Friday, May 18, 2018

A Conversation with Craig Bohmler, composer of GUNMETAL BLUES, playing now at A/C Theatre Company

Craig Bohlmer
by Gil Benbrook

Composer/pianist Craig Bohmler may have been born and raised in Houston but for over thirty years he's had strong ties to Phoenix, which he now calls home. He's written dozens of musical compositions, from choral pieces to opera and musical theatre scores. His first musical score, Gunmetal Blues, premiered here in Phoenix in 1991 and is now back in town at the theatre where it all started, in the A/C Theatre Company production at Phoenix Theatre.

Bohmler, who is also serving as the musical director for this production, took a few minutes between final rehearsals for this production to answer a few questions about the show, his work, his training, and to talk about his strong ties to both Phoenix and Phoenix Theatre.

Craig, for someone who doesn't know the musical Gunmetal Blues, what can you tell them it's about?

"It is a musical that tips its hat to the detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It is a loving send -up of the 1940’s film noir but with a bit more of an edge."

How did the idea for this show, that you wrote with Scott Wentworth and Marion Adler, come to be?

"It came from an idea that Marion Adler and Scott Wentworth had. Marion is the lyricist and wife of Scott who wrote the book for the show. We had a friend, the late Richard March who was a freak of nature, a guy who could play the piano, sing and act equally well. We wrote the role of Buddy Toupee for him and this was a vehicle for Scott and Marion (both actors at the Stratford Festival in Canada) to star in. Scott and Marion had always loved those aforementioned authors and this style in particular, so they encouraged me to come on board, which I did willingly."

Gunmetal Blues is one of your first original musicals and the show premiered close to 30 years ago. Have you incorporated any changes into the show since it first premiered?

"The show premiered at Phoenix Theatre in 1991 around the middle of May, so we are in year 27. We made significant changes after that premiere for the subsequent production which was the Theatre New Brunswick (the provincial theatre in that province in Canada). Following that, we got picked up for an Off-Broadway production and it is at this point that Scott and Marion took over the lead roles. We made more significant changes and rewrites here. After that production it was published by Samuel French and no further changes were made."

David Dickinson and Kim Richard in A/C Theatre Company's production of Gunmetal Blues
photo courtesy A/C Theatre Company
For the A/C production, local musician Steve Hilderbrand is playing the part of the piano player in the show. I know you served as the music director in the original Off Broadway run of the show, and, like you mentioned, your collaborator Scott Wentworth played the Private Eye and Marion Adler played the Blonde in that production. I also know that you’ve appeared on stage before, including just this season in The Boob Show which you also wrote music for, but have you ever played the role of the piano player in the show? 

"I have NEVER played Buddy Toupee. You would not want to hear me sing nor see me act, but I have enjoyed revisiting this show as musical director after some 20 years. It has had multiple productions including in London in November of 2016, but I have not been a part of those. Jerry Harkey was our first Buddy Toupee for the premiere and went on to do the role another 3 times after that. Like Jerry, Steve had the abilities both as an actor/singer and pianist/band leader from his experience at Theater Works and other places. He is quite something to watch and extremely fine at his craft. I could not be happier with him."

I know you were born and raised in Houston, but how did your connection to Phoenix, and Phoenix Theatre happen?

"In 1987, my partner was invited to ASU to work on the Galileo Project . That is what brought me to Arizona. In 1991, I was invited to serve on the opera/musical theatre panel at the National Endowment for the Arts, where I met Barbara Day Turner. She invited me to San Jose, CA to conduct her chamber orchestra and to write a harpsichord concerto for her. I went for five weeks and returned thirteen years later. In 1995 I bought a home here and met my husband Rusty Ferracane. We were doing lots of commuting between Scottsdale and San Jose, but I returned here in 2005 and we were married in 2015. During my San Jose years, I was commissioned by Michael and Phoenix Theatre to write Quiltmaker's Gift in 2002, so I have always maintained that relationship with Phoenix Theatre which is really my theatre home."

What type of musical training did you have?

"I went to college in Denton, Texas at the University of North Texas which is a prominent and well- respected music school. Following that, I got my masters at University of Houston where my mentor and famous American opera composer Carlisle Floyd was teaching. Following this degree, I was invited to the Houston Opera Studio (at Houston Grand Opera) where I was trained as a vocal coach in languages and opera. It was here that I got my real training as to how the singing stage was produced on a grand scale. Following my 3 years there, I was invited to the Banff Center for the arts as a composer-in -residence and then became musical director for the winter program for the following three years. In that final year, I met Marion Adler who was an actress in one of our touring shows. I began to write musical theatre with her (Gunmetal Blues was the first). "

Speaking of your Opera and musical theatre background, you've written both musicals and operas, including the recent debut of Riders of the Purple Sage at Arizona Opera. What did you learn from your work on Gunmetal Blues that helped in the creation of your other scores, such as Enter the Guardsman, The Quiltmaker’s Gift and Purple Sage.

"I do not distinguish between the musical theatre and opera as they are both the singing stage. It is simply a matter of style and appropriate music for the story-telling. Before Gunmetal, I thought I would be a classical musician, but after meeting Marion and Scott I then wrote from the musical theatre for almost 20 years. Encountering the Riders property was a stroke of fate, but it thrust me headlong back into opera. I was writing it at the same time as The Boob Show, so you see there is quite a bit of diversity in my tastes and styles. I try and write what is appropriate. Enter the Guardsman is Viennese and turn of the century in its style, and Quiltmaker is childlike."

As you mentioned, the first production of this musical was at Phoenix Theatre, so I have to imagine bringing the show back to where it originally debuted, in this A/C Theatre production at Phoenix Theatre, is something special. What does having the show back where it started mean to you?

"Phoenix Theatre is my home! This is because Michael Barnard has always supported my work. He has premiered five of my plays. I have worked there as Musical Director and got my start there in the musical theatre back in 1987 which it was Phoenix Little Theatre. This means the world to me to have it back there. The staff is always encouraging and supportive of my work and I always feel empowered to create. Trust me, this is a rare privilege to have a theatre like this. I am very blessed."

CLICK HERE for more information on A/C Theatre Company's production of Gunmetal Blues playing at Phoenix Theatre, playing through June 3rd 

1 comment:

  1. So happy and proud to have a production of GUNMETAL back in Phoenix! Bravo and thank you to all! From Marion Adler (lyricist.)