Producing together: Moore and Moore

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Wife and husband Wendy and Bob Moore have worked on approximately 75 stage shows together. Their latest collaboration: Aspen Community Theatre's presentation of "The Producers," directed by Wendy and starring Bob.
Leigh Vogel The Aspen Times |

Wendy and Bob Moore both slowly, unwittingly made their ways into the theater. Wendy was focused on a teaching career, specializing in English and speech; to earn her degree, she needed to take some theater classes. At one point early in her career, in her native Wisconsin, she was required to direct a play, which wasn’t one of her great ambitions. “I said, ‘If you people are dumb enough to have me, I’ll be dumb enough to do it,’” she recalled. A few years later, while working at the Heritage Square Opera House in Golden — she was a waitress — Wendy was asked to take a small role in the show. Again, it wasn’t a burning desire to act that got her onstage. “They needed someone. I figured, Well, my mother will never know.”

Bob had done a lot of theater as a student at Loveland High School, but after graduation he pursued other avenues that had nothing to do with acting. He spent time in the military, then attended Colorado Aero Tech, to learn to do mechanical and electrical work on airplanes. But in 1970 his old high school theater teacher offered him a job — as a bartender — at Heritage Square. Bob took the position behind the bar, and when the next show came up, he was given a small onstage role. Bob remembers the character he played — The Old Signalman — but not the name of the production.

“And I stayed with it,” he said. “That began my professional career, because I got paid to do it.”

If there is one aspect of their theater lives that the Moores have pursued with very specific intentions, it is seeking out opportunities to work together. Since meeting — on New Year’s Eve of 1970, at Heritage Square’s presentation of “The Streets of New York,” though neither was in the cast — the couple has worked together on approximately 75 shows.

“We both believe in quality. That’s paramount.”
Bob Moore

Part of that has been professional circumstances. From 1975-78, they worked together on the Goldenrod Showboat, a dinner theater docked on the Mississippi River below the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In addition to working together on shows, Bob managed the entire operation, while Wendy served as artistic director. “I could fire him from the show. But he could fire me as artistic director,” Wendy noted. “There was a nice little tension there. And kind of funny.”

Part of working together so often has been the practicalities of being married. Both had day-job careers — Wendy as an educator, including seven years, through the mid-‘00s, as principal at Carbondale’s Roaring Fork High School; Bob primarily at a retail lumber yard — as well as a passion for theater. “If I wanted to see him, I had to do theater, and if he wanted to see me, it had to be in theater,” Wendy said.

The other part of their working together frequently is that they work well together. Their passion to collaborate seems to run as deep as their love of the stage.

“I seek out Wendy as a director because the collaboration we do is of a high quality,” Bob said in his distinctively deep, resonant voice. “She knows my strengths and I know hers. We’re a good pair. And we get to talk it out afterwards, whether it was pleasant or not.

The two have an easy way about them as a couple — no tension, no shtick. When I asked if there had been difficult episodes in their artistic life together, Wendy joked.

“Two weeks ago,” said Wendy, who has been married to Bob for some 40 years, with two daughters — an actor and a choreographer — on their joint resume. “It was a long drive home.”

* * * *

The Moores’ latest collaboration is Aspen Community Theatre’s presentation of “The Producers,” the Mel Brooks musical comedy that was a monster hit on Broadway. The show, based on Brooks’ darkly satiric film from 1968, earned a record-setting 12 Tonys after it opened, in 2001, and brought its co-stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, into a rare level of stardom for stage actors. Aspen Community Theatre’s version, which opens tonight at the Aspen District Theatre and has dates through Nov. 17, is directed by Wendy Moore, and co-stars Bob Moore as the Nathan Lane character, the duplicitous Broadway huckster Max Bialystock. Corey Simpson co-stars as Leo Bloom, the meek accountant with Broadway stars in his eyes. Lauren Koveleski plays Ulla, an attractive but modestly talented and marginally intelligent actress. Also in featured roles are Ed Foran, Adam Solomon and Willie Moseley. The long-standing team of Jody Hecht and Rita Hunter serve as co-producers.

The Moores have been in trickier shows. Recently, they co-starred in “On Golden Pond,” the emotional story of an aging couple and their tenuous family relationships.

“I honestly don’t care if I ever act again, it was such a nice experience,” Wendy said of the production, at Breckenridge Backstage Theater, a company the Moores have close ties with.

“The Producers” is a different kind of pleasure. The show is broad satire, with big flourishes of Broadway inside jokes, Borscht Belt humor, overtly splashy song-and-dance numbers, and over-the-top characters. (Ulla’s full name is Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yonsen Tallen-Hallen Svaden-Svanson.)

“It’s like being in a softball game, with these big softballs: ‘Let me hit that one out of the park,’” Bob said.

“So many times in rehearsal, I think I’d have given a lot of money to be in the room when they came up with these lines. It’s so funny,” Wendy said.

Still, there is plenty of substance to be found in the story of a scheming Broadway veteran who brings an inhibited accountant into his plan to make money by staging a deliberate flop. At the core of “The Producers” is the idea of friendship, as it plays out between Max and Leo. Bob goes so far as to put Max Bialystock in league with the other great middle-aged, Jewish dreamer from Broadway — Tevye, the wise but troubled patriarch from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“Those are the two great baritone roles — talk about ones that you can absolutely wrap your head around, wrap your character around. Those roles are it,” Bob, who has never seen a stage version of “The Producers,” said. “’Fiddler’ has a little more meat to the character — Tevye’s in more serious circumstances than Max. Max is a shyster who knows who he is. And he ends up finding a guy he wants to take advantage of, but can’t. Because he likes the guy. Max ends up being taken advantage of.”

Even with its silly side, “The Producers” offers serious challenges to anyone involved in its staging. Max Bialystock’s great plan is to create a show that is bound to flop, destined to be so bad that it will close immediately and there will be no obligation to pay back his investors. The show he picks: “Springtime for Hitler,” an offensive and schlocky love letter to Nazism, written by the lunatic ex-Nazi, Franz Liebkind (played by Moseley). The “Springtime for Hitler” audience within the musical is enormously offended, and there is patent danger of getting the same reaction from the audience for “The Producers.”

“Yes, it can be offensive,” Wendy said. In taking on the show, Wendy thought about Mel Brooks himself — a New York-born Jew who witnessed World War II as a corporal in the U.S. military. His service included defusing bombs in Europe; he also witnessed the condition of war refugees.

“It this man, who’s Jewish and has gone what he went through, can find humor in Hitler, so can I,” Wendy said. “There’s that glint in his eye — he knew he’s being offensive. And we know it. I’ve been saying since the beginning: the most important toll you have is your eyes. You have to let the audience know you know what you’re doing. You have to have that twinkle in your eye.”

The Moores believe the audience has a role to play; they should come knowing something about the tone and content of “The Producers.” “It’s like ‘Book of Mormon’” — the current musical comedy that pokes fun at Mormon culture. “It’s incumbent on you to educate yourself a little bit on what you’re seeing,” Bob said.

The Moores also extend credit to Aspen Community Theatre for not getting spooked about the material. “Do you try to dumb it down? But then where do you stop?” Wendy, who has directed past productions of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Pippin” for Aspen Community Theatre, asked. “ACT knew what they were doing.”

Then there is the material itself. Despite the campy (and hard-to-forget) caricature of Hitler, “The Producers” is at heart the tale of Max and Leo, and how they affect one another.

“It’s fundamentally a story of friendship, and it’s accessible that way. And it’s about greed, and we recognize that when it comes around the corner,” Wendy said. “And Mel Brooks — he’s recognizable. There’s that whole body of work that comes at you.”

Possibly the greatest ally Wendy and Bob Moore have in getting “The Producers” across is one another. Over 40 years and scores of shows together, they have become a team. Bob says he can’t recall a single negative experience of working with his wife.

“We both believe in quality. That’s paramount,” Bob said.

“We’re relentless that way,” Wendy added. “We’ll keep working on it, keep pushing it. It’s a good thing we agree on that. Otherwise it would get ugly.”

“I respect her as an artist. And I love her as a human being,” Bob said.

“And I kind of like him,” Wendy said.

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