Bob Johnson’s first major theater goal was to be cast in the Warwick Player’s production of “Gypsy.” It was 1980, and Johnson had listened to the original Broadway cast recording countless times. He hopped on his bike and rode the audition, channeling greats like Ethel Merman and Elaine Stritch. He landed a part as a farm boy, one of the few featured roles for young men.
“Theater’s always been in my life,” said Johnson in a telephone interview yesterday. This past weekend, the newest Off-Broadway show, “Cougar: The Musical,” opened in previews, and Johnson is the show’s associate producer.
It was a long and winding journey from his time as a Farm Boy to his role as New York City producer. After graduating from Pilgrim High, Johnson went on to college in South Carolina and then earned his master’s degree in theater at the University of Maryland. He began writing plays and found success with his retelling of the Greek tragedy, “Oedipus.”
“It’s set in West Virginia with a happy ending,” he said. “It’s a great family show.”
His sense of humor landed him gigs as a comedy critic and the artistic director of a regional chapter of Comedy Sports, an improvisation troupe.
The success of “Oedipus,” which was published by Bakers Plays, gave him a taste of the playwright’s life in New York City. It was a taste he discovered he didn’t like very much. So Johnson dabbled in other things like photography and web design. That’s how he met Donna Moore, the writer, composer and lyricist of “Cougar.”
Four years ago, Johnson was shooting photos at a party for Keith Carradine at Times Square’s illustrious Tony’s DiNapoli restaurant and Moore was in attendance. The two struck up a conversation and afterwards kept in touch via e-mail.
“We started corresponding in haikus,” said Johnson.
The haikus led Johnson to find out that Moore, among other things, was a former cast member of the PBS children’s show “Zoom,” which was filmed in neighboring Massachusetts.
“I wanted to be on ‘Zoom,’” recalled Johnson. “But my mom said it was ‘too fah.’”
He also learned that Moore had created a new musical, “Cougar,” that was originally done as a cabaret show at New York’s Don’t Tell Mama nightclub.
After seeing the show, Johnson became more interested in the production. He offered to spruce up the show’s website and became the show’s official photographer. Eventually, he fell into his role as associate producer. As the associate producer, Johnson said he wears many hats but mainly works on contributing money to the production. Johnson doesn’t directly deposit his own cash into the show’s bank account; instead, the work he does to promote the show counts as his contribution.
“A lot of the artistic work I’ve done with the website, video and photography…if we had to pay someone else for that it would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars,” he explained.
Additionally, Johnson worked on radio spots for the show, which opened last weekend in previews. The show’s official opening is Aug. 26.
The title of the play comes from the slang term for women, typically 30 and older, who pursue men roughly seven to 10 years younger. “Cougar: The Musical” follows three middle-aged women with an attraction to younger men.
“It’s basically about their journey from cougar bar to boudoir,” said Johnson. The cast includes three women and one man, who play various different characters.
One of the women in the play portrays a graduate student completing her thesis on the cougar lifestyle. It’s through that character, said Johnson, that the audience can take a look at the label and decide whether or not it’s a derogatory term.
Johnson said people have asked him if he feels the show is demeaning to older women. He doesn’t think so.
“It’s taking a different look at life,” he said of the “cougar” lifestyle. “It’s being sure of yourself and a powerful woman.”
Johnson said the storyline is heartwarming and charming and will leave the audience smiling. The show has undergone revisions and changes since it first started at Don’t Tell Mama and now includes a few more musical numbers.
Johnson said when they started the rehearsal process for the Off-Broadway version, the show had lots of laughs. But as the rehearsal process went on, the laughs started to die out. It wasn’t because the play got less funny; it was because the same people (the creative staff) were watching it over and over again.
“You lose sight of whether it’s funny or not,” he said.
What the show needed, he said, was a fresh perspective. “It needs an audience to find out where it lives and breathes.”
At the show’s opening preview performance at the St. Luke’s Theatre on Aug. 10, the audience had strong opinions about “Cougar: The Musical.”
“The audience came and we had no idea what was going to happen,” said Johnson. “It was electric and funny. They laughed at the right times; they cheered.” According to Johnson, the next day’s performance was even better.
The cast is comprised of some powerhouse talent, including Brenda Braxton, who played Velma Kelly in “Chicago” on Broadway more than any other actress. Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who also worked on Broadway’s “Swing,” “Chess” and “Titanic,” serves as the show’s director and choreographer. Though the cast and crew may boast Broadway veterans, Johnson said he isn’t sure Broadway is the best bet for the show.
“Everybody wants Broadway,” he said. “But I don’t know if all shows are right for Broadway.”
Given the small cast size and the intimate nature of the show, Johnson said it would be better suited for smaller theaters.
“Filling eight shows a week is an incredibly difficult thing to do,” he said. “Off-Broadway is not a bad thing.”
Johnson hopes the show can experience the success of similar musicals like “Menopause,” which now tours smaller venues throughout the country.
“[A show] can live an incredibly long life and go on tour,” he said. “That would be wonderful.”
Johnson hopes that “Cougar,” can become a sleeper hit like the movies “You’ve Got Mail” or “When Harry Met Sally.”
“It’s like a good Nora Ephron movie turned musical,” he said.
Though Johnson has hopes for the future of the show, he’s not entirely sure what his own future will hold.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Life is the kind of journey where when you make plans, other things happen.”
For now, in addition to his duties with “Cougar,” Johnson works as the resident photographer at Harbor Lights Theater Company on Staten Island. For him, taking photos is a better alternative to his initial days in New York as a playwright.
“I’m instantly satisfied and rewarded,” said Johnson of his photography.
Despite his success in the Big Apple, Johnson still looks fondly back on his days in Warwick, where he said his passion for theater was nurtured.
“What I did there is a part of me now,” he said.
“Cougar: The Musical,” has an open-ended run at the St. Luke’s Theatre at 308 W. 46th Street. Show times are Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Find more information at www.cougarthemusical.com