It’s a long way from the Natick movie house of Bob Billig’s youth to the big bright lights of Broadway. But that’s the road he’s taken.
Billig lived in Natick from age 3 to 10. He remembers paying 25 cents to see Saturday matinees at the long-gone Colonial Theater. Movies enchanted him, and he soon eased into a stage life.
It was the summer of 1959. The Carousel Theatre in Framingham was doing “Damn Yankees’’ and needed some youngsters for the chorus. Billig and his brother were picked. “We got to sing ‘You Gotta Have Heart,’ ’’ said Billig. “It was my first taste of musical theater.’’ He was 12.
Now 65, Billig is a nationally renowned musical director and arranger. He is particularly associated with “Les Miserables,’’ which is running through April 1 at the Boston Opera House.
Billig first saw Les Miz in 1985. “I was mesmerized. I said I have to do this show.’’ And he did, for the first 3 1/2 years of its Broadway run, before conducting its first national tour.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of “Les Miserables.’’ To celebrate the occasion, the show’s legendary producer, Cameron Mackintosh, has made some insertions, utilizing more eye-popping tech stuff. The audiences are buying into the changes, according to Billig. “People are blown away.’’
Billig was flattered that Mackintosh wanted him to do the new-look ‘Les Miz.’ He’s leading a 14-piece orchestra. “This is a strenuous show; three hours,’’ said Billig. “But I take care of myself. I eat well. I exercise.’’
Billig’s family moved from Natick to Wayland. At Wayland High, Billig had made up his mind where he wanted life to take him. He acted in the school’s musicals, but in his senior year he was musical conductor (he played the piano) for “Annie Get Your Gun.’’
“My mother was musical,’’ he said. “We always had music in the house.’’ It became a part of him. He never looked back.
Billig said that when he was 12, “I saw an ad in The Boston Globe that ‘Gypsy’ was coming to Boston. I had no idea what it was about. I thought maybe Gypsies?’’ Later, when Billig was at Wayland High, he did the musical accompaniment for a show put on by the sisterhood of Framingham’s Temple Beth Am. They showed their gratitude by giving him the album of “Gypsy.’’ “When I played it I was blown away,’’ said Billig. “I thought, if this is Broadway I want to do this.’’
He went to New York University as a premed student. “Two years later I changed my mind. I got involved with the men’s glee club. In my senior year I was the student conductor.’’ The night before he graduated, he got his first professional job, as second pianist for an off-Broadway production of “Dames At Sea.’’
In 1970, Billig did summer stock from the North Shore to Hyannis. “I got to meet conductors, choreographers, and directors.’’ It led to more jobs, including his first national tour with “George M,’’ which lasted six months. “Mostly one-nighters, and we traveled by bus with the band. That’s what you do when you’re 23 years old.’’
Billig found work close to home when he conducted “Funny Girl’’ and “Promises, Promises’’ at Framingham’s Chateau de Ville. He kept moving up the ladder. In 1972, he was the national tour assistant conductor for “Applause,’’ starring Lauren Bacall.
The blockbuster shows he’s worked with include “Wicked,’’ “Man of La Mancha,’’ “Miss Saigon,’’ “Singin’ in the Rain,’’ and “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’’ In the 1970s, Billig worked on the “Tonight,’’ Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin TV shows.
Billig’s Boston gigs have become nostalgic trips. “I always go back to my old neighborhoods in Natick and Wayland,’’ he said. Just six months ago, he was conductor for “Young Frankenstein’’ in Boston. “I drove around places in Wayland where, when I was a kid, there used to be farmland. Now there are condos. Natick Center is like a real downtown.’’
Things change. The Colonial Theater, the Chateau De Ville, and the Carousel no longer exist. There’s a new Wayland High School. What those places did was open a boy’s imagination to what was possible. Bob Billig is still leading the orchestra after all these years.