Bobby Conte: the Broadway star comes home

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023
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Bobby Conte
Bobby Conte

Local Broadway buffs who couldn't make it to the New York for the pandemic-straddling revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" can play a bit of catch up over the next few weeks.

Beginning with Bobby Conte, who brings his solo concert, "Along the Way," A.C.T.'s Strand Theater this Friday, four members of the acclaimed production's Tony-winning cast will be swinging through the Bay Area with their own solo shows this month.

Bobby Conte at a Cleveland Playhouse concert  

Patti LuPone also performs this Friday at Stanford; Jennifer Simard, next weekend at Feinstein's at the Nikko; and Clayborne Elder, Feb. 22, also at Feinstein's. (Matt Doyle, the Marin native who won a supporting actor Tony for "Company" brought his cabaret act to town last September.)

Like Doyle, Conte (who's sometimes credited with the additional last name Thornton) has Bay Area roots, having spent the first eight years of his life in Palo Alto and then moved with his single mother to Noe Valley and later Potrero Hill. He attended the progressive Urban School in the Haight and studied theater at the A.C.T. Young Conservatory.

"My voice teacher lived in the Castro," recalled Conte, in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I started singing in a choir when I was three and did lots of community and children's theater."

Life in Emerald City
At age eight, Conte played a member of the Lollipop Guild in "The Wizard of Oz." By 18, he had his first major professional role in a Boxcar Theatre production of "Equus," for which he spent 15 minutes of each night's performance in the nude.

Bobby Conte and Mike Newman in Peter Shaffer's 'Equus' at SF's Boxcar Theatre in 2017  

"Living in San Francisco and being involved in theater was a wild way to grow up," said Conte, now 30. "You're constantly surrounded by people who are not like you. It's a very eclectic scene. I think that really helped me develop the skills of empathy that I've been able to tap as an actor."

The theater scene also provided Conte some balance to what he describes as a challenging home life, lacking a father figure.

"The best part of working in the theater for me is building a family unit with each production," said Conte. "That family atmosphere and being around people who think you're good at what you do helps you feel very free and present and in a flow state."

'Bronx' on Broadway
After attending the University of Michigan's acclaimed musical theatre program, Conte made his way to New York where, following work in several regional productions, he won the lead role of Calogero in the Broadway musical adaptation of the film "A Bronx Tale," Chazz Palminteri's 1960s saga of race and romance.

Bobby Conte with Nick Cordero in 'A Bronx Tale' on Broadway (photo: Joan Marcus)  

The show placed Conte amidst a remarkable team of collaborators. It was co-directed by Robert DeNiro, who'd directed and starred in the movie version, and Tony-winner Jerry Zaks. His love interest was played by future Oscar winner Ariana DeBose.

The score is by Alan Menken, whose stage version of "Beauty and the Beast" Conte recalls seeing "seven or eight times as a kid. I think that's what made me know I really wanted to do musical theater."

A mentor remembered
Of all the connections Conte made through "A Bronx Tale," the strongest was with actor Nick Cordero, whose character, middle-aged wise guy Sonny, takes Calogero under his wing.

Similarly, the Broadway veteran (Tony-nom'd for "Bullets Over Broadway") helped ease Conte's way into the demanding life of a fledgling star. The pair formed a powerful friendship that Conte counts among the most impactful relationships of his life.

Conte bittersweetly reflects on their bond in the autobiographical stories and song selections in his concert, "Along the Way." In July 2020, with Broadway shut down by the pandemic, Cordero died of COVID-19 at age 41.

The show, which Conte performed late last year at the Orinda Theatre, features a rich selection of show tunes and standards, artfully sequenced by Conte and arranger/music director James Sampliner to align with the story of Conte's path to Broadway from the Bay.

Bobby Conte, Kyle Dean Massey and Claybourne Elder in previews of the 'Company' revival.  

The evening's title song, "Along the Way," is a reflection on coming-of-age by Conte's fellow University Michigan alumni, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("Dear Evan Hansen") and the program also includes an unearthed Menken treasure from the once-planned musical adaption of "The Honeymooners," and, of course, some Sondheim, including "Time Heals Everything."

"I think when I started doing musical theater as a kid," said Conte, "I wanted to get as far away from myself as possible by playing another character. But as my acting teachers — and just getting older — taught me, it's not just about playing pretend.

"In a show like this one, I'm performing without having a character to hide behind. I found choosing and putting together the songs to be very illuminating. I've learned that being an actor is to be in a constant state of self-awareness."

Bobby Conte in "Along the Way," Feb. 11. $64-$89. A Feinstein's at the Nikko concert at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. 1127 Market St. (415) 749-2228.

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