Bobby Conte Thornton is nothing if not grateful. After graduating with a BFA in Musical Theatre from the University of Michigan in 2015, he immediately started working in regional theatre and in New York (occasionally with some of his idols), before landing the lead role in A Bronx Tale on Broadway. Thornton plays Calogero, an Italian-American boy torn between allegiance to the working stiff father he idolizes, and the local mob boss who takes him under his wing in this adaptation of Chazz Palminteri’s one-man show and film of the same name. It’s the kind of debut every young performer dreams of, but Thornton stays grounded, exuding positivity and sense of gratitude even when taking the final bow eight shows a week.
We caught Bobby in between performances of A Bronx Tale to discuss the show, Robert De Niro’s direction, auditioning, and what he does in the five minutes he has offstage.
You’re about a year and a half out of school. Can you walk me through that time?
Thornton: I graduated and the first job I booked out of school was a sequel to Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor called A Comedy of Tenors that Ken was a part of that we did at the Cleveland Playhouse and at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. It was incredible that my first job out of school was original material with the playwright in the room giving you handwritten notes and changes every day.
After that, I did an all-male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, with Chris Fitzgerald and Michael Urie, these extraordinary comedic actors. So the first two big things I did out of school were these giant farces. I never in a million years thought that would be my track out of school, but it was the best time. Then I did this Off-Broadway show called Starting Here, Starting Now, which was the first song cycle Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire ever wrote. Richard Maltby directed the show, which was surreal, and great to have that sort of mentorship with him. And then a production of My Fair Lady out in the Hamptons. Then I began this process.
That’s a killer year-and-a-half.
Thornton: It’s crazy.
Did you have a relationship with the movie prior to working on the musical?
Thornton: I mean, I saw it when I was ten years old. I think it’s kind of ingrained in American society—especially because it was Bob De Niro’s first movie he ever directed — and it’s what launched Chazz’s career because it was just him telling his own story. So I only knew it because it was a part of the Italian culture that I was raised in. But I hadn’t really re-explored it until I got the audition.
Speaking of that audition—I hope this isn’t a sore subject. Probably isn’t at this point.
Thornton: It’s all good.
You initially missed out on the role of Calogero for the out-of-town tryout at the Paper Mill Playhouse, but bounced back to land the role on Broadway. Auditions can be kind of a tease in that way — hard to keep your head on straight. How do you navigate that?
Thornton: You know, my mindset—which I try to retain every time I audition—is that the point of the audition isn’t to actually get the job. The point of the audition is that you’re given material and you present it, and you’re open to notes that the creative team gives you and you’re open to spontaneity and inspiration, and you connect for ten minutes with those people, and then you leave. And your job is done. The rest of it is so out of your control. When I auditioned for [A Bronx Tale] at Paper Mill, which was literally a two month audition process, I just got so hooked into the material and felt so invested in it—I fell in love with it in way that made it hard to have that removal you’re supposed to have once you leave the audition room.
So when I didn’t get it, it was heartbreaking. It was hard to put that aside and move on to other auditions. I had a roommate I was living with at the time who gave me amazing advice, he said: “why don’t you just work on the material for yourself?” As a way to process it. So you’re not just having this un-dealt-with frustration. So from November 2015 to June 2016, a couple times a month, if it ever popped into my mind, I’d just go back to the text and work on it for myself. With no intention of it ever coming back into my life.
Then, when I get a call from my agent saying, “they’re re-opening the role and they want to see you,” my first response was, “well, the role hasn’t left me.” If anything I was that much more comfortable with where the character lives in my body, physically, where it lives emotionally…If I go into a room now I feel I can be a lot more malleable to whatever direction the creative team needs me to go, stylistically. And that took an openness on their part to see if six months had changed anything. They could have easily said “oh, we don’t want Bobby because we saw Bobby for Paper Mill and it didn’t work out.” I am so damn grateful that I was given an opportunity for a second chance, and my mindset going into it a second time was “I can feel confident in the work I’m doing, and once I leave? It’s all done.” There are so many things that are not up to me, and not in my control that to fixate on them is insane. I went in, did my thing and hoped for the best. But then I went out to dinner with my sister and went home and watched Wimbledon, and then I get a call from my agent saying, “you’re going to be on Broadway.”