As we sat over a cup of coffee, 25-year-old Walter “Bobby” McCoy spoke to me in a way only someone who has been in the theatre world for 10 years can: vividly and with gusto. The Helen Hayes Award-winning music director’s smile reached up to his eyes with every story he shared with me about his experiences. McCoy, who hails from Falls Church, Virginia and now resides in nearby Manassas, commutes to Shirlington’s Signature Theatre, Dupont Circle’s Keegan Theatre and the DMV’s Levine School of Music for various projects. He’s currently juggling music direction for Keegan’s Legally Blonde from August 3 to September 1 while working at several theatre camps with students of all ages.
Not everyone can say that they thrive in chaos – some may even find it overwhelming. But when you are in the theatre world, it is often your life. McCoy fits into this chaos in his own way: starting off as a piano accompanist for his high school chorus at 14, he was able to pick up the scores easily. This ultimately led him to be on the other side, directing kids and adults alike and garnering attention from the professional theatre community with three Helen Hayes Award nominations by his early 20s. I picked McCoy’s brain on a recent July day about his foray into DC’s theatre scene.
On Tap: Tell me how you first got started with music growing up.
Bobby McCoy: I think my first experience was in my general music class in elementary school. I was really attracted to accompanying singers and watching the interaction between my music teacher and the accompanist. I loved being a part of that and seeing how she would work with people.
OT: Where did your passion for music come from?
BM: My passion started when I started taking chorus class in seventh grade. I had just started playing the piano. I was fascinated with the accompanist, [the idea of] someone playing with a whole group of people. [That was] the bug that bit me. Eventually, this led to me playing full concerts as an eighth grader.
OT: What brought you into the theatre world as a musician?
BM: I took a leap. I saw that Marshall High School was doing Company, so I signed up. Eventually, I was an assistant music director. I was very green. After that, I did Chicago, and then that summer I saw that the Little Theatre [of Alexandria] was doing Company and I went in [and got the job of rehearsal pianist at 15]. It has been sort of nonstop since that moment.
OT: Why did you want to pursue GALA Hispanic Theatre’s In the Heights as a music director? What about the storyline stood out to you?
BM: I grew up in a Hispanic family, and a lot of the things that they go through and the cultural aspect of the show was really appealing. The music was something that reminded me of the authentic culture I grew up with as opposed to the stereotypical Latin number that you would see in a show like Chicago, for example.
OT: How did you feel when you were nominated for three Helen Hayes Awards and won for In the Heights at only 23?
BM: It was really weird. I was happy I won but I was nominated for three shows, so I was sort of like, “Which one am I rooting for?” I did a lot of work for Heights. It was my first time going out of town for a show. I was proud of that show and happy that it got the recognition.
OT: Why did you choose Levine School of Music’s Performance Institute as an institution to work as a music director?
BM: I’ve been on the faculty here for three years. I like inspiring young kids to find their voice. There are a lot of times when people don’t have artistic opportunities, and I love being able to help people become better artists.
OT: How would you describe your directing style?
BM: Collaborative. I like seeing what people bring to the roles, but I am also particular about the way I teach things. I know a lot of people who will teach a number and then clean it [up] after, but I do the opposite. Breathing and dynamics are from the get-go for me – if it gets lost to technique, it won’t happen.
OT: What has been your favorite show to direct? What would be a dream production for you?
BM: Legally Blonde. I’ve done it three times – it’s my first professional production [and] definitely a different caliber of performers. Dream productions: Sweeney Todd with a full orchestra and Sunday in the Park with George. Both are [Stephen] Sondheim musicals and I love all of his works.
To catch McCoy’s work in action, be sure to check out Legally Blonde at Keegan Theatre from August 3 to September 1. Various times. Tickets are $62.
Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com