Pursuing a life in the arts is not for those who simply think of a way to earn. It can be tough, and career breakthroughs can arrive late. So why would anyone choose to become an actor, even more, be on Broadway? Steve Farber invites two Broadway legends who can answer that! In this episode, he sits down with Sandra Joseph, the longest-running leading lady of Broadway’s longest-running show of all time, and actor and singer, Ron Bohmer. Together, they share each of their journeys to becoming a performer, taking us behind the scenes of great musicals like The Phantom of the Opera and more. Throughout their careers as Broadway legends, Sandra and Ron offer some life lessons that show just how great life could become when you pursue what you love and live in the world as the freest and fullest expression of who you are. They also take us deep into Sandra’s book, Unmasking What Matters.
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Unmasking What Matters: Life Lessons From Two Broadway Legends With Sandra Joseph And Ron Bohmer
You can read and subscribe to this blog. You can consume this show with every cell in your body and fiber in your being at SteveFarber.com/Podcast. My guests are the amazing Sandra Joseph and Ron Bohmer. I’m going to tell you just a little bit because I want to hear their story from their own mouths here. I’ll skip right to the punchline for Sandra Joseph. Sandra quite simply is the longest-running leading lady in Broadway history. She played Christine in Phantom of the Opera for ten years. Ron Bohmer also has quite an impressive Broadway pedigree. He’s been on Broadway in plays like Les Misérables, Scarlet Pimpernel, and Fiddler on the Roof. He’s been in the touring show for a lot of plays including, before the pandemic changed, a few of their plans. He was in the Book of Mormon. We have with us a couple of Broadway legends and it is my great honor to introduce them to everybody, not only as great Broadway legends but as my very dear cherished friends.
Thank you, Steve. We’re so excited to be here with you.
I’m excited to have you guys and this is fun because of a couple of things. First of all, the four of us, including my wife, Veronica, spent a lot of time together. We’ve had a lot of conversations. We played a lot of music. You guys presented some of our events and we count you as very close dear friends. I have to admit, it does feel a little bit of déjà vu for me also because in full transparency, we did start this conversation once and I had forgotten to press record, which was a mistake and suggests now we’re all on the same page. I’ve had a chance to see this up close and personal, behind the scenes when you guys are getting ready for a presentation or a show, you’re very meticulous. You have a very sharp eye for detail. Since you’re professional singers as well as actors, your voice is your instrument. I’ve always loved the very refined and sophisticated way that you warm up your vocal cords for a performance. I would love it if you could give us a little taste of what that’s like.
It’s not pretty.
They are very refined way and it was a lot of weird sounds.
I do that too. I sounded a little like Prince when I’m warming up the top of my voice, which is going to strange. I also do to get a low voice going. I do this thing where you close your larynx at the very bottom. People think that there’s a gorilla in the room or something when I make that strange sound.
Sandra, let’s start with you because I did go right to the punchline about your amazing accomplishment on Broadway. Was it like you woke up one morning and you thought, “I want to go to Broadway?” You sent in a resume, you got invited in, and then next week you’re on Broadway. Before you knew it, you’re the longest-running leading lady in Broadway history. Is that how it worked for you?
That’s exactly how it worked, Steve. It was a very long and arduous journey. I was the least likely person you’d ever meet to become a performer at all, much less a Broadway performer or the longest leading lady in Phantom. I was a shy, insecure kid. I am massively introverted. I did not want any part of being in the spotlight. When I was around eight years old, the National Tour of the Musical Annie came through my hometown of Detroit. I was struck in a flash like, “That’s what I want to do. Whatever it is that little girl up there is doing, I have to do that.” Immediately, there was a battle inside of me because I felt equally strongly that there’s no way I will ever be able to do that. It was a very long road coming out of my shell, learning to sing in front of people, decades of training, facing fear, and insecurity all the way.
Taking us back to that moment when you were a little girl, you were eight-ish years old and seeing this happening on stage. Was it like a flash at that moment where you said, “Whatever that is, that’s what I want to do?”
It was. We all have moments of perhaps pre-cognition where we have a sense than intuitive hit. I knew on some level that I can’t explain that I was meant for that. Coming to terms with that in my conscious mind was another story entirely because like so many of us, right on the heels of getting an insight about something we might want to achieve, do, or express often comes the voices of self-doubt. That was certainly the case for me.
It’s probably accurate to say that most people have had flashes like that in their lives. We see somebody do something, we hear somebody saying, we watch somebody on the basketball court, or whatever it is and we say, “That’s what I want to do.” It is not most of us who have that flash and then end up doing that very thing to the degree that you did. When you saw that girl singing and you had that flash, you see it now, when you look back as a pre-cognitive thing. Maybe not to the degree that, “One day, I will be Christine in Phantom of the Opera for ten years,” but you had that. You said that the voices kicked in at the same time and said, “No, you can’t do that.” Did you verbalize it? Did you say it out loud to anybody that that’s what you want it to do?Oftentimes, the struggle that we have is going to be in removing our own masks and showing up for all the right reasons. Click To Tweet
I did on the way home from seeing Annie. When I was a kid, I remember it vividly sitting in the backseat of the car with my sister and my dad happened to catch my eye in the rearview mirror. He could tell that something was wrong and he said, “You’re awfully quiet back there, Sand, what’s up? Didn’t you like the show?” I started to cry. I could cry now thinking about it because I just remember how terrifying it was to say those words out loud for the first time to say, “I want to do that but I’ll never be able to do that.” God bless my late father, he had such a look of faith in his eyes and I could tell he was smiling. He loved theater, actors, and singers. They were his heroes. A part of him was delighted that his daughter wanted to pursue that. Whether or not it was anything in the realm of reality. It didn’t matter. The look in his eye told me that someone believed in me in a way that I couldn’t yet believe in myself and that meant everything.
This was all within hours of that first flash. It happened on the drive on the way home from when you had that insight about yourself. When I hear that, Sandra, it makes me think of myself as a parent and how many times as a parent did I hear my kids, throughout the course of their lives, say, “I want to do this. I think I can accomplish whatever it might be, whether it was in a sport or art.” I’m sure that my impulse was always to say, “Yes, you can,” versus, “That’s impossible. You know how much work it takes to do that thing.” We all have to be careful to check those impulses in ourselves where we shut people down too quickly because you never know who you’re shutting down. Who am I to say whether or not you can accomplish what you want to accomplish? Why not encourage you? Ron, how about you? Was there a similar a-ha moment that got you on this track?
It’s harder for me to say in that direct way. I didn’t have a lightning bolt moment. My mom got me into dance classes when I was six years old. That was weird where I was growing up because I was always the only boy in classes. I grew up in a little tiny town outside of Cincinnati, Ohio and no one was in the arts. Everybody was on the field and they were playing sports. I had no talent for sports at all. I was the championship bench rider of Cincinnati, Ohio. Luckily, my mother found ways for me to excel at that. I took dance classes for a while and I credit my dance teacher in a dance recital. He said, “You’re going to start singing now, you’re going to sing in this dance recital.”
There was no reason for him to do that but thank goodness, he did, because it got me out of my shell in that way to be able to go, “I’m going to stand up in front of these people and sing.” It’s staggering to me to find out how terrifying that still is for so many people that it’s scary to open your mouth and sing in front of people, but bless him or get me going early in doing that. I eventually went to a performing arts high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, the School for Creative and Performing Arts. I went to Webster University in St. Louis and I moved to New York right around 1984.
I got my first Broadway show after struggling for a long time and did odd jobs. I was a waiter for nine days and got fired in front of my customers. That was fun. I was a carriage driver in Central Park for a while. That was a better job because I was my own boss. Once you left the stable, it was just you and a great horse. I had called checkers, which was nice. I eventually got my first Broadway show, which was Fiddler on the Roof. It took a long time for me to get rolling but once things got rolling, I was in a good place. It was one thing that led to another and I don’t want to make it sound like it is an easy career at all. As Sandra said, “It’s terrifying. The odds are against you to enter this profession.” I always felt this is the only thing I want to do. It’s the only thing I’m good at and I’m passionate about. I was lucky enough to keep pursuing it right up to playing the Phantom opposite to Sandra at one point and doing a lot of great roles. It’s been an amazing ride.
I don’t want to let that little nugget go by because I haven’t said it explicitly as of yet but you played the Phantom and the Christine character opposite your Phantom was Sandra. Now, here the two of you are sitting together, is that coincidence?
I’d already been playing Christine for a couple of years at that point. On the National Tour, we played at the Kennedy Center and we got a new Phantom. The actor who’d been playing the role left the show and Ron Bohmer was brought in as the replacement. We had great chemistry on stage as it turned out off stage as well. A few years after we were Phantom and Christine, we were husband and wife. We got married in 2002.
All the talk you hear about, “You shouldn’t get into a relationship with somebody at work.”
It was after they had moved me to Broadway and we were apart that our romance blossomed. We weren’t working together and that’s a real thing with actors too. They call it a showmance. If you develop a talent crush on somebody or you’re playing these ridiculously, romantic, sexually charged characters, opposite each other. You’re like, “Is this real what I’m feeling? Am I into this person or is this the showmance thing?” In our case, it turned out it was the real deal.
We’re still in our showmance.
I want to wind the clock back. Your trajectory, Ron, towards Broadway from a failed waiter and carriage driver, what was the timeframe in that?
I was getting work as an actor. I was working regionally. I did some plays up in Boston and places like that, but they’d be few and far between, and I’d be right back to carriage driving. It took about seven years before I got that break. It’s a process of casting directors getting to know you, bringing you in more for other things, putting you in front of bigger directors, and putting you in front of Broadway directors. I had to win them over a lot for them to be confident in me to put me in front of somebody like Harold Prince who directed Phantom of the Opera.
Fiddler on the Roof as your first Broadway. The way you described it as you went in, you audition, then you got it.
That one was like that. At the beginning of getting a role, they always have to be looking for you. You have to be the solution to their problem. With Fiddler, they were looking for a very specific look and I happened to be that thing. Certainly, that is not to diminish the hours of training, the practice, and all of the stuff that you’ve put into all of that but it begins with, “Do you fit the suit?” If you fit the suit, then doors can open in that regard. Fiddler was quick. I went in and auditioned and I knew within two days that I had booked that one, whereas something like Phantom of the Opera, I audition for the Phantom more than anything I’ve ever auditioned in my life. I used to call it my six-month checkup. I would go in, audition. They would say, “No thanks.” I’d go away. They’d then call me back six months later. It was a long arduous process to finally win that role. Everything is different.
For you, Sandra, what was that process like auditioning for the Phantom, originally?
I was working all of my temp jobs and my survival jobs like Ron. I couldn’t get hired as a waitress because there are so many out-of-work actors in New York that sometimes have prior restaurant experience and I did not. I was working as a receptionist. I had given myself a five-year plan that I was going to give it five years. If I couldn’t support myself and put food on the table, I would call it quits. Four and a half years into that five-year plan, I was living on a friend’s sofa. I was basically homeless doing the couch surfing thing. I had maxed out every credit card I could get my hands on taking voice lessons and acting classes.
I knew I needed to keep training to be competitive but it looked like, “This is it. I’m going to have to pack it in soon, move back to Michigan, feel like this was all a huge failure, and I was a joke.” Before I gave up, I was given the chance to audition for Christine. Of course, I had been already learning that material. My acting teachers and coaches had been telling me for years that I was the right type. You do have to fit the clothes. As Ron said, “You have to look the part and have the right sound.” I had the right type of soprano voice for that role, I wanted to go in there and nail it immediately. I was so overwhelmed. Remember I said, this is a shy, insecure kid, uncomfortable in the spotlight, standing on a Broadway stage for the first time and stinging in front of Harold Prince with so much riding on that audition. I froze. My lips were moving and the sound was coming out but I was numb from the neck down. It’s like a little deer in the headlights and terrified. It was just way too much.
Was your audition for Christine the first time you’d ever stepped onto a Broadway stage?
Yes. Most auditions take place in the studios’ little tiny rooms somewhere in Time Square but that was the first time I’d ever been backstage. I was so giddy to get to go backstage. I poked around and looked at the costumes. I was touching the costumes. I was breathless. It was so exciting. I started to cry the first time I walked out there. Luckily, they sensed that I was green and they let me come early before Harold Prince and the supervisors were seated in the audience. They let me walk out there for the first time by myself.
It was so overwhelming and exciting. All the years that I got to walk through that stage door to perform in that show, I tried hard to never take it for granted, remember what it was like the first time I put my hand on the doorknob of that backstage door. What a privilege to walk in and get to be a part of the history of Broadway. The shows that have played this building, the audiences over the years that have sat out there in these seats, the gifts that have been exchanged from the actor to audience. None of that was lost on me. The first time I walked in and hopefully not the last time I walked out.
That’s extraordinary. When you’re dreaming about Broadway your entire life and you finally get a chance, but that’s the chance, it’s the audition. What happened in that? Did Harold Prince jump up after he listened to you? Did he jump up out of his chair and say, “That’s it, you’re the one?”
“Where have you been?”
Is that what happened?
No, I heard, “Thank you, next.” They were onto the next girl. My agent called me the next day and told me I did not get the part, but he said they saw something in you. It’s probably the fact that I was the right type and fit the clothes. I got cast on the National Tour in the ensemble of the show. I got to understudy the role of Christine and I played a small role in the chorus. I did that for a whole year on the tour. I was thrilled to be working, to be starting to pay off my student loans, dig myself slowly out of debt, and to get to be a part of that show. Even taking my bow with twenty other people in the back row at the end of the night, I was like, “I’m in this show. I can’t believe it.”
When you got that first entry into the show, was your dad still around?Find the courage to live in the world as the freest and fullest expression of exactly who you are. Click To Tweet
He was there from my first show to my last.
Was there a phone call that said, “Dad, I did it?”
When I found out that I got the part of Christine, my dad was my first phone call. I remember, he was driving and hopefully, on his speakerphone or his car phone if they even had those back then. He rolled down his windows, started honking his horn, and yelling out the window at innocent passers-by, “My daughter got the lead in the Phantom of the Opera.” He was even more excited than I was.
That’s interesting. He was in his car, which is the same venue where you first said to him, “I wanted to be part of that.”
I’ve never thought about that. Thank you for that. How about that full circle?
It was beautiful. Ron, when you guys met, you’d been going along in your own careers. You step back for a moment and look at it. It’s like a classic storybook romance the two of you have. Christine and Phantom of the Opera live happily ever after. It’s hard to write that shit. For you, I’m curious, when you guys first met first started working together, did you have any inkling that this is where it was going to be headed or chemistry like that?
I started to have some strong feelings about Sandra relatively early in the process. It took her quite a bit longer to be convinced about me. It was months later that she was like, “This could be a thing,” but there’s a reason she’s great in the role. Part of the attraction is like, “She’s amazing.” It was one of those things wherein conversations landed on things that we were both deeply interested in immediately. Our conversations went to a level that I’d never experienced before in a relationship. It was clear to me that, “Whatever this might become, this is going to be an important person in my life.” I had no idea year’s later how important that would all play out to be.
Sandra, do you remember it the same way?
We clicked from the start and no relationship is without its issues and challenges. We’ve been through stuff over the years but for the most part, we fit together like puzzle pieces from the beginning. A quarantine together will test anybody’s relationship. For us, it has brought us closer together. We’ve spent so much time apart in our relationship because of shows and Ron had been on tour. I left Broadway many years ago. I should mention and have been keynote speaking as my second career for many years now. Our jobs would take us in different directions and every time we’d come back together, it was new, fresh, and wonderful. For the first time in years, if ever, we’ve got to be home and living a somewhat normal domestic life together and cooking dinner together. We put on Frank Sinatra and dance after dinner sometimes. We’re more in love than ever.
We live in San Diego, as you do. We’ve been here since 2015. We bought the place here. The original plan was that we’d have this place and then we’d keep our place near New York City. We lived in West Orange, New Jersey, just outside but we fell in love with San Diego. We’re like, “This will be a principal residence,” but I was on tour with the Book of Mormon playing Jesus and Joseph Smith which I did for a total of seven years altogether, literally right up until the pandemic. Sandra was keynote speaking everywhere. We didn’t live here.
Our relationship was mostly on the road, Airbnbs, hotels, and all over the United States, Canada, Mexico everywhere. When the pandemic hit as many dark things that come out of this, for us, the gift of having this time to be like, “We get to live in our home.” As Sandra said, we’ve enjoyed cooking. We sit out on our deck, enjoy how amazing it is to be in nature, watch the birds, and do all of this stuff. We’ll make dinner and dance to Frank Sinatra at night in our living room. It’s what we have been leading up to. It has been a real gift in that sense to have this time finally to be ourselves together.
It’s fair to say that I don’t think I have ever danced the Frank Sinatra with anybody else or alone for that matter.
You got to put on some Sinatra at night after dinner and slow dance with your lady.
I want to explore another facet to this because it’s fascinating that you guys met and fans with the opera. There’s a particular piece of symbolism associated with that show of the mask. For the uninitiated, for people who don’t know the story of Phantom of the Opera, what’s the quick synopsis and where does the mask come into play?
It’s a story about a man who is born with half of his face deformed and he covers himself with a white mask in order to feel that he can be accepted in any way. He falls in love with this young soprano named Christine and romance, drama, ensue. The beauty of Christine’s journey in the show is that I get to be the one to see him without his mask on and love him. She falls in love with him with all of his flaws. I do believe that metaphor is one of many reasons that show has become not only the longest-running Broadway show of all time but the most lucrative entertainment enterprise in history. The thing of the mask and this character who learns by the end of the show, that who he is exactly as he is. He’s enough, worthy of love, and belonging. That has struck a chord with people all over the world.
It seems to be the constant desire and oftentimes, the struggle that we have as human beings to remove our own masks and show up for all the right reasons. The buzzword is vulnerability and authenticity. We all know it. We appreciate it. We respond to it when we experience it in somebody else. It’s scary for most of us. Ron, why do you think that is?
In society, we take on roles the same way you take on a role in a show and the beauty of Sandra teaches and talks a lot about this. There’s a lot about it in her book Unmasking What Matters. This notion of finding the courage to live in the world as the freest and fullest expression of exactly who you are and yet, societally, we are asked to do otherwise. We’re asked to take many masks or roles that we play in life. The role of the parent, mother, father, or caretaker. Certainly, in the work environment to be a CEO. There can be a huge mask with that.
One yet, inevitably, and I know this is part of your teaching as well, Steve, is that the more of our genuine self that we can bring to everything that we do, not only is our life more enriched, but we’re bringing to everything. We do the absolute essence of what life is about our true passion and selves. It takes courage. As Sandra said, with this metaphor of the show, we all believe there’s a part or many parts of ourselves that are not worthy of love or we don’t want to show to other people. It takes great courage to take that mask off, not our pandemic mask, but our metaphoric mask of how we’re hiding, who we truly are, and genuinely show up as ourselves.
It’s not that the roles we play are false or the roles themselves are masks that we wear, we’re always evolving. We are ever-evolving beings. Sometimes, we outgrow certain roles that might’ve been the right fit for us. George Bernard Shaw has a wonderful quote. He says, “The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor. He takes my new measurements each time he sees me. All the rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.” As a Broadway performer, it no longer was a fit for me. My spirit outgrew that particular expression of myself.
It was challenging to walk away from that and start as a beginner in an industry I didn’t know anything about stepping out on a stage and begin to be myself out there instead of Christine and having a character to hide behind. We’re all always growing into the next highest, fullest expression of ourselves and that might mean dropping old costumes that no longer fit old roles that aren’t serving us anymore. Even though people in our lives may say, “How dare you or how could you? This is how you’ve always been.” It takes courage to step out of that and walk into the vulnerability of something new.
I have friends who’ve been vastly overweight for most of their lives, lost a whole bunch of weight, and seeing their friendships change. There are people that I thought were their dear friends, they weren’t playing the role anymore. They weren’t playing the role of the jolly rotund friend. Oftentimes, when those roles change or the perceived roles change, you begin to see who appreciates you for who you are or who you were acting as. The other place I see this show up a lot is in the executive world. I’m playing the role of CEO. You mentioned this in a slightly different way. If we’re not careful, we can assign a negative connotation to the word “role” as if we’re playing a role, we’re faking it.
That’s not the case, we all play, we all step into, and assume different roles so I could be the CEO of a company. That’s the role that I play at work. When I’m home, I’m playing the role of mother, father, grandparent, or friend. It doesn’t mean I’m now pretending to be this or that. The challenge for all these take executives is there’s a certain expectation that we put on ourselves, “I need to be in this role in a certain way. In order to be a credible CEO, I can’t let people know that there are things that I’m frightened of. I can’t let people know there are things that I can’t do very well or the mistakes that I made.” The irony in that is when we’re brave enough to lead with all of that, as part of who we are in that role, it deepens the connection we have with people because we all experience those things.
Returning to the metaphor of the mask and of the Phantom, one would think when you’re playing a role like that, which he couldn’t be farther from in so many ways. There’s a physical deformity. He is also capable of murder and composer. He’s a vast number of things that this person is and all those things are a given. The story provides those to say if your role as the CEO we’re provided with what is expected and you’re going to be these certain things, but what makes it ring true is how much authenticity do you bring to that role? How much of yourself shine through that? For me, that was part of what made that such a great role. It’s because it gave me an opportunity to strive for a level of vulnerability that I had never achieved in any other role before.
The needs of this character are he’s so desperately in love with Christine and there’s a tragic element to that because at the end of the piece, spoiler alert, they don’t end up together. There was an interview I did once where people asked me something about the chandelier. My response to it was, “When you have a show where you have a big flashy set and things like that, you can drop a chandelier and spend millions of dollars and impress people that way. If you can break their hearts, then you’ve got something.” To me, the essence of that applies to this conversation that we’re talking about which is if you can genuinely bring your true self and some vulnerability to any endeavor that you do, that courage is rewarded by the universe, and it’s certainly going to enrich your life and others.
It strikes me as being deeply ironic in these days of the pandemic that we spend so much of our lives consciously or not, most of us unconsciously trying to remove our masks, and then here in this situation, the way that we keep ourselves and keep each other safe is by putting a mask on.
I’ve spoken about that in my keynotes. I’ve been talking about the metaphorical masks that we wear for years on stage. Now, here we are at a time when wearing a mask takes on a whole new meaning for all of us. It’s a part of our daily lives if we’re leaving the house and more than ever, we’re encouraged and asked to cover ourselves with a mask to protect each other. Inwardly, it’s more important now than it ever has been that we take off the other masks, the metaphorical masks, in order to stay close to each other and stay real with each other in the midst of unprecedented challenges and heartbreak globally.Life is about our true passion and our true selves, and it takes courage. Click To Tweet
It was interesting, Steve, we’d done a few virtual concerts in this time which is brand new with us. We didn’t have any of the technology. The microphones that we’re talking to you through now, which is not happening because we’d been doing live theater and that was provided by the theaters where we went and all of that. We had to find a way to continue to reach out to an audience in this way. One of the first things we learned and discovered using Zoom or using any of the virtual platforms, if you’re authentic, it shows up immediately. There’s even that much more of a challenge through the way we now must connect with each other to drop the mask, even further the metaphorical mask, that you’re hiding from because it shows. The way you can genuinely connect with people on this platform is with zero artifices. You just have to show up as your true self.
In many ways, people have been forced into showing more of themselves when you’re working over Zoom and your kids are running in the room. One of the unexpected gifts of this time is that co-workers are seeing each other in a different way than they would have had the opportunity. Leaders are more human now than ever. This reminds me of your work, Steve, about love being damn good business. One of the stories that I heard that touched me the most is that there are some corporations, I don’t know which corporation it was, but I heard about one company in particular that implemented. If your kid walks into the room during a meeting, there are two rules. Number one is you are not to shame your child. You’re not to scold them or ask them to leave. The second rule was you are not to apologize to the group that your kids ran in the room. How beautiful is that? I put on my suit when I go to work and I played my role the way I’m supposed to. We’re all very appropriate, that’s great. What is also true is we’re all in this thing together and we’re all human. My kid may run in and start screaming.
There are so many ironies these days and that’s one of the greatest ones. Our physical separation in many ways brought us closer together. When we’re in a Zoom meeting, for example, as you said, we’re sitting in your living room and you’re sitting in my office. When we have business meetings and you see pets walking in front of them, it’s pounding on mommy or daddy’s head. What’s so fascinating to me about that and there’s no way of knowing this, but I wonder that same person who said, “These are the rules. You will not shame your child. You will not apologize for them.”
Under so-called normal circumstances, what the reaction would have been if that same person said, “I’ve got an important soccer game that I need to go to for my kid.” Would it have been the same attitude then? “You don’t need to apologize for that. Of course, go support your kid.” We don’t know. I will tell you that anecdotally, this kind of accepting attitude and mass experience that we’re having of each other, our natural habitat is going to carry over. Those attitudes will carry over when we can go back to sitting in the same room and breathing the same oxygen again.
I’ve heard many stories from the early days of this madness, I’ve had people tell me, I’m thinking of one person in particular who told me, his team has worked with for twenty years. He then knows some of them better now than he did before, “I didn’t know you had a dog. What’s your dog’s name?” “I didn’t know you played guitar. I see a guitar sitting behind you.” People getting to know each other by being separate, as you said, Ron, “We’re taking our masks down.” There’s no veneer anymore. We don’t leave the house, closed the door, and nobody ever sees inside of it. It bodes well for us in the future.
That good will come of this, ultimately. Let us pray.
We have to get to that future. May we all do so with great health and prosperity. The book, Sandra, Unmasking What Matters is both your story, an exploration of the mask, a metaphor, and lessons that come out of it, right?
Yes. It’s about living an authentic life and expressing the fullness of who you know yourself to be on the inside, but might be afraid to fully embody. How do we do that over the course of a lifetime? It is part memoir. It shares my story from the beginning to Broadway. It was important to me to put research in every single chapter and practices that people can do right away, questions to ask yourself to inform your journey of making sure you get to the end of your life and never feel as the phrase goes, “You die with your music still in you.”
I’m curious, you mentioned this earlier, but went by fast. Ron, you’ve dabbled in this line of work as well, started to pursue this keynote speaker thing. You’ve been on stage in front of all these people and performances for over a decade. Was there any part of it that felt like you were starting over?
I’d been on stage in front of thousands of people every single night for years and suddenly, I’m out there for the first time being myself. I was trembling. I didn’t know what to wear. I was up until 4:00 in the morning, the night before going over what I was going to say. I wrote and rewrote my speech a million times and have refined it a lot over the years. It’s an ongoing thing. I had been on Oprah. I don’t think I was as nervous being on Oprah as I was the first time I stepped out on a stage as a keynote speaker to say my own words.
When you were on Oprah, you weren’t there on a role. You were there as yourself.
I was, but I knew that Oprah had my back, she would ask me questions, and I could answer questions. I wasn’t tasked with imparting something that would hopefully help people in some way. I had written a speech and it was about positioning myself as an authority and leader that I could be a leading lady. Standing out there as Sandra with something important to say to you, that took a long time. Even after I was already doing it, Ron and I help and coach each other in different ways. I’ve learned this in my audition process too, in many ways, it was the same exact journey as learning to become an actress to stand in your power. Ron said, “From the start of your speech, you have got to stop apologizing with your demeanor.” I was like, “I’m here as the nice girl from the Midwest and I’m going to tell you some things. I hope that it’s helpful.” I had to get over my timid nature, learn to straighten my spine and stand in my authority. That’s hard particularly for women sometimes to do.
The authenticity piece of that is you do want to keep that shy, scared girl from Michigan. You want to keep that when you’re playing Christine on Broadway or doing the keynote. You want your authentic self to be present and you know this so well because this is what you do as well. There is a journey to being authoritative without being “I know everything” and you don’t cross over into a falseness, but simply I know these things to be true, have the confidence to do that. Some of its practice. A lot of it is getting to the state. It’s a state change within yourself.
In order to be authentic on a stage as a speaker, whether you are on a stage speaking to an audience or up in front of a group, speaking as a leader, executive, supervisor, or whatever it is, there’s this misnomer that says, “Authenticity equals spontaneity.” In other words, to be authentic, I got to make it up as I go along and it’s not that. Talk a little bit about the relationship between preparedness and authenticity.
In high school, when I had to give a speech in front of the 9th grade English class, one of our little semesters was speech. I had to stand up in front of my class and talk. I remember my beloved English teacher, saying, “The best antidote to nervousness is preparation.” Those words have never left me. If I know that I am prepared then I can let go, be free, and I have some room to groove. When you’re playing a role, you’re given the blocking. They called the staging where you know where to hit your marks on the floor and where I’m supposed to be when. Within that, it frees you up to be spontaneous, listen, and be present. It comes down to the preparation which allows you to let go, be present, and dropped into the moment.
I did every bit of that. I coached acting students. Once we’ve found our roadmap through whatever the piece is if it’s a song, scene, or whatever it is, once we’ve got, “These are your mile markers, turn left here, turn right here.” We’re putting it in very layman’s terms. Once you’ve accomplished that, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give a young student is always leave room for the choice you weren’t expecting to make because that’s real. That’s what we do. We didn’t know we were going to talk about this but we’re talking about it now so it allows us to be completely in the moment and give you a completely honest answer. There’s great beauty in that but the courage to do that comes from knowing it from that thing. We always say, “You need 10,000 hours of practice to play an instrument and to be a vocalist,” all of those things. I’ve sung the Phantom’s big song, Music of the Night, more than I’ve sung, Happy Birthday. I’ve sung it so many times because I know where I’m going with that. Now, I have room in it and those are the parts I enjoy and the places where I have room for the choice that I didn’t expect to make.
You should sing Music of the Night instead of Happy Birthday.
It’s a lot longer. The candles would all melt onto the cake.
It’s something that the more prepared I am with something, it seems a little counterintuitive for some people, but once you experienced it, “I know this is what I want to say. This is how I want to say it. This story I want to tell or series of stories I want to tell. These are the lessons that I want to get across. These are all the things that we think about when we’re putting a talk together or performance of any kind.” If I got that on my backbone as it were, I can be fully present.
You’re a master at that too. I love the way you speak because we see that you are riding the wave of the moment.
Thank you. That is my experience though because I tell there are certain stories, like all of us that I’ve told thousands of times. I don’t have to think about the story so what does that allow me to do. Be totally present and focused on whoever it is that I’m communicating with and not worrying about, “What am I going to say next?” I hate that feeling. It then allows the spontaneity to come forward. Honestly, some of the things that have turned into lines that I find myself saying over and over again, over the years started out as a spontaneous utterance. I went, “That worked well.” In a play you don’t often have forever really, have that luxury of coming up with new words spontaneously but there’s a new feeling, new emphasis, or new emotion that comes through.
That’s very well put because you are following a roadmap that you can’t change the line but sometimes you can. I’ve done some shows where you have some latitude to improvise and there are things that we change a bit. For the most part, when something like the Phantom of the Opera is very scripted, 80% of the audience has seen the show more than 1, 2, 5, or 10 times. They want the product that they know that they’re expecting. Within that, there are many ways to get to the same thing. Especially for Sandra, for ten years, with Phantom of the Opera, for me for seven years, with Book of Mormon, you rejoice in those little moments of finding a slightly different way to get there using the exact same map. To find a slightly more enlivened way to arrive. That’s what I think over the years has helped both of us give a fresh, genuine, and honest performance. Even though it’s the same thing you did last night, it’s not going to be exactly the same.
That’s a powerful lesson for all of us, particularly now, when we’re staring at the same four walls. What I learned from playing the same scenes and singing the same songs night after night, more than a thousand times in a row, I learned how to tune the instrument of my attention. When I can do that, it comes down to being present. I would notice things I hadn’t noticed before. There might be different sounds in the orchestra that I hadn’t quite the cello, “Listen to the way the cello sounds right there or my fellow actor might deliver a line in a slightly different way.”
We can do that in our daily lives when they become monotonous or routine, or we get a little down. One of my favorite practices and you can try this from the moment you wake up in the morning, look around your environment and see all of the things that have been given to you as a gift by someone else. That will put a smile on your face to think about, “My friend Shelly gave me that little Buddha statue. My friend Dewitt gave me that photo.” Before my feet hit the floor, I start filled with gratitude. We can all practice cultivating. I call my book Fresh Eyes and Ears every single day. It has the power to change the quality of our lives.
When you guys get up on stage together or you’re doing your keynote, Sandra, and then Ron joins you on stage or at our event back in February 2020, you guys co-presented, I loved going through the whole preparation process with you. See how meticulous you are and each of you is such a perfectionist in the way that you have a professional approach to your work and attitude to everything. You step up on stage and it seems like there’s no effort that goes behind it all. You get up there and talk, tell your stories, and then suddenly burst into song. It was something to behold. It’s been fun watching you guys do some of your virtual concerts as well.
Thank you for being in the audience for those. We appreciate that. Especially the initial ones, they were Experiments but they ultimately lead us to where we are now doing something like that. We feel strongly as well. The feedback has been amazing as you know. People are missing Broadway in live performances and it was incredible to discover that even virtually, we were able to deliver something impactful that touched a place that feels empty for so many people missing that impact of the arts of live performance.Always leave room for the choice you weren't expecting to make. Click To Tweet
The other thing that’s so powerful about it and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in the context of giving talks and speeches and all that in the age of Zoom, the same is true for your performance. I had seen a couple of them. As you said, when you’re in an audience, you’re watching somebody on stage, and I’m in the audience with hundreds of people, whatever it is, there’s this group dynamic. There are you guys up on stage but in a virtual setting, I know I’m part of a group. I can see the gallery view. I see there are other people there, but my experience is 1-on-1 or 1-on-2 with you guys because it’s just you and me. I’m sitting here alone, behind my desk, and having this experience. In a weird way, there’s sometimes a greater connection that happens.
It feels so true and we feel that every time we do this. It wasn’t unexpected for us because I don’t think I’d used Zoom even a year before this started to happen to connect with the producer friends that you and I have in common for music. That was an unexpected thing to discover that you can have an emotional experience over this platform and you can reach a person in a different way.
It does feel more intimate for us too because we’re looking into this tiny little camera. We’re not looking out at thousands of strangers in the dark. I feel like I’m speaking to and singing to one person. It’s been a learning curve for us too. That’s been lovely. Ron made a video that shows us singing certain songs that we’ve done for years on a Symphony Stage and then superimposed right after that is us singing that same song from our living room into Zoom. It’s wild to see the back and forth of, “Here’s what we wish we could be doing out with a giant symphony orchestra,” but there’s something lovely about getting to do it right here in our living room and share it with people straight to their living room and everybody gets a front-row seat.
When you do perform for 5,000 people, which is amazing as a rush and we’re all looking forward to returning to that, just as much as returning to being in the audience of 5,000 people, that communal experience is life-giving. The Zoom experience allows the chat option. When you perform for 5,000 people, we hope we get thunderous applause and cheering. That’s amazing and cool but there’s something so personal about reading people’s individual comments about the experience that they’ve had. I remember one of the comments you made at one of the concerts we did. I won’t quote it because there’s a blue language in there but it was a favorable way of saying how much you appreciated everything. That’s so priceless and it’s personal like you said. That’s a cool byproduct of performing that way.
What we’re going to learn from that is when we get back to the in-person with groups where we don’t have the chat, we know chat is going up. It’s always been there. We’ve just never had a way for people to put it in a manifest visible format for everybody else to see. That is a wonderful thing. It wouldn’t be cool if you’re up on stage. It’s almost like a revival meeting. You’re up on stage and people are saying, “Yes.”
It feels like that. It feels like praising the Lord.
Do that when we get back to the in-person world. If a person wanted to keep track, get in touch, and see what you’re up to guys, is there a way if there’s a virtual experience of some sort coming up that I’d be able to find out about it? What’s the best way to connect with you guys?
My website, RonBohmer.com, is massive under construction, but It’s being reopened in January 2021. I’m very excited about that.
Good luck with that. It opens in January so we should see it in April or May 2021?
You know how it goes, but you’re, @RonBohmer on all the things.
This has been so much fun. I wish we could be doing this in-person. By in-person I mean, in the same room breathing the same oxygen, but for now, this was just terrific. Thank you for sharing yourselves with our readers. Thank you all for reading this blog. Until next time, do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.
- Sandra Joseph
- Ron Bohmer
- Unmasking What Matters
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- LinkedIn – Sandra Joseph
- @RonBohmer – Ron Bohmer
About Sandra Joseph
Sandra Joseph is a history-making Broadway star, a #1 international Amazon bestselling author, and a keynote speaker. Her legendary run as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera spanned ten years and more than 1,300 performances, and earned her the record as the longest-running leading lady in the longest-running Broadway show of all time. She has been seen on numerous national broadcasts, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, The Today Show, Dateline, The Early Show, The View, and Oprah: Where Are They Now?
Sandra is on a mission to empower other people’s voices. Her one-of-a-kind musical keynote programs inspire audiences to become world-class performers and unmask what matters most in their lives and careers.
Sandra is a member of The Transformational Leadership Council, an invitation-only group of 125 top thought leaders. Some of the luminaries that endorse her work are Jack Canfield, Mark Nepo, Martha Beck, Marci Shimoff, and SARK. Sandra is the author of Unmasking What Matters: 10 Life Lessons from 10 Years on Broadway. She is also the coauthor, with five-time New York Times best-selling author Caroline Myss, of Your Creative Soul: Expressing Your Authentic Voice. Sandra is married to her costar from The Phantom of the Opera, actor Ron Bohmer. They currently reside in Southern California.
About Ron Bohmer
In a career spanning over twenty-five years in Broadway productions and with symphony orchestras worldwide, Ron Bohmer most recently starred as the Prophet Joseph Smith in the mega-hit The Book of Mormon. On stage, he has starred as the Phantom in The Phantom Of The Opera, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (Jefferson Award nomination), Alex in Aspects Of Love (LA Robby award), Enjolras in Les Miserables, Coach Bolton in the cultural phenomenon Disney’s High School Musical, Sir Percival Glyde in The Woman in White, and as the title role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (National Broadway Theatre Award nomination).
His most recent Broadway roles include Father in the Tony nominated revival of Ragtime and Frid in the Tony-nominated revival of A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. As a recording artist and singer/songwriter, Ron’s work includes his 2019 release Legacy, everyman and another life, now available on all digital platforms. Additional recordings include The Thing About Men, Forbidden Broadway-S.V.U., Broadway by the Year-1929, Broadway Unplugged 2, and Songs from RAGTIME (original 2009 cast).
As a concert soloist, Ron has appeared at Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, New York City’s Town Hall and as a frequent guest artist with conductors, symphonies and pops orchestras worldwide. As an acting coach, Ron’s method The Practice has helped professionals land roles in some of the biggest hit shows of the last decade. Ron is the father of 2 daughters, Cassidy and Austen. He is married to record-breaking Broadway actor, speaker and author Sandra Joseph. They now reside in San Diego, California.
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