Bobby Conte Thornton makes his Broadway debut as leading man Calogero in the new musical A Bronx Tale. Before he was singing his song on Belmont Avenue, he was in the audition room. Here, he explains how he booked the job and reveals the repertoire that led to the Broadway stage.
What song did you sing to book this job?
Bobby Conte Thornton: When I had the initial [audition], I sang this song called “Earth Angel” from the 1950s by the doo-wop group called The Penguins because they wanted authentic doo-wop music, and then I sang stuff from the show. I had to sing “Out of Your Head,” and “In a World Like This,” the duet I sing with Ariana [DeBose] at the end, and the song I sing over the coffin at the end, “The Choices We Make.”
What are two other go-to audition songs you sing?
Any opportunity I have to pull out “Streets of Dublin” [from A Man of No Importance] I do, even though it’s with an [Irish] accent. That’s where my voice sits naturally, and it shows me off well, and then if I have to do something more contemporary sounding—I still have an old soul at heart. I just pulled this out for an audition I did recently—I sang “I Chose Right” from Baby. It can come off as a contemporary-esque song because it has a rock-folk feel, but it’s still incredibly well-structured and written like a good musical theatre song. I also do, if you need something more contemporary, a cut of “Some Kinda Time” from Dogfight that I made into a solo.
Any advice on finding the perfect cut? Do you work with a rep coach?
I had a great class in college at the University of Michigan, where they have you find a cut for a song of every era. When I was going in for Bronx Tale, I needed a ’60s or ’50s doo-wop cut. I had a song that I already worked on and prepared because I had found a song from every era starting from the ’40s. So I think that’s a great way to go about it, and I think we’re asked more and more to sing songs that are not from shows. We’re asked to sing either in the style of an era, or you need a very contemporary rock or pop sound. I have worked with rep coaches in the past, but it’s finding songs that you’re passionate about singing. It’s tricky to find this balance of finding a song that’s “right” for the character that you’re going in for, but also just something that, at the end of the day, you enjoy the hell out of singing and that shows you off well—so a casting director can see what you do and go, “Okay, can you slightly filter this more towards the specific gig that you’re auditioning for.”
What do you use for auditions that ask you to not sing musical theatre songs?
I love this artist Jamie Cullum, who is actually a pianist, and he mostly sings in a jazz trio. He has these really incredibly orchestrated songs. Because I play the piano, I sing a song [of his] at the piano called “All at Sea,” but if [the casting directors are] not really cool with me playing the piano, I sing a different song of his called “I’m All Over It,” or I sing “Here, There and Everywhere” by The Beatles because I think it’s structured like an incredibly well musical theatre song. There’s literally a two-bar adlib verse, and it goes into a refrain, like any good Rodgers and Hammerstein song.
Where do you look for inspiration? How do you keep your book fresh?
Whatever show it is, I’ll just literally search on iTunes that era [that it takes place in], and I’ll look at artists of that time. If I can go back and delve into a certain decade, that’s how I find inspiration—just by learning about the kind of bands and what their inspirations for writing their songs [were], and see if I can connect to that.
Do you have a terrible audition story, or was there a song you used that you’d never use again?
It’s a terrible audition story that kind of worked out in the end. When I went in for Bronx Tale initially, it was like three years ago, and it was for the workshop of it, where they wanted an 18- to 20-year-old to play the nine-year-old version of Calogero. I sang “Cry For Me” by Bob Gaudio, which is seen in Jersey Boys. I tried to sing it as a nine-year-old, and I just totally bombed. That was the first time I had every auditioned for Merri Sugarman, who casts the show and is a casting director at Tara Rubin [Casting]. When I got submitted to audition for Calogero almost a year ago, I have no idea what she thought. She probably thought, “This [is the] crazy kid who did this terrible audition for the nine-year-old.” When I was actually singing for the character who is closer to my age, I think she said, “Oh, great, he has some real potential here.” The fact that it actually all worked out—and my relationship with Bronx Tale started as this very funny bombed audition—is very full circle and cool.