Giggling high-schoolers snap to attention at rehearsal as a hearty man at the piano growls, “Please don’t talk when I’m talking.” All eyes are on him — this is the time when Bob Bohon starts pulling together this year’s spring musical, “Anything Goes.”
And it’s the beginning of the end of an era. After 27 years with Rock Bridge High School, Bohon is directing his last show at the school.
On this day weeks ago, the soloists take themselves seriously, careful to hit even the really high notes. The rest of the chorus members think they’re all stars in a way — you can tell by the determined bite of the lip before they enter the song and the way each tries to sing a little louder than his or her neighbor.
Sometimes confidence falters, and the piano overwhelms their timid voices. Bohon jumps in to demonstrate with robust vibrato.
“The world has gone mad today,” he sings.
As director of the theater, faculty member Jennifer Cone makes her rounds through the rehearsal with her hands on her hips.
“They’d really have to hire three people to do all he’s done,” she says.
Sure, she understands why he wants to leave. He has worked hard, and he loves the kids and school, she says, but he wants to pack up and see his own children, both of whom are appearing on Broadway now. Both graduates of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Melissa Bohon is in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Justin Bohon, who performed in “Oklahoma,” recently joined the cast of “The Producers.”
Although he will enjoy new flexibility in his schedule, Bohon, 54, says his decision to leave “was more a financial decision than anything else.” He says he is at a point in his teaching career where his salary cannot increase anymore. He still has a house to pay for, though, so he’s not retiring.
“I’ll still do something, maybe related to music, maybe not,” he says.
Later on, it’s time for a run-through of Act I. Bohon moves the students through the scenes like pieces on a game board.
“OK, we’ll work on that,” he says over and over again — encouraging, prodding, adjusting.
One cast member can’t seem to grasp the essence of a drunk man, and Bohon demonstrates. He gets up from his piano, waves and shouts to show the part. He stumbles, throws his arm over the boy’s shoulders, and speaks in exaggerated, slurred phrases.
About two weeks later, the cast works on exact positioning onstage — that is, where hands should rest, which way bodies should turn, who they should walk in front of to get to the other side of the stage. They’re perfecting New York accents and trying on costumes.
“If we don’t get laughs out of this one ... “ an actor warns jokingly as Bohon rehearses a slapstick comedy scene over and over again. The humor of the scene exists in the way the characters look and gesture toward one another, and Bohon wants to get it just right. He works with the five or six principle characters. He is up and down, in and out of his chair. He talks with his hands and mimics what he wants them to look like.
The cast and crew come from a variety of backgrounds. For some of them, this is their first time in musical theater, the class that produces the musical every year. Others, such as senior Tanner Bollinger, have taken the class year after year. Bollinger says Bohon’s friendliness, plus the hard work he demands, keeps students returning. Bollinger says Bohon always tells the class he earns $3.50 an hour, then says, “Make me earn my $3.50 an hour.”
Between classes, students hang out in the music room.
“This is our home, this room is,” says Laura Cotton, a senior in Bohon’s show choir. “He doesn’t treat it like a job. It’s not a job — it’s what he loves to do.”
Students say they won’t know what they’ve got until he’s gone. They see the extra hours he puts in. All of them talk about how he’s there way before school hours, practicing with choirs, and building and painting sets until late evening.
“He devotes his life and soul to the school,” says Barrett Villiers, a junior in his second year in the musical theater class. “He makes sacrifices to make sure his students get the full benefit of their education.”
In addition to the three choirs that meet during school hours, Bohon directs two more that meet outside class time. Also, years ago, he came up with the idea for “theater backstage,” a class in technical theater. The class’s main focus is set-building, and Bohon teaches it at beginning and advanced levels.
“I’m wearing so many different hats I don’t feel I can have even my summer to myself,” Bohon says, because of the planning he does during the summer just to stay caught up for the school year.
Bohon runs a private voice studio out of his home, so he says he may increase his studio business to create work for himself.
His first big project, though, is a show with his Broadway children at Jesse Auditorium at MU next year. It won’t be the first time he’s performed with his kids. Through years of community theater involvement, he was able to play Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” with his daughter.
High on his long list of things he’d like to do is use his own voice.
“Performing for yourself is like going on vacation,” Bohon says.
He may consider directing again if the opportunity presents itself. His wife, a second-grade teacher at West Boulevard Elementary School, is also leaving her job. The couple talks about eventually moving closer to New York, but nothing is sure yet.
Kathy Ritter, assistant principal at Rock Bridge who has worked with Bohon since 1992, calls him “gracious.” He doesn’t just take an interest in his students’ events but goes to football games, too, and relates well to all kinds of people, she says.
Ritter says Bohon teaches by showing the students what a composer was maybe feeling when he or she wrote a piece or by discussing the physical aspects of making a musical sound. No one has been hired yet to succeed him.
Says Ritter, “He’s uniquely able to pull the most talent he can from the students.”