Bob Edwards: From US soldier to musical maestro
Published on: 15 Feb 2010 12:00 CET
After trading his native North Carolina for a US Army base in Germany, Edwards seemed to swear off his passion for music. But it wasn’t long before he found himself rekindling his relationship with the performing arts in his new home. Now well-established, Edwards has worked on several productions including “Phantom of the Opera” and Elton John's “Aida.” He is currently the musical director of Disney's “Tarzan” in Hamburg.
Where do you live now?
I live and work in Hamburg, but my main home is in Essen, Germany.
Where are you from originally?
Wilmington, North Carolina
What did you do before coming to Germany?
I studied music. I just got my Bachelor's in music at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina and then planned to become a high school choral teacher. But I did my student teaching and just decided this is not what I wanted to do. So I shocked everyone and joined the US Army.
After graduating college? And studying music?
Well, I went to the local recruiting office in my university town and asked them if they had anything in the foreign language department because I always wanted to learn one foreign language properly. Then when I did well on a basic aptitude test, they told me I could have basically any job I wanted with them. When they asked me what language I wanted to learn, I said German program because I'd already taken a bit of German in college, and I was interested in German culture, but also because I had studied music.
So in a way, you chose German as a result of your musical background?
Sure, plus I've always been interested in Europe just through literature and stuff – it's basically our roots. And I was especially interested in German culture, because even as a young teenager, I always thought, why did so many geniuses come from Germany? From the musical world, from the art world, from the philosophical world from the scientific world, and it was just sort of a culture that interested me.
What was your job in the army?
I worked for electronic intelligence. I can't say specifically what it was because I'm sworn to secrecy until I die. But you can put two and two together yourself: I was translating things from German into English for certain people. I basically had to listen to things and then summarise them from German into English. I worked up at Teufelsberg [in Berlin] at the now-abandoned listening station.
You must have already spoken German quite well when you came to Germany?
I could understand almost everything. The school I went to was not a speaking language school like Berlitz: it was a school to teach people how to listen and do what I did. So it wasn't until I actually started working in the language in an environment like Theater des Westens or even before that when I was teaching piano lessons and involved with German families. So if you want to learn it, you can.
How did the leap from the military to musical theatre come about?
When I first joined the army, I had sworn off all music and theatre, because I'd done so much of it in my life. And I said I didn't want anything to do with it, I was sick of it. Which is why I wanted to learn German too, because I was thinking about after I get out, maybe going back to the States, getting a degree in political science and maybe try to join the State Department. But fate didn't see it that way. So when I was in the army base in Berlin at Andrews Barracks down in Berlin-Lichterfelde, they had a very strong theatre program. I got involved with these musicals, and when I got out, I got back into singing again.
What made you realise you wanted to make it your profession this time?
It was just my experience with these musicals at the army base. I was just having such a good time, and it turned out I was really good at what I was doing, performing in musicals. I just really loved it: I ended up teaching the music to people, teaching harmonies, teaching songs to the people in the cast. And that's what I still do. I made a little name for myself down at the army base, and there were freelancers there who passed my name on to Theater des Westens.
What has your professional life looked like since then?
I've pretty much worked non-stop directing musicals in German. I was with Theater des Westens from '84 to '88, and then I was involved with the Berliner Kammerspieler, which unfortunately has been closed. We were the first people in Berlin to do “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Then I went down to Bochum for a show, where I gained some key contacts. Since then, I've worked in Germany, Austria and Switzerland doing freelance musicals – conducting and musical direction. Since 2003 I've been with the big company Stage Entertainment. I did Elton John's “Aida,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Mamma Mia.” Then, in 2008 they asked me if I'd be interested in coming to Hamburg to do Disney's production of “Tarzan.” It's been playing about a year-an-a-half now, full houses. I'm the musical director and the conductor.
What do you remember being the toughest part of coming to terms with German language and culture?
When I went to the Hochschule der Künste after the army in 1981, the toughest thing for me was the politics. I had just gotten out of the army, and I only told a few dear friends because it wasn't cool to be an ex-US soldier at that time. The late 70s, early 80s was a very volatile period in Germany politically. There was the RAF happening. There were a lot of bombings going on. There were the extreme demonstrations against the stationing of the missiles here in Germany. Older Germans were all still very thankful and very appreciative of the Americans because of what America had done for them after World War II – and still did up until recently. But younger Germans were always resentful of the American presence in Germany. So sometimes it was like treading dangerous territory. I've always been a very liberal and progressive person, so it's hard for them to understand why someone like me would join the army in the first place. It was a contradiction to them, an oxymoron almost, so it was very hard to explain.
How much time do you split between German and English?
In the army of course, I was in a totally English speaking environment. But after hours in the army I managed to make myself go out and do things, make German friends and stuff, so I had like a 50/50 sort of situation. After the army it was the same: my social circles were 50 percent expats and 50 percent Germans. Then, as I got into the musical theatre world, it shifted to about 90 percent German, 10 percent expat friendships.
What fascinates you about German culture?
I'd say what's always been neat about living in Germany is that it's a society that works. It's very civilised. They've had universal healthcare since after the war, or maybe even before? It's just a very well-functioning society in the way life is set up: the trains, the roads and the architecture. In general it's always been a very well-planned, well-designed, and I've always liked that about it. I personally feel like the standard of living was and is higher than in the States. I also find that the average German is better educated and more enlightened than the average American. I think that might be changing a bit because of the influence of mass culture, television and so forth. But I think the average person is still better educated and more informed. That has always fascinated me.
How do you feel like Germany has changed you since you arrived here?
I'd say I've become objective, if not critical of my home country. When you move abroad, you usually see things in a different light, and I think that's healthy. I remember as a kid being stuck in this idea that America is the greatest nation on earth. And I always believed it: you hear it so often, that I always accepted it as fact and didn't think twice about it. Then you travel a bit and get outside the country, especially after living so long like I have here, and you start thinking, wow, maybe it's not the greatest nation of earth. There are a lot of great nations in this world, and the United States is a wonderful nation, but it also has lots of faults, like other countries. So I've just adopted a different perspective.
What would be your best advice for someone who is trying to make it in Germany?
Learn German. Not only learn German, but learn the German culture. If you're going to make it, you've got to somehow appreciate the people you're working for. I certainly have my gripes, all of us do. You sort of identify the typical German and things that bother you. There are things to this very day that bug the heck out of me, like the aggressiveness. Germans aren't polite like the British, things like that. But if you're coming here and you want to make it, I'd say you've got to immerse yourself in the language, immerse yourself in the culture. If you don't bring it with you naturally, you've got to somehow like and love the culture here. I knew an American living here for 30 years who couldn't even order a beer in German. How disgusting is that?
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