Have piano, will travel: ‘Crazy For You’ musical director Bob Finnie

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesBob Finnie is musical director and conductor of Aspen Community Theatre's production of "Crazy For You."

ASPEN – For someone who has made his living playing music, and whose musical knowledge spans from Steely Dan to gospel, Broadway standards to Frank Zappa, Bob Finnie isn’t all that consumed by music. “I’ve never been one of those guys who eat and sleep music,” Finnie said. “I’ve always had a lot of other interests.”Those other interests, though, can often deepen Finnie’s musical expression, and such is the case with his latest gig, as musical director and conductor of Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “Crazy For You.” The show, which earned the 1992 Tony Award for best musical, is built around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin. So while his evenings have been devoted to rehearsals, Finnie, who describes himself as a “history nerd,” has spent his days in the Pitkin County Library reading all he can not only about the Gershwins, but about New York City in the 1920s; Gershwin contemporaries Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields; the business of Tin Pan Alley; patterns of cultural migration and immigration.”It’s been fun to immerse myself in that. It all informs how I conduct this show, understanding the significance of Gershwin,” he said. The 57-year-old Finnie adds that the Gershwins were at a “crossroads” in American culture. Before the ’20s, American popular music had been mostly Gilbert and Sullivan-style operettas and Ziegfeld revues, both of which borrowed heavily from European forms. The Gershwins and the rest of the Tin Pan Alley writers could have come only from America – a good part of the reason their output is known as the Great American Songbook.”What happened in the ’20s, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you had the Jews, like Gershwin’s parents, fleeing Czarist Russia, fleeing that kind of persecution. And you had the blacks coming up from the South, looking for work,” Finnie said. “These two groups, both fleeing persecution, both singing the blues of different kinds. Gershwin would go to Harlem, bring these guys home, hang out with them. And the Jews and blacks were both using the Old Testament as the source of their blues. George brought those black elements into his songwriting, and also bridged the gap between classical and jazz.”Probably the ultimate expression of Gershwin’s hybrid style was “Porgy and Bess,” an opera of black life in the South that drew on jazz, blues and gospel. “Crazy For You,” however, arguably captures even more of the essence of George Gershwin. The musical is Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of the Gershwins’ own show, “Girl Crazy,” from 1930. In both versions, the story focuses on an East Coast playboy who, despite his family’s wishes, is drawn into the theater, and ends up producing shows in the West. But the story – “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back; ‘Let’s put on a show and save the old theater’ – shameless entertainment,” Finnie said – is not really the point. The core of “Crazy For You” are the production numbers made out of the music, including such enduring standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” (all of which originated in “Girl Crazy”), and “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Ludwig snagged from other Gershwin musicals.”Working with all Gershwin songs, there isn’t a clunker in the bunch,” Finnie said. “It’ll be a feel-good experience.”Rita Hunter, co-producer with Jody Hecht, of Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “Crazy For You,” says that during rehearsals, she told the orchestra how good they sounded. “And they said, ‘Well, it’s Gershwin,'” she recalled. “It’s so lyrical, melodies that are hummable, singable. Nothing complicated like Sondheim. I love this show because it’s happy.”ACT’s “Crazy For You,” which opened Thursday and plays Friday through Sunday, with additional performances through Nov. 18, stars John Goss as Bobby Child, the dance-obsessed New Yorker who is sent by his family to foreclose on a theater in the dying town of Deadrock, Nevada. In Deadrock, Bobby falls for Polly Baker (Lauren Koveleski), whose father is passionate about the town’s Gaiety Theater. Seeing that foreclosing on the theater is a sure way to lose Polly, Bobby, in the guise of Broadway producer Bela Zangler, stages a show to raise money and save the theater. The story allows for surefire theater devices: showgirls in skimpy feathered outfits; mistaken identities; fantasy sequences; iconic settings in the Old West and on Broadway.Directing and choreographing, in her ACT debut, is Jacqui Edelmann. Joining her behind the scenes are ACT regulars Tom Ward (set designer), Kathleen Albert (costume designer) and Loren Wilder (lighting designer), with Eddie Cox handling sound. The 29-person cast includes Corey Simpson, Naomi Havlen, Bob Moore, Nina Gabianelli, Mark J. Thomas, Jennifer Schiller and Lynnette Schlepp.••••At the age of 10, in his native Ohio, Bob Finnie saw Julie Andrews as Maria in a touring production of “The Sound of Music.” Finnie realized at the time that it was a glimpse of his future. “It’s strange, but I understood that. Julie Andrews singing ‘Do-re-mi’ – I knew I could do that, and that I’d do that with my life,” Finnie, who had begun piano lessons two years earlier, said. Finnie spent his junior and senior years of high school on the road with his brothers and another set of siblings, playing piano and singing in a full-time band. He went on to study music education at Mt. Vernon Nazarene College and got a master’s in musicology from Ohio State.But like the conflicted nun Maria, Finnie was torn. He had been raised not only with music, but with religion, in the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical sect – “this real insular world,” he recalled. So music had a certain form and purpose – the entire Finnie family, including Bob, his three older brothers, and his father, a choir director, would get up together and sing in church. The group that Finnie was a part of during high school sang nothing but gospel.”This was during the Jesus movement, 1970, ’71. We’d do these little beach crusades,” he said. “Christianity suddenly turned hip and lots of people turned to Jesus after things went sour in ’69, ’70. Hendrix died, Joplin died, Morrison died. The guy got killed at the Stones concert; Vietnam was going on. For whatever reason, the Jesus movement happened, all these church youth group wanted to do stuff. We rode the coattails of that.”At Mt. Vernon, Finnie got ordained and became a pastor at small churches. After graduate school, he moved to Colorado to become a pastor at Denver First Church of the Nazarene. It was the denomination’s biggest church, big enough that it had 25 full-time pastors and a 3,000-seat auditorium. And big enough that Finnie could lose himself in the musical end, directing the orchestra, conducting two singing groups, and stage managing the services, which included a 300-person choir. (And everyone had their own microphones. It was crazy,” Finnie said.)About halfway through his nine years at the church, Finnie lost his faith in its teachings. “In college, I had read Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche,” said Finnie, who continued reading philosophy, literature and religious texts while working as a minister. “I realized there was more than one way to see the world and think about things. I’ve always just wanted to know the truth – what really happened. Creation – that’s a nice story. But what really happened?”Even on the music side, Finnie wasn’t fully aligned with the church. “I was the black sheep because I wanted to listen to black gospel, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations,” he said.Facing the age of 30, Finnie had his epiphanic moment on a beach near San Diego. “I’m thinking, I’m 30, about to start a family. Am I going to be a phony?” he said. “It took me four years to walk away from it, because my work, my family, my expectations were all tied up in this. It took some courage to say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t buy any of this, good-bye.”It’s also when I started making my living as a musician, in nightclubs and social events.”••••A main reason for Finnie to join the church in Denver was the opportunity to work with a church-affiliated music producer who had good connections in the local scene. Finnie got experience with arranging in the studio, laying down rhythm tracks, making commercials. On occasion he’d work with Richie Furay, from Buffalo Springfield, and Kenny Loggins, but most of the projects were religious in nature. So when he left the church, in 1986, he felt like he’d missed out on popular culture.”I had to play catch-up,” he said. “I was 30 and there was so much I had missed. Everyone else had done drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. For me, Elton John, James Taylor – that was ‘Oooh, scary stuff. Secular music.'”Finnie entered the mainstream by playing with a Denver r&b duo, then joining a big company that provided bands for special events. One day, a bandmate told him of an opening: Mark Schwartz, a big-time New York theater producer, had moved to Steamboat Springs, was going stir crazy, and had opened a dinner theater, Club Majiks. He was about to open another Club Majiks, in Vail, featuring a cast of 15 singers and dancers, and needed a musical director. Finnie got hired over the phone and spent three years learning a new trade.”I wasn’t even sure I knew what a musical director was,” he said. “I knew how to play piano, teach people harmonies, write out little arrangements. I learned how to be a musical director and loved it. Then after the show, people would come onstage and the band would get to do rock ‘n’ roll, which was great. Because musical theater – after a while, you’ve had enough of it.”From Vail, Finnie developed connections to Aspen. As part of the Broadway Players, he began to get deep into musical theater repertoire, and in the best way. “They’d pick the best stuff,” he said of their revue-style shows. “That let me develop my taste and learn what was really good in musical theater and what was not so good.”In 1997, Finnie made his debut with Aspen Community Theatre, as musical director for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a memorable extravaganza. He returned now and then to work on the group’s productions of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Wizard of Oz” and last year’s “Evita.” In the late ’90s, he started doing musical direction for Theatre Aspen productions; over the last several years, Theatre Aspen has been his steady summer gig. In 2000, after doing a piano bar gig at Club Chelsea in Vail for several years, he helped open a Club Chelsea in Aspen, and played the bar there. Finnie, who still lives in the Vail area, has spent the last decade playing at Splendido, a fancy piano bar in Beaver Creek.••••Finnie is feeling the desire to uproot himself once again. He bought a Toy Hauler travel trailer to hook up to his car. Among his first destinations is Santa Fe, where he will spend the winter in more or less familiar surroundings: playing piano at Vanessie’s, a B&B with a restaurant and piano bar.”Not even a piano bar,” he said, correcting himself. “Their main dining room has a 7-foot grand right in the middle, the focal point of the restaurant.”Mostly, though, Finnie is looking for genuinely new experiences. A devoted traveler, he has been around the world twice, and two years ago completed his mission to visit all 58 of the country’s national parks (except for one, in American Samoa). He wants to spend time in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest, and upstate New York, where there is a string of established regional theaters. (New York City is not on his itinerary: “I can’t go to Manhattan. I need to be in the trees,” Finnie, a mountain biker and nature lover, said.)”I have a little electronic keyboard. But I’ll try to find places with a real piano. Those are nicer,” Finnie said. “But I can do what I do most anywhere – live in the woods with my binoculars and notepad and camera, then get cleaned up for the gig that night.”