Robert Billig is currently back on the road as musical director for the current US tour of Chicago: The Musical, which recently played here in DC at the National Theatre. After being totally frozen in Buffalo NY last week, I am happy to report, Robert is now enjoying the sun in Naples Florida before returning to Baltimore next week. Robert has been lucky enough to originate a number of shows in NY as a conductor and vocal arranger. A few of these include the original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors and on Broadway with the Brian Stokes Mitchell revival of Man of LaMancha, Never Gonna Dance, Miss Saigon, Les Misérables (North American Musical Supervisor for ten years as well,) Singin in the Rain, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and its sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Other Broadway credits include conducting stints with Wicked and of course Chicago. His recent national tour credits include Young Frankenstein, Les Misérables and The Drowsy Chaperone.
One of Robert’s most interesting credits (at least for us musical theatre geeks) is that he was a part of a musical that ended a tumultuous pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center. The musical was called The Baker’s Wife. It never did come to NY but a song from that show has become quite famous. Read on for the first hand account of how it almost flew away from the show.
Robert Billig has been around for a long time. After all, he was the associate conductor for the original Annie in 1977. Very few conductors from that time are still at it and even more so, you don’t see them conducting on the road very much. It’s a grueling schedule and while some tours carry the whole orchestra, Chicago: the Musical picks up most of the group in every city. That means Robert and his travelling core have to rehearse a new orchestra in every city they play in. As you will read, Robert Billig has an impressive list of credits but more than that, after all these years, he still loves what he does even if it’s a show he has conducted multiple times. You watch him on the podium and he is having a blast. When Robert Billig is associated with a production it is always a first class result. A great sounding orchestra and stellar vocals are things you come to expect when maestro Robert Billig takes to his podium in any orchestra pit, or with Chicago:The Musical, on any stage across the country. As the lyric goes, “It’s good, isn’t it grand, isn’t it great, isn’t it swell?” Yes it is.
Did you know growing up that you would on the musical end of things in the theatre?
I didn’t really consider either music or theater as a career until I was in college. I began piano lessons when I was eight years old, but was very musical even before that. I’m told I was able to plunk out a melody on the piano when I was barely tall enough to reach the keys.
When I was 12 years old, I auditioned for a local summer stock production where they needed children. I got into the show and was fascinated watching the conductor in the pit. Also, from our library I borrowed the orchestral score for Tchaikowsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” I listened to the record and followed along with the score. The realization that what was printed on the page was exactly what I heard on the recording was a real eye-opener for me. I think those two combined experiences lodged somewhere in the back of my mind, because, even as I entered college, I was a biology/pre-med major, with a music minor. Half-way through college I realized that the pre-med program was not for me, and that my true passion would be musical theater.
You have been on a number of national tours over the years as Musical Director. Do you still enjoy touring and do you miss being able to go home at night after a performance?
There is something to be said about bringing musical theater to people who might not be able to get to see a show on Broadway. Or even a national tour in a major city. But truth be told, I much prefer to be working on Broadway and be able to go home after the show. I toured a lot in the early years of my career (70s and early 80s). Then I had a long string of Broadway and off-Broadway shows in the mid- to later 80s, 90s and early 2000s. In the last 10 years I have been back on the road, as well as working in New York. There are different levels of touring productions nowadays. First class touring productions will sit in a city for an extended period of time – weeks or even months – and you can rent an apartment and settle into living there. Other tours you might stay anywhere from 2 days to a couple of weeks. Those are more difficult. You’re really living out of a suitcase. Also, some of the tours that move more often carry the whole orchestra (usually around 15 players). I much prefer that scenario rather than the tours where we have to rehearse a new orchestra in each city, especially when we’re only in a city for two performances. The one aspect of touring that I do enjoy is being able to visit different cities across the country and, occasionally, cities outside of the USA.
With Chicago you are using the identical orchestra size that is used in NY plus one (breaking the bass and tuba parts up to two players), which is a rarity nowadays. You are only carrying the two piano chairs and the drummer while picking up everyone else in each city. Without being specific to locale, have you ever had a situation on one of your tours where after the first read through you were left saying “Boy, do I wish we were self contained?”
Yes, absolutely. Chicago has played some very small cities where the quality of the musicians isn’t necessarily up to the challenges of the score. Only once on this tour have I replaced a musician who just couldn’t cut it. I wasn’t willing to sit through 8 performances of bad playing. But, truth be told, I would prefer to carry the orchestra with us. On the recent 25th anniversary tour of Les Misérables, we carried 14 musicians. It made touring life so much more palatable because we didn’t have to rehearse a new orchestra in each city, AND we had a consistently great orchestra. It was just better for the quality of the production. By the way, the concept of a single musician playing both the bass and tuba is still the standard of the Chicago tour. It’s just that in some cities, they can’t provide someone who is capable of playing both instruments equally well. That’s why we split it up, adding one additional musician.
You were part of a musical that ended its tumultuous pre- Broadway tryout here in DC at Kennedy Center called The Baker’s Wife. The show never did come to NY. The song “Meadowlark” is now kind of a standard for many singers but it almost didn’t stay in the show because of producer David Merrick. I have heard several accounts of what happened but I imagine you would know better than anyone what happened with this song. How do you recall the events leading up to the almost demise of “Meadowlark”?
I was completely unaware that Mr. Merrick had a problem with “Meadowlark.” I loved the song. It’s a very dramatic piece for the title character, coming at a very critical moment in the show – when she decides to leave her husband for a younger man. The song is an allegory and has been criticized for being to long.
The Baker’s Wife had been through a long out-of-town tryout period with engagements in Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis. It was decided that the show would return to New York and go back into rehearsal for 2 weeks before continuing on to Boston and Washington, D.C. I took over as music director when the show went back into rehearsal. Songs were being replaced and Topol, who played the baker, was resisting learning new material. (But that’s a whole other story!)
The show finally opened in Boston and was having a good run there. I can’t remember if it was the first or second week there, but we did have a mid-week matinee (Wednesday or Thursday). Mr. Merrick was in the theater for that performance. Before I had time to leave the orchestra pit at the end of the first act, the stage manager called me and asked me to collect all the orchestra parts for “Meadowlark” and to bring them to him onstage. When I arrived onstage, Mr. Merrick took the music from me, placed it in his briefcase and left the theater. I immediately called Stephen Schwartz to let him know what had transpired. He told me not to worry, that if Merrick did not return the music, he would pull his score and shut down the entire production. Needless to say, we had the music back the next day, but we still had to do that evening’s performance without the song and the dramatic music that ended the first act. We somehow did a cut and paste job to try to make a smooth ending to the act, but it wasn’t very good. I was very relieved to have the music back the next day.
There is an amusing anecdote that is told about the ‘blind bird song’ and how this little blind bird with a cane (the meadowlark) is outside the stage door of the Shubert Theater in Boston, trying to get back inside.
It is sad that the show was not successful. The score was beautiful; Stephen Schwartz’s most ambitious score at that time. We also went through three directors and three choreographers and two leading ladies. Lots of drama!!!
You have been associated with Chicago for a long time conducting both on Broadway and on tour. What is it about the show that keeps you coming back to it?
I love Chicago! I saw the original production with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. I was blown away by their performances, as well as the brilliant Kander and Ebb score and the Bob Fosse choreography.
I was also fortunate to have seen this revival production when it was originally staged as part of the City Center Encores series in New York in the spring of 1996. It was such a minimalist approach but it worked like gangbusters. It transferred to Broadway that November and became a huge hit. The original music director, Rob Fisher, opened the show but needed to leave after three months to prepare for the next season of “Encores” shows. He asked me to take over the show when he left. Needless to say I was thrilled and said yes! It was my great pleasure to work with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton and Joel Grey, each brilliant in the portrayal of their character. I stayed for 1-1/2 years and then left to do another project. Three years later I was asked back and did another 11 months. I filled in for the conductor on the tour for 5 weeks back in the spring of 2004 and have filled in for Leslie Stifelman, the current music director for the Broadway production, several times over the last 10 years.
I pretty much retired from touring back in 2012 after finishing up 2-1/2 years on the road (15 months with Young Frankenstein and 15 months with the ‘new’ Les Misérables). I had had enough of the road. After 2-1/2 years of leisure and traveling for fun, I start getting itchy to go back to work. When I received a call asking if I’d be interested in conducting the tour of Chicago for a limited 6-month run, it was a no-brainer. I love the music, the staging, the choreography. I love hearing the audience reaction. And I love being onstage with the orchestra (not buried in the pit). And I love the opportunity to interact with the stars of the show. It’s a great job!!!
We have a wonderful company. I love everyone that I work with; cast, crew, musicians, stage management and company management. I have had a great time, but come April 12, I will be very happy to go home to NYC!