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Production Values

10/13/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Nancye Tuttle

As a kid growing up in Bedford and studying business at the University of Lowell, Bonnie Comley never dreamed that one day she'd accept a Tony Award or rub elbows with the likes of Broadway stars Alan Cumming or Kristin Chenoweth.

"I was too busy working and putting myself through school to think much about what I'd be doing. I didn't have time to do anything involved with theater," said Comley, 50, by phone from New York.

But that was 30 years ago.

Today, Comley and her husband, Stewart Lane, are vice president and president, respectively, of Stellar Productions. They are executive producers of numerous Broadway shows, including Legally Blonde: The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, the recently opened Superior Donuts, starring Michael McKean, The 39 Steps and a revival of Sunday in the Park with George, both Tony winners.

And they worked with Cumming (The Emcee in Cabaret) and Chenoweth (Glinda in Wicked), who both appear in the documentary Show Business: The Road to Broadway, which they produced.
 
Despite their success, they believe in honoring their roots and giving back. They visit UMass Lowell Thursday to share the film and behind-the-scenes tales of life on the Great White Way with students and the public. The program will be held in Mahoney Hall's Comley-Lane Theatre, which they helped refurbish several years ago.

Show business is bright lights and glitz, says Comley, who graduated in 1981. But behind the glamour and red carpet, it's business, pure and simple. Their talk explores that.

"When you're in show business, you can hone your craft, take dancing and singing lessons. But you need the tools -- the business skills -- and you need to remember that it's a business," she said.

It's also a field where an Ivy League degree isn't a key to success.

"It doesn't matter where you went to school -- you don't even have to go to school. As long as you're creative and willing to work with all kinds of people, you can succeed," said Comley.

Comley values her UML degree and the hard work it took to earn it.

"I was a kid growing up in Bedford, one of four in the family. My parents, James and Virginia Comley, and sister and brother-in-law, Carol and Cliff Washer, still live there," she said.

With money tight, a UML education was right for her.

"I worked through high school and college. After I graduated I went looking for a job. It was the early '80s, so there wasn't much out there," she said.

Instead of taking the bank job she was offered, Comley kept on lifeguarding at the Greater Lowell and Woburn YMCAs and went to Emerson for her master's degree.

"I decided to try other things in my life and work on a degree in communications," she said.

It was a wise move, since she ended up in New York on an internship at CBS and never looked back.

"I couldn't afford an expensive apartment, so I rented a room in a convent on the West Side. It was a room, two meals a day and no phone. The nuns were strict," she laughed.

She got a real apartment soon after, when she landed a job as a reporter and host on cable and later the Travel Channel. She also acted off-Broadway, did commercials for Budweiser, Crystal Light and Pizza Hut and wrote for entertainment publications.

Her husband, already a seasoned producer, was a source, and she went to work for him as a script reader. They've been together 18 years and married for 12. He has two grown children from his first marriage. They have a girl, Leah, 11, and twin sons, Lenny and Frankie, 3.

Their lives are busy, with going to the theater and making decisions on whether or not a show will click on Broadway. Some work, others don't, like Legally Blonde, The Musical, which didn't hold up in New York, but is doing well on tour.

"I loved the movie and the musical was our big, pink, fluffy show, but it was extremely expensive to run, and we wanted to make money," said Comley.

Any show requires commitment, she added.

That comes through in Show Business: The Road to Broadway, which tracks the roller-coaster journey of bringing the musicals Wicked, Caroline, Or Change, Avenue Q and Taboo to Broadway.

"The movie traces the exhilaration and downfall that happens all the time on Broadway. Our director, Dorie Berinstein, had 400 hours of video and got every celebrity on Broadway that year. But she honed it down to one-and-a-half hours and tells a great story of the race for best musical that year," said Comley.

And that, in the end, is what show biz on Broadway is all about.