BWW Interview: Ron Bohmer, Broadway Star and Singer/Songwriter, Leaving His Legacy
I first interviewed Ron Bohmer when he came to the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska as the Prophet Joseph Smith in THE BOOK OF MORMON. Recently, I spoke with him again and am delighted to show you another side of this talented Broadway star who has appeared as the Phantom in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Joe Gillis in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Enjolras in LES MISERABLES, and in a very long list of other lead roles in his 25 year career that has netted him numerous award wins and nominations.
Bohmer is also an accomplished singer/songwriter. He previously released two recordings, "Everyman" and "Another Life." "Another Life" is due to be re-released for the first time on downloadable platforms later this year.
You have a new record coming out as a singer/songwriter, "Legacy."
Yeah, my third release after a 19-year hiatus. I was somehow completely unaware it had been that long - a lifetime! So, I was looking back and asking myself, "Where did this drop off? Where and why did it stop?" The last time you and I spoke, it was about THE BOOK OF MORMON. Every time I've talked to the press it's been mostly about these sort of juggernaut Broadway shows I've done. So, this is really different for me, talking about things that figure into my real life and translate into my writing. It's a bit daunting. I'm anxious about it, but also excited. It's been one of the most amazing years of my life, digging deep and returning to songwriting; something I love desperately and somehow let go of. It feels really good to return to it.
Is there one of these songs that means more to you than the others?
Probably the one that holds the most meaning for me is "I'm Coming In." My mother passed just after I finished my second record. As I think about it now, losing the critical figure in my life probably figured into my stopping. I think some of "I'm Coming In" is about reclaiming her energy and revisiting the main incident of the song, which takes place at her funeral. The true essence of this song is, before her passing, my brother, my father, and I never verbalized the words, "I love you" to each other. That just seemed normal to me. That's just what guys do - or don't do. This song is about discovering the true nature of masculinity, the strength of vulnerability. As soon as I was in touch with her energy, a lot of stuff just started pouring out.
I'll tell you a quick story about my mom. Growing up in the town I'm calling "Westwood," a fictionalized version of my experience, it was hard to find a place to be expressive. A working-class town, with some very stern masculine ideas that I didn't fit into, it was rough stuff. My mother was always looking for outlets for me. She found this drama class on the other side of town. It was a summer thing and they were doing a play, "Rumpelstiltskin." I was such an undisciplined terror-I'd run all over the place and couldn't focus. I doubt the teacher was initially very excited about my joining. They put me in a class of all girls, which was common for me back then. In the dance classes my mom found, I was the only guy as well. I loved this. I had crushes on all the girls. Anyway, the drama teacher told us about the play. There would be auditions for the lead roles and the rest of us kids would do "really important things" like sell balloons and move scenery. She was making the backstage stuff sound so cool. So, I was like, "Sell balloons, that's what I want to do!" I went home and told my mom about it, and she said, "That sounds really nice, but wouldn't you rather play Rumpelstiltskin?" I was stunned. I had never thought of such a thing. I told her I couldn't do it. I couldn't memorize anything. I was terrified. She said she would help me. And she did. We sat on the couch in the living room and she helped me memorize lines. I went back and auditioned and I got the part. It was the beginning of the life that I now have, in that little kernel of a moment when my mother said, "I'll help you." "I'm Coming In" feels like a chance to put a thank you to her into the world. "A vision of a way to keep you living," the lyric says.
What do you mean by the words, "I'm coming in?"
The essence is about how we kind of put walls around our hearts, around our relationships. We're often waiting for permission from somebody else for those walls to come down. The lyric is "I'm coming in, not waiting for an invitation. Be brave. Begin. Stop waiting for an invitation." It's about taking the impetus yourself, having the guts to open your heart to the kind of relationship you want, regardless of how the other person responds.
I got a totally different feel from the song, "The King is Dead." Do you want to talk about that?
Well, the subconscious is a funny thing. The themes of the record for me are - what do we inherit? Is it helping us or hurting us? What are we leaving behind? Are we free to create our own legacy? A line in one of the other songs, "Born to Lose" goes, "Are the ghosts that walk beside us on our side, do their shadows block the sky?" That's been a big question of my life-trying to live up to these giants in my life-my granddad, my dad, my brother - not having the talents they had, having to break and go my own way.
"The King is Dead," almost word for word, was this epic dream I had. In the dream I was backstage at THE BOOK OF MORMON; I was in my costume, but the monitors were playing dialogue that I didn't recognize. I read this as, "You don't know your cues. You're suddenly in unfamiliar territory. It feels like your world, but you don't know what's coming." Within this, comes this epic story of the King, my father coming toward me, dying, and very Hamlet-like, his ghost comes out of his body and says, "I leave you this ravaged kingdom." And the son rises up to say, "No, it's time to let it die. We will build a new life." They say only the dreamer knows the dream. I've worked through this dream a lot and I think that I'm both King and Son in the dream. The "king" feels like my subconscious desire to still live up to a legacy that everyone else has long since let go of. The "son" is my authentic self saying, "Now you must let it go, too."
I like the building metaphor you have running through your album.
When I was growing up in the '60s, my grandfather was a bricklayer. You know that song that goes, "Little boxes, little boxes...?" My granddad built these brick houses that all look exactly the same, but they provided homes, security. In my song, "True Day," I talk about my first encounter with racism. When I was a kid, there was a man who shined shoes at the barbershop. I was fascinated by him, partly because he was the only African-American I'd ever met. The barber shop was just up the street from my house, so I would walk there and hang out with him. I offered to bring him comic books for his customers to read. I asked why I only saw him at the barbershop. I asked him, "Where's your house?" He said, "Oh, I can't live here." He took the bus in and out every day. He talked about change. His words inspired "True Day", a doorway into a story about building walls, keeping people safe, keeping out strangers, but did "keeping out" maybe also mean keeping someone down? Complicated questions for a little kid. And complicated issues for our country, which is very 'wall' focused right now. "True Day" takes the notion of walls and points it toward a larger human legacy. We're all building something, consciously or not. "True Day" asks, what are we really building with a legacy of fences?
Even though your lyrics are very personal, I think many will be able to feel a connection.
Thanks, I hope so. I think we all relate to being born into a situation that does not work for us, that doesn't allow us to be our genuine selves. If we're lucky, as I was, we meet catalysts; people who show us, through love, through truly seeing us, that we can find the courage to be ourselves. For me a big piece of it was redefining masculinity, the strength found not in hardness but in softness.
Is that what you mean when you say "The future is feminine?"
Yes, I absolutely believe that. That phrase becomes a mantra in the song, "Stripped Bare". It seems to me that most everything that's exciting and adventurous and peaceful and well done in this world is being done by women. The future is feminine because the totality of life exists in the balance of masculine and feminine. We're out of balance.
Your daughters are on your record, aren't they?
They're both on "Stripped Bare", as is my wife, Sandra Joseph. My daughters have actually sung an all three of my records, so that's a legacy piece, too. I often get ideas in what I think of as REM state. I'll wake up and have a song in my head and I'll go, "That's not a memory, that's new. I gotta write that down." When "Stripped Bare" showed up one morning, I heard this cacophony of voices from the three most important women in my life, each using their own mode of self-expression. In Austen's case, (she's an actor) she's reading Shakespeare, passages from Henry V, "Oh, for a muse of fire," because the song is so much about muses, that line caught me and I began to go through and find other pieces that identified her. Within that is the line, "a kingdom for a stage," which is a huge piece of her life. My oldest daughter, Cassidy, is reading The Hippocratic Oath (she's a doctor). My wife, Sandra, is reading her own writing from her book, "Unmasking What Matters" and her TEDx talk.
How long have you been working on this album?
The idea began forming when I met the producers, The Brothers Koren, who are incredible, the most remarkable guys, about 2 years ago. Sandra and I knew them as the band, The Kin. They've shared stages with Pink and Coldplay. Sandra was giving a keynote speech in LA and I was just coming in as a guest star, singing the title song from "Phantom of the Opera" with her for the finale. The Brothers Koren were in the audience; we swapped admiration. About a year later, I said to Sandra (again there's 19 years of dust on my writing career) that I have no idea if they did this sort of thing, but I'd love to start working on a new record and I'd love it if The Brothers Koren would produce it. Sandra's reaction could easily have been, "Maybe it's not a good time," but she got the biggest smile on her face and she said, "I think that's a wonderful idea!" That was the beginning of it, her vote of confidence. That was around September of 2018.
The big challenge was that the Brothers live in Ojai, California and I'm still on tour. I'd already signed a new contract, and I knew I was going to be on the road with MORMON for the next year. So, we started working in October via Zoom calls. We met every one to two weeks. I had the concept for the album and two or three songs already written when we started. I wrote the rest while traveling all over the US and Canada. I didn't meet The Brothers in person until May. We met in the studio and it was like, here we go! This is the beauty of living in the days of FaceTime. It was like having brothers from a foreign country and you finally get to meet. We had this incredible time of making music. We did principal vocals and guitars and drums in one week. I went back on tour for a month. We came back to it and built the full arrangements from there. The last and coolest piece of the puzzle was for "Stripped Bare" and "True Day." We captured the BOOK OF MORMON cast on choral vocals for those. So there's a huge choral ending to this record. Bringing my Brothers Koren family and my BOOK OF MORMON family together was the greatest thing ever. There's so much love on both sides. It felt like heaven.
Is the record published and ready for purchase?
In September. Hard to believe it's all happening. 19 years in the making!
Photo Credit: Jake Emmerling