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by Michael Portantiere

Lee Roy Reams and His Leading Ladies

  • Lee Roy Reams.jpg

    Over the course of his career, Lee Roy Reams has worked with such fabulous leading ladies as Gwen Verdon, Lauren Bacall, Tammy Grimes, and Carol Channing. In the Paper Mill Playhouse production of La Cage aux Folles, he was his own leading lady, scoring a triumph in the role of Albin/Zaza. Now he's back at Paper Mill as Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray, opposite the Edna of Christopher Sieber, who recently played that part at the Cape Playhouse to great acclaim.

    Leroy has more than 45 years of showbiz memories to share, so let's plunge right into some excerpts from my recent conversation with him about great dames, legendary composers, and why he's sure he won't be asked to perform when Jerry Herman receives a Kennedy Center honor in December.


    BROADWAYSTARS: You're playing Wilbur in Hairspray. Fess up: Did you ever have your sights on the role of Edna?

    LEE ROY REAMS: Actually, no -- although I once had a friend who told me, "You've done La Cage, now you just need to get a bigger dress so you can do Hairspray." Chris Sieber is such a funny guy. We've known each other for years but we've never worked together, so that's one reason I wanted to do this show. He's a big woman, I'll tell you that! Chris is, like, 6'2", and when he's wearing the heels and the hair, he looks like he's about 6'7". We're having so much fun -- but if you had told me a few years ago that one day I'd be playing Chris Sieber's husband, I would have said you were crazy.

    STARS: What attracted you to the show?

    LEE ROY: Besides the interracial theme, which is very obvious, it's mostly about the family. And the fat girl triumphs in the end, so what's not to like? It's a charming little story.

    STARS: You say you never thought you'd be playing Chris Sieber's husband. Did you ever think you'd be cast in a role that had been played by Christopher Walken?

    LEE ROY: [laughs] Not at all.

    STARS: I don't suppose you're modeling performance after his?

    LEE ROY: I don't think so! But I like Chris Walken. I think he's a good actor.

    STARS: In Applause, you played Duane, Margo's confidante. Am I correct in thinking that was the first time an openly gay character was seen in a Broadway musical?

    LEE ROY: It was. Not that there weren't effeminate characters in shows before that -- Danny Kaye's character in Lady in the Dark, for example. He was very flamboyant, but it was never said that he was gay. When I auditioned for Duane, my agent and my friends were very concerned that I would be playing an openly gay character. They were afraid I'd be typecast, but I really didn't think twice about it. I thought, "Why shouldn't I play a gay character? I am gay."

    STARS: You've said that you got along very well with Lauren Bacall.

    LEE ROY: Yes. I wasn't originally cast as Duane; Garrett Lewis had the part, but he was replaced, basically because they felt he was coming across as too much of a leading man type. I didn't join the show until about a week before it was ready to go out of town, so I had to learn everything really fast. But, for some strange reason, the combination of Bacall and me worked from the first day of rehearsal. I called her "Miss Bacall" at one point, and she looked at me and said, in that voice of hers, "My friends call me Betty!" From that moment on, we became those characters offstage. We were inseparable.

    STARS: Did you receive any negative reaction to the role you were playing?

    LEE ROY: Oh, not at all. I got a lot of attention for the part, and lovely reviews. The next show I did was Lorelei, in which I played an Olympic athlete, so Applause didn't typecast me after all. Later on, I played gay characters in La Cage and in Victor/Victoria, both at Paper Mill. I should play those parts; I'm right for them, and I am a gay man.

    STARS: If I recall, you almost got to do Albin in La Cage on Broadway, but it didn't work out.

    LEE ROY: I was the last person cast by Arthur Laurents, and I left 42nd Street to do La Cage. The show was supposed to move from the Palace to the Mark Hellinger, and they were doing a big publicity campaign; my picture was even on the side of a bus. But I only rehearsed for a week, and then the closing notice was posted. I was very disappointed, especially because I had left a good job. You know, in Arthur's new book, he says that the Times Square Church paid [La Cage producer] Allan Carr not to move the show to the Hellinger, so the church could get the building. Did you know that?

    STARS: I hope it's not true! Anyway, it's great that you got to play Albin at Paper Mill.

    LEE ROY: The production was a huge success. Every night, there were people lined up at the box office, waiting for returns. We could have run for six months. The audience just loved it.

    STARS: I'd love it if you would share some stories about your leading ladies. You've already talked about Bacall; how about Carol Channing?

    LEE ROY: We became friends during Lorelei, and she asked me to play Cornelius in the 1978 revival of Hello, Dolly. She called me up and said, [launches into a perfect Channing imitation:] "Lee Roy, I want you as my Cornelius. Jerry Herman and the director don't know who you are, but don't worry, you've got the part!" It was a wonderful experience -- and then Carol asked me to direct her last revival of Dolly! in 1995.

    STARS: You must be so happy that Jerry Herman is on the list of this year's Kennedy Center honorees.

    LEE ROY: It's long overdue. There's no one more deserving than Jerry. I owe so much of my career to him, and I mean this very sincerely: I could be happy doing nothing but Jerry's music for the rest of my life. Jule Styne always said that Jerry Herman was the Irving Berlin of his generation.

    STARS: Wow.

    LEE ROY: Yes, that came right from Jule Styne. I'm so lucky to have worked with these people -- Jule, Jerry, Charles Strouse, Cy Coleman. You know, I was supposed to do Seesaw. When I was in Applause, [producer] Larry Kasha told me, "If you go on tour with Bacall and keep her happy, we've got a role for you in Seesaw." The song "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish" was written for me. But the original director, Ed Sherin, didn't want me, so he gave the part to someone else. My agent at the time told me, "Don't worry, Ed Sherin can't direct a musical. They'll fire him out of town, and they'll fire the guy playing your part" -- which they did. But they brought in Michael Bennett, whose assistant was Tommy Tune, so he got the part.

    STARS: Your first Broadway show was Sweet Charity, with Gwen Verdon. Any stories about that experience?

    LEE ROY: Bob Fosse didn't like me at first. He thought I was a ballet dancer because I auditioned in ballet tights. You couldn't buy dance pants in those days! But I think Gwen liked me, because she kept looking at me during the audition. And when we all sang, Cy Coleman said, "Bobby, we've got to have him in the show. We need his voice." So I got in -- but I only did the show for two weeks. I was making about $125 a week in the ensemble, and then Juliet Prowse offered me $400 a week to do her nightclub act. Fosse was very angry with me; he said, "Give me just one good reason why you want to leave this show." I told him, "Juliet Prowse is going to pay me four hundred bucks a week." And he said, "Well, I can't argue with that!"

    STARS: He must have gotten over his anger, because he put you in the movie.

    LEE ROY: Yes. To me, the most important thing is to be admired by the people you work with. When Bobby got the Astaire Award for Big Deal, he made a speech and said, "I'm very insecure about my work, but one thing I'm sure of is my love for my dancers, and three of them are in the audience tonight: Lee Roy Reams, Donna McKechnie, and Ann Reinking." I cried, and I told him afterwards, "Bobby, having you stand on stage and say that meant more to me than receiving a Tony Award." To have Jule Styne bring me in to do recordings for him, to have Jerry Herman say in his book that I'm his favorite male singer -- hey, it doesn't get better than that.

    STARS: Do you think you'll be involved in the entertainment for the Herman segment of the Kennedy Center Honors?

    LEE ROY: No, I'm not a big enough name. That's just the way it is; I don't have an ego about it. Jerry has nothing to do with who'll perform for him that night, it's all decided by the people at the Kennedy Center. They'll probably bring in somebody from Glee!

    [For more information about Hairspray at Paper Mill, click here.]

    Published on Friday, September 24, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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