Many students use their high school musical to dip their toes into the theater world. Walter “Bobby” McCoy, used it to launch himself into the deep end.
When McCoy was a freshman, the new theater teacher at Marshall High School let her talented Falls Church, Virginia students put on Stephen Sondheim’s adult-oriented Company. McCoy accompanied on piano, learning a score he describes as “notoriously tricky, and difficult to get under the hands comfortably.”
But when it came to music, McCoy was no ordinary high school freshman. He noticed that a nearby theater, the Little Theatre of Alexandria, was producing Company later that year. “I sent an email, just to find out if they were looking for any musicians, or really… anything,” McCoy said. “It just so happened that they needed a rehearsal pianist who would eventually go and play the show. Luckily, I had just played Company at my high school.”
At age 15, he got the job.
His first assistant music director position soon followed, on Keegan Theatre’s National Pastime, and before he was a junior in high school, McCoy had a steady career as a DC area music director.
Last year, at age 23, McCoy received an unprecedented three Helen Hayes Award nominations for music direction, taking home the award for GALA Hispanic Theatre’s breakout hit In the Heights.
“Perhaps he’s a prodigy,” Michael Bobbitt, Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre MTC, said of McCoy. “His age is astonishing.”
McCoy and Bobbitt are currently working together on AIDA, which opens next week at DC’s Constellation Theatre. As music director, McCoy is involved with the production from the very beginning, helping to choose actors and musicians who will give the show a certain sound, collaborating with the director and choreographer (Tony Thomas II) to create transition music that fits the production, and adjusting the scoring behind each dance number. McCoy describes his job as “making sure the story onstage is being told through the music.”
Bobbitt considers McCoy a vital part of this creative trifecta. “I think musicals have three directors, which include music director and choreographer,” he said. “Bobby is remarkably collaborative. He truly directs the music. He adds musicality and musical choices that bring out the story, character, and emotion. It’s thrilling to watch.”
Last spring, nominations for DC’s most prestigious awards, the Helen Hayes Award, were announced at a stylish party at the National Theatre. McCoy didn’t attend. Instead, he learned of his three nominations for outstanding music direction when a friend called as he was driving home from a rehearsal. “I had no words,” he said of the moment. “All I could do was pull my car over and scream at the top of my lungs.”
And the moment when he won his first Helen Hayes Award for GALA Hispanic Theatre’s In the Heights? “It was the most serious thing that has ever happened to me,” he said. “I felt really confident walking up to the stage and I got up to the podium and I was like… uh…. what’s my name? (laughs).”
Now 24, McCoy is looking for ways to give back to the next generation as the music director of the Levine School of Music. Levine offers area teens fundamental classes in acting, singing, and dancing that culminate in full-scale performances at Arena Stage.
“I’m really looking forward to digging in with training these young performers,” McCoy said. “Helping youths or teens find their voice helps reinforce things I’ve learned about myself and is also inspiring. I think it’s going to be a really great program.”