Get to Know Your President: Of Thee I Sing's Ron Bohmer

Of Thee I Sing has one of the finest pedigrees in all of musical theater: score by George and Ira Gershwin, book cowritten by George S. Kaufman, winner of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for drama (the first musical to be so honored).

A few more noteworthy names are attached to the play for its first major revival in over a decade. The Paper Mill Playhouse production, which opens this week, is directed by Tina Landau, Steppenwolf regular and cocreator of Floyd Collins. And starring as John P. Wintergreen, a bachelor who is elected president of the United States on a platform of love, is Ron Bohmer.

If you don't know Ron Bohmer, you haven't been hanging out at stage doors around the country. Bohmer cultivated such a rabid following during the national tours of Aspects of Love, Sunset Blvd., The Phantom of the Opera and especially The Scarlet Pimpernel that he's got his own fan club, called BohmerBuddies, who post photos with him and comments about his performances on the website.

Of Thee I Sing is Bohmer's third musical in the past year. He had a seven-month run off-Broadway in The Thing About Men, costarring Marc Kudisch, followed by another off-Broadway musical this spring, The Joys of Sex. The job-hopping is uncharacteristic for Bohmer, who played Enjolras in Les Misérables on Broadway for two and a half years in the mid '90s. He spent the better part of 1999 in the title role of The Scarlet Pimpernel, first on tour and then on Broadway, before taking up the role again on tour a year later. He also put in 10 straight months as the Phantom of the Opera.

Bohmer, who was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award (Chicago's version of the Tony) for his portrayal of Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., is also a songwriter who has performed his own music (as well as some showtunes) on two CDseveryman, which was released in 1998, and another life, which was recorded live in 2000. His daughters, now age 9 and 13, sang briefly on the albums. Bohmer spoke with while rehearsing Of Thee I Sing in Manhattan, shortly before the company moved out to Paper Mill's theater in Millburn, N.J., for the Sept. 8-Oct. 17 run.

What side of Ron Bohmer will theatergoers see in Of Thee I Sing that we haven't seen before?

There's much more comedy in this than a lot of the things I've done. Certainly Scarlet Pimpernel was funny, but it also had some pathos to it. So the style of that particular piece was a little more on the heroic and tragic side, with these wonderful and comic moments that would come out of all that when Percy would play the fop. This [Of Thee I Sing] is just out-and-out goofy. [Morrie] Ryskind [who cowrote the book] wrote for the Marx Brothers, so the energy of this piece from the get-go isI don't want to say ludicrous, but it has an absurdist element to it. And Wintergreen's the kind of guy who just gets a ridiculous idea and he's so enthusiastic about it that he just goes: "Here's what we're gonna do: We've got a problem…the farmers are sick of being farmers, they want to travel, and the sailors in the Navy, they're tired of the ocean, so, oh, I've got itlet's have them switch places." And then everyone does it. That's the kind of piece it is, it has that ludicrous element to it. Which is delightful for me; there's nothing that's too much in this.

How meaningful is it for you to be doing this show during a real election season?

I wanted to do it for two reasons: I wanted to work with Tina Landau, and I just thought it was such a great idea to do this at the time of the election, because I'm a somewhat political animal. My father and I are always hashing out, because he's so strongly Republican and I'm so strongly Democrat, so every telephone conversation or dinner that we have together is just butting heads… I thought it would be really exciting at the same time that a presidential election is going on to look at the humor within all of it, the pageantry, the posturing, the issues, but more than anything just the theater of it. Politics and theater are so closely related, and never more so than when someone's trying to get elected. I think it's really fun to be in a piece that has no pretensions about being theater, that is going to be so close to the politics some people are going to go, "Is this real? Is he really running for president?"

Does Wintergreen resemble John Kerry or George W. Bush?

Not specifically. Only in the sense that both candidates go right to the center. At the beginning [of the play], somebody says, "What party are we, anyway?" There's no opposing party in this piece; they exist, but we never meet them. Wintergreen's response is "Oh, we've got plenty of time for that; the important thing is to get elected." Meaning, the values are less important right now than "just let's win the job and then we'll figure out what people want." I'm looking at where do people play the middle just so they can be the candidate of choice: "What do you stand for?" "Well, what do you want me to stand for?" This guy [Wintergreen], as president, why he's such a great reflection of any candidate today, in history, whenever, he's got this great optimism. He's such an optimistic character, but in reality he's not the brightest bulb. So the way he gets away with everything is by putting a big smile on his face and just charming everybody to death.

After all the 18th- and 19th-century stuff like Phantom and Pimpernel, you did two shows this year set in the present day. Now you've gone back in history again, though just to the 1930s.

This is a really cool period in U.S. history. America didn't quite know what it wanted to be yet, and if you look at any of the films of this period you see that sort of searching. You had the stock market crash, we hadn't quite gotten to the Depression yet, and we're not up to World War II. So you're in this ambiguous time where Hollywood is sending out one message of glamour and Fred Astaire dancing on the clouds with Ginger Rogers; in the meantime, you've got people lining up for soup kitchens. It's just a fascinating time of finding a national identity.

In my review of your last play, The Joys of Sex, I gave the show a C- but the performers an A. It was probably the biggest discrepancy I've ever seen between quality of the performers and quality of the material. How do you stay on top of your game when the material is, shall we say, subpar?

I really liked the performers. My take on it was very similar to what the audience's take on it was. Even at moments when I felt the material was less than what I would have liked it to be, I could find pleasure in all the performances. You're always getting something from that other performer that makes you go, "This is fun for me." Even in a great piece, there's always at least one moment where you go, "Yeeww…are they gonna buy this? How's this gonna work?" So part of your work as an actor is finding the places that you have to sort of, "Okay, we're on thin ice here textually, or maybe this melody is not that great, so what's the hook? What's the thing that's going to get us past this?" Sometimes it's complete belief in the moment that you're doing. Sometimes it's about let's just get through this as fast as possible and maybe they won't see…

You did The Joys of Sex for two months, and Of Thee I Sing runs for only six weeks. That's quite a change from your long runs in shows like Les Miz.

The challenge of that is how do I make this the first time every night, when I thought of everything I could think of a year and a half ago? It's all about keeping it fresh. One of the things that helps in a long run is cast changes a lot. That changes things, just by virtue of who you're bouncing things off of. Listening helps a lot. The thing we forget to do in acting is to listen, to really listen to what the characters say. If it's impetus you're getting from the orchestration, from the music, from dialogue, whatever it is. If you're really listening, then you're really talking. But when you've been listening to somebody say the same thing for two and a half years, that's where the challenge is: to make sure you're really showing up.

Your career didn't start exactly as you had wanted it to. Webster University in St. Louis (where Ron majored in musical theater after graduating from Cincinnati's School for the Creative & Performing Arts) wasn't your original first choice for college.

I auditioned for NYU and I auditioned for SUNY Purchase, and they both rejected me, which turned out to be a good thing, because I really didn't give a crap about the training. I just wanted to be in New York. I probably wouldn't have finished school if I had done that. I'm glad I did. I think that's why I'm where I am now, because I learned how to be an actor instead of just doing it. A lot of good people come out of Webster: Norbert Leo Butz is a graduate. Jerry Mitchell [choreographer] was a sophomore when I was a freshman, we were in dance concerts together. Then he got a tour of Chorus Line and left [school].

You're best known for shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Frank Wildhorn, both of whom aren't always spoken of admiringly in musical theater circles. How do you respond to that criticism?

It's the easiest thing in the world to be critical of something. And Frank is an easy target, because he does write to please. He wants his show to be a hit, he wants everybody to hum the tunes. That, actually, was the earmark of a great composer [in the past]. Now it's like, "Oh…hack!…schmaltz!…blah-de-blah…" He's trying to write a pop song. Well, that used to be the point. Andrew's stuff is with us forever, whether we like it or not. Frank is a young composer searching for his place in the American musical theater. He's going to find it, a lot of his stuff is going to survive. I write songs too, and I think it's very easy to stop yourself from doing anything simply by saying, "Oh, people won't like it." There are a million reasons based on other people's opinions to stop yourself. So you can do that, or you can just do it and be damned. I give these guys massive amounts of credit. I'm proud to have been a part of all of them. For me, if you're going to create a piece, that gives me a landscape or a playground on which to go and have a ball. That's what I try to do in all of these things. I try to stay away from the judgment side of it and just go, "I'm gettin' to have a good time and I hope you will too."

So, what about the BohmerBuddies?

It still shocks me, to this day, that anybody would buy a plane ticket and travel across the country to see me do something anywhere. Most of the people in the "fan base"I'm still uncomfortable saying thatare from all over the country. Most of them saw national tours that I did. I tend to see 30 to 50 of the same faces, and some of them I know very well. Pimpernel is when it sort of galvanized. My Web person had said, "We could do a thing where people could write to you"; at that time I just thought, sure, why not, how much could I get? The Internet was fairly new; people were just getting online. We started [the website] sort of mid-Phantom, and the volume was fairly high, and it just got crazy with Scarlet Pimpernel. I was getting, like, 30 pieces of e-mail a day. Many times the "Buddies" have come to town when I'm doing a show, and they're saying we'd like to take you out for your birthday, which I've done with them. I've been extremely fortunate in that the kind of people that have chosen to maintain an attention toward my career have been really the loveliest people. I've had no stalkers or crazy people. They're fans of a lot of people, they go to a lot of different shows. They go and support the theater, and support the performers.

Did anyone ever express inappropriate affection for you?

I did have a girl write me once and say that she thought that she was in love with me. That was a little, wooh. I chose to respond and just say, I think what you have to realize is that you really don't know me. Not to treat anybody like they're crazy or anything like that, but any values that you might be equating [with me] based on what you've seen on the stage, those are choices that I'm making, you're seeing what I want you to see.

What's been special about your experience on this show?

Working with Tina, the fun of it is finding the comedy, finding the energy, the pace, the timing of this periodthere's a very fast pace to the dialogue in this period, people talk fast… Within all of that, it's finding that sort of Marx Brothers energy, that sort of Jimmy Stewart innocence, that wonderful combination of all the things that this wacky piece isthese things jammed together to make an entertainment. Wintergreen is part Steve Martin and he's part Jimmy Stewart and he's part Eddie Murphy. He's just got all these different things that make him this character. And he's every presidentmy goal is to make him every president that we can remember. I want people to see glimpses and go, "Oh, that was Reagan… Wait, now he's more like Carter… Now he's more like a traveling salesman." He's got Harold Hill in him too.

Top photo: Ron Bohmer with Wally Dunn, left, as his vice president in Of Thee I Sing [photo by Jerry Dalia]. Bottom photo: Ron as Joe Gillis in the Sunset Blvd. tour. 

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