amanda grunin, mother, event planner and personal cheerleader, 59
Robert Grunin was born with an impressive set of lungs. Before he could say a word, his parents and their friends would joke that he was destined for a life in the spotlight. An actor, perhaps. No, a politician. No, a singer. Can you imagine? He could do opera, no amplification required. George and Amanda weren't artists themselves, if you didn't count Amanda's requisite BA in Art History (no one did), but they loved the arts. They were on the board of every other ballet and gallery in town, took regular trips up to New York for four-show weekends, always had music playing at dinner, and served on the board of the family's foundation for young aspiring artists. It would be unfair to call them stage parents, but if and when their children also expressed interest in the arts - as they always did - they encouraged them with enthusiasm and pride. And money. The money helped. After all, baby grands did not come cheap.
Even now, there are plenty of naysayers who imply (or outright declare) that the bulk of Bobby's success has more to do with luck and opportunity than objective merit - the kind of luck that boils down to being born into privilege, the kind of opportunities that come with not having to have a soul-sucking day job and having all that free time to write and rewrite and go on retreats and take on unpaid internships just for the connections, work for exposure, and maybe write some more. But even the majority of those naysayers can't deny that he exhibits any talent. As poor an indication of future career paths as infantile colic may be, Bobby did grow up to love music. Love wasn't the right word. He breathed it. He played piano like it was picking up a spoon and sang like it was saying his name, and even when he was making up songs on the spot to try to calm his baby cousins to sleep, his lullabies would always employ perfect rhyme. It was easy. It made sense. And sure, he loved it too. So when senior year came rolling by for Bobby, with his 3.9 GPA, 1570 SATs, two varsity captainships, and student body treasury, no one was surprised when he turned down every Ivy he got into to pursue musical theatre at the University of Michigan instead. It may have been the only time his father expressed visible disappointment in him, but surprised? No, it was a long time coming.
But within four months, it was Bobby's turn to be disappointed, which wasn't a familiar sensation for the golden boy with the total-charmed kind of life. It was easy snagging the lead in every school musical when approximately three boys a year tried out. Even if he hadn't been as good as he was (and he was), it wouldn't have mattered, simply because he wanted to be there. But at Michigan, everyone wanted to be there. Everyone had been the best, had snagged every lead. Everyone had been the Bobby of their school. And while he'd never been the competitive kind - whether because he was as laid-back and generous as his mother might insist, or because he'd never had real threats to deal with - he did start getting frustrated. He'd try out for parts he didn't even really want in shows he didn't even really love and get disappointed when he didn't get them anyway, because that was what there was and now he didn't have it. Until, of course, it occurred to him that that wasn't, and he could.
While he'd never seriously considered writing as any sort of thing to do than a joke when he was bored, it seemed like an obvious solution. After all, how many songs had he heard wondering who had written such a shitty lyric to such a pedestrian melody, and how anyone could do better? How many times had he completed phrases in his head, and thought it better than whatever did come next? At the very least, he could write some sketches and get someone to help flesh them out into real songs, and maybe they could sign out a stage somewhere to do a little cabaret. A song cycle. Four voices, no set. Cheap and easy. Perfect. Right? And if it helped him get in with some of the girls who were feeling similarly overlooked by the department, all the better.
What eventually turned into Edges became a breakthrough for Bobby and his partner. Within months, every song from the show was being covered by every other musical theatre major in the country, and won them a Larson in the process. The answer seemed clear: while performing had always been something he loved, writing seemed to make more sense. This was some kind of sign, right? Sure, he was a fine singer, and maybe a better actor, but people thought his writing was great. And the non-competitive-but-still-really-liking-to-win side of Bobby was hooked.
Of course, nothing came quite so easily over the next ten years. The duo's next three major projects were adaptations, tripping them over red tape and legal jargon and powerful producers who could decide they loved a song one day and hated the entire score the next. While the inevitable move to New York had been relatively painless - thanks to another check from the Grunins covering the security deposit, broker fee, and the first six months of rent while he "figured things out" - actually surviving there was hard. Everybody was a writer, it seemed, and everyone was brilliant. Hell, they all had Larsons too. And while they were still getting plenty of recognition and admiration and desperately needed royalty fees from Edges, it was getting tiring to answer "So what are you working on next?" with "Well, we can't really talk about it until everything's signed in pen, but..." Bobby was as boastful as he was competitive, but - who are we kidding? Bobby loved being good at things. He hated not being able to tell people just how good he was.
But after years of slogging and rewriting and another hundred college productions of Edges with another hundred versions of the same songs they decided they hated and just had to replace, everything started falling into place - and rapidly, at that. The year James and the Giant Peach had its debut production was the year A Christmas Story premiered in Seattle, followed closely by the off-Broadway premiere of Dogfight, just months before their Broadway debut - which earned the team a Tony nomination for Best Score, no big deal or anything. (Oh, and there was Smash in the middle of all that. The less said there, the better.)
2016 is looking like another sudden burst of good luck for Bobby and his co-writer, with Trolls followed by La La Land followed by Snow White on the big screen, as well as their return to Broadway with Dear Evan Hansen. And just as 2012 helped take them from scrappy YouTube darlings to a legitimate Broadway presence, 2016 will help elevate them to about as much mainstream recognition a pair of movie lyricists can garner. And as for Bobby, he's loving every second. Competitive? Of course not. But he sure enjoys knowing he's the best without even trying.
It's tempting to call Bobby an overnight success, with so many high-profile projects suddenly back-to-back-to-back. But that's for people who forget his brief but disastrous run on Smash ("Original"? Really?), or how he spent years slaving away on an adaptation of a holiday-themed musical that only has a shelf life of six weeks max. Self-proclaimed Edgeheads, who first latched onto his work via YouTube videos of his song cycle from undergrad, like to get snotty about how they're the true fans who found him back when he was nothing and, like, kind of made him happen, you know? Some think he's selling out. Some can't understand how he's landing deals like Snow White. Some don't even get how Dear Evan Hansen made it to Broadway at all, but hey, as long as you get there.
Composers aren't exactly superstars, and even with a year like 2016, no one would exactly be expecting the paparazzi on Bobby's tail. Then again, not all composers are Bobby Grunin, with his record of dramatic whirlwind relationships and even louder breakups. Call him the Taylor Swift of new musical theatre: he favors actresses, often well-known (depending on your circle), and everybody likes to guess who his love songs are about. Good thing he's a guy and doesn't get nearly as much flack for it as Taylor does.
For all his borderline problematic behavior, Bobby's pretty charming - and of course it helps that he has the talent to back it up. People see him as mostly harmless, if a little bit romantic, and who wouldn't be excited by all the prospects coming his way? Who wouldn't want to take advantage of every opportunity, and shill for more? Who wouldn't use his name and money to get in with people if he could? Who wouldn't feel compelled to go a little bit Slytherin? The difference is, of course, that Bobby's always been a Slytherin. Don't let his table settings fool you.
+ often jokingly-but-not cites his inability to dance as the reason he gave up on a performing career. sometimes wishes he hadn't.
+ used to complain about how his mother made him take piano lessons instead of getting him a guitar, a much sexier instrument. she'll bring this up whenever they're disagreeing on something now, though he'll still argue he could have learned to compose on guitar instead. yes, she'll reply, but would you have been quite this good?
+ his first broadway show was cats and he will defend it to the death if you want to talk shit about it. this, of course, doesn't mean he thinks it's any good.
+ okay, given how relatively awful his songs were on smash, maybe that did make him a little bit competitive.
+ seeing that social media more or less helped create his fame, it's no surprise that he has a pretty active presence in it. regularly livetweets award shows and nbc live musicals, and rarely lets a day pass without instagramming a selfie.
+ dabbled in ghostwriting for pop stars while waiting for his theatrical career to take off. dabbled in those pop stars while he was at it. it rarely ended well, if ever.