to the show?
WB: I don't know. My feeling about it is, it has to work as a musical comedy. Someone asked me, "What will the vinyl geeks think about this?" And I never imagined that any of the vinyl geeks would ever think about coming to a Broadway show. Or the Hornby freaks. That's like saying someone would make the movie "Witness" so that more Amish people would come to the movies. The musical has to exist on its own terms. It can not be written for the people whom it is about. As we tooled the show, we took out anything elitist, because I didn't want to divide the audience. There were certain things in Boston where six people would get it, and I thought, "That's not fair." No one should feel excluded from this show. It's about the characters, not what they know.

Playbill.com: In a recent article, Amanda Green said she and Kitt wrote and tossed out many songs. Are there new songs in the New York production?
WB: Yes. The apology song at the end of the show, "Laura, Laura," is completely new. I think it's a beautiful song. Before, they had a duet called "Wonderful, Wonderful Love" and it seemed premature for them to get back together. It seemed to all of us that he had to grow up and take responsibility for the things he had done and pay his debts. And it had to cost him something. He had to apologize. We've had at least four songs from Laura at the top of the show and they've been beautiful. Jenn Colella could do an album of Laura songs. (Laughs.) But once again we found that the story is really about Rob and though they were beautiful songs, surprisingly the audience wasn't interested in hearing from her yet.

Playbill.com: Let me ask you about a few of your other projects. Will White Christmas ever come to New York?
WB: I think we'd like it to. I think what's happened to White Christmas is it's becoming a new tradition out there in America and we're very happy about that. We didn't want it to come to New York and be a one-off and be subjected to the kind of thumbs-up, thumbs-down scrutiny in its first incarnation. I hate to say this, but I wanted the show to be in some way critic proof, because I know it's such an audience show. I want to bring it here when it has a wonderful reputation.

Playbill.com: What was the Chicago 10-year anniversary show like for you?
WB: It was a night I won't soon forget. I don't think I'll ever forget. Just a caravan of one star after another, topping each other. Whether they had six lines or a scene or a song, there was such a joy in their coming together. I think the most significant thing about the evening was that we still did the show, even though it was one celebrity after another taking the stage. The story still got delivered. We'd been planning this for months with extensive production meetings. The script of the show was already developed by the end of the summer. We had 20-some stage managers. We had people getting dressed across the street in a hotel. We had a week a rehearsals in which every celebrity was brought in for several private rehearsals, so that everybody was taken care of separately and then we put the whole thing together on one day. It was really very carefully planned.

(Robert Simonson is senior correspondent for Playbill.com. Reach him at rsimonson@playbill.com.)