By Don Grigware
March 8, 2011
Triple threat Lee Roy Reams will be performing a song from 42nd Street in this year's S.T.A.G.E. benefit entitled Original Cast 2 at the Luckman Theatre on Saturday April 2. He has been in the original cast of Lorelei and in more productions of Hello Dolly! and 42nd Street than he can remember. In our recent phone chat he reminisced about the shows and the people he's worked with, including late greats Ruby Keeler & Juliet Prowse and legendary Carol Channing and Jerry Herman.
Is this your first S.T.A.G.E. benefit?
I think for this organization, yes. I've done other events with David Galligan before. We're old, old friends.
You'll be performing something from 42nd Street. Is that your favorite show?
I don't really have one. They're like children. Each one has a special little something. 42nd Street was certainly the longest run, and certainly the one that brought me the most attention. But I really enjoyed doing La Cage Aux Folles. It artistically fulfilled me because I got to do everything in it. They all have special little things. I love Hello Dolly too.
I saw you do the Hello Dolly revival.
God bless you! That was in '78! Then I directed Carol's (Channing) last revival in '94.
I'm going to mention a show or a person and say the first thing that comes to mind...Lorelei.
Too many things come to mind. Mine doesn't work on one path.
Then mention a few significant things.
With Lorelei, I think of the great friendship I had with Dody Goodman. And...it was my first contact with Carol Channing. And it was because of Carol Channing that I met Jerry Herman. When I graduated from high school in Covington, Kentucky years ago, we saved our money and on prom night went to the Beverly Hills Country Club, because that was the thing to do. They had a big night club there where Sophie Tucker and all the big stars used to play. Carol Channing was the attraction, the headliner that night and did "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend". And she tossed out these wonderful rhinestone bracelets with her name copied on the clasp. Of course, I jumped up, ran all over and grabbed two of them. I saved them. On the first day of rehearsal for Lorelei, I brought the bracelet in and said, "Miss Channing, I caught this from you at the Beverly Hills Country Club." Well, that was it, and we had a big picture made where I'm holding up the bracelet and she's pointing to it. And that's how we became friends. Years later, she called me on the phone and said, (with his best Carol Channing voice) "This is Carol, and I'm going to do a revival of Hello Dolly and I want you to play Cornelius Hackel. Jerry Herman doesn't know you, but don't worry, darling, you've got the job." Thus my contact with Dolly, and many years with Jerry Herman happened as a result of that.
Tell me more about Dody Goodman. I loved her as Mary's mother in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
She just was a fabulous person and she and I toured for a year in Lorelei; she played my mother, and we became very close. When we came into New York our friendship endured through the years. In her travels to New York, she'd come to stay with my friend Bob and I. Then she decided to move next door, to the apartment building that was built next to our house. She liked being with us so much, she moved back to New York. She was one of the funniest and most delightful people in my life. I loved her with all my heart up to the end. My partner Bob and I had microphones set up in the living room and a player piano. When she'd come to visit, we used to interview each other. Bob would pump the piano, we'd have an opening number and we'd sit and talk to each other with the microphones. People across the way probably looked into my living room and thought "What are those people doing over there? They're crazy!" We'd talk and laugh and tell funny stories and laugh 'til we would cry. I could do an entire evening on Dody Goodman.
I didn't get the role. I auditioned and it was intimated that I had it. The agent called and said that they were waiting for the offer. I thought I had it, but I didn't. On New Years Eve I was very depressed and the next day the phone call came; they fired Garrett Lewis and wanted me to come in. The show was in run-throughs. I had a lot of time to catch up. But the wonderful thing about that show was my friendship with Lauren Bacall. I know the first day of rehearsal when I came in, I had to do catch up and I said "I should at least fluff Miss Bacall's hair because then they'll know why I'm in the scene. I have to have a line for the end of the scene." And I said "Miss Bacall, I promise I won't mess up your hair." And she said, "My friends call me Betty." That was it; I can't explain it to you. It's as if I had known her in a former life. We really became close that very moment and remained so during the years.
Oh, Gwen Verdon, Gwen Verdon, Gwen Verdon. The best theatre dancer ever! When I auditioned for Fosse, I wore ballet tights, because in those days you couldn't buy dance pants. Dancers made them for one another, but you couldn't go into a store and buy dance pants. I came from ballet school. No one payed any attention to me until I sang and Cy Coleman said "We've got to have him, we've got to have him!" He and Gwen Verdon were pushing for me, and because of my training my Hispanic accent was better and clearer than the competition. So I got it and Gwen Verdon and I became friendly. Fosse liked me, thank God, later. When we did the film of Charity, Gwen asked me to dance with her on a Bob Hope special. I also did The Ed Sullivan Show with her. I was always so pleased to be a Fosse dancer and to be included into that little intimate group. To see what Gwen Verdon did on stage was just incredible. Truly one of the great artists of the theatre. I'm such a fan.
It was fun to have that entree with Mel Brooks. When I saw the show and told Mel he would sweep the Tony Awards, he responded, "What part do you want to play?" I was in the first national tour. Lewis Stadlen who played Max on the tour...we'd known each other decades, but had never worked together, and with him I found another best friend. I think that's so important: that you always take friends with you from each show.
My first audition, my first job in New York...she chose me to be in her act and took me with her as her dancer and when she did Irma La Douce, I was hired. I loved her; she was one of the greats. She always hired me and kept me working.
First day of rehearsal for 42nd Street, Carole came up to me and said "You must be Lee Roy Reams." And I said "You must be Carole Cook." We had so many mutual friends but had never met. Again, I had known her in a former life. We became twins that day and I've laughed decades away with her. Whenever I come to California, she's the first person I run to see. There's never a moment of silence when she's around. Jerry Herman said that one time when they did a salute to the Gershwins, she came out, took center stage and started to sing "Let the drums roll out..." and this big bass drum rolled across the stage in front of her. He said it was one of the funniest things he'd ever seen...her expression as she watched the drum roll off.
Oh, God, dear Ruby Keeler. When I did my audition for 42nd Street, I looked into the balcony when I sang "I only have eyes for you." I did. I looked up and pretended I was looking into the face of Ruby Keeler. I loved all those Warner Brothers films. When she came to see the show, days after it opened, I told her the story, and she said "Well, sing it to me now!" I sang it to her backstage and we became friends. One time when we were out, she told me she no longer owned a pair of tap shoes. Because of her stroke, she had given all her shoes away to charity. So I called Capezio and had a pair of her shoes made. We had a good cry over that one. A wonderfully warm, lovely human being!
My friendship with Jerry happened during that first revival of Hello Dolly and he said he had written songs for women and had most of his successes writing for women. I told him "That's not true. I sing your songs all the time. Men can relate to your songs, and I'll prove it to you." I did a whole evening of nothing but Jerry Herman and that's when we started our collaboration doing versions of that show all over the place. Jerry and I are entertwined all the time. He's my favorite composer/lyricist. I'm in awe and sometimes when we were doing a show, I'd step back and say "My God, that's Jerry Herman playing for me." I've never gotten over being star struck. When they turn out to be everything you want them to be, that makes it better.
Any of the new crop of musicals that strike your fancy?
I haven't had a chance to do any of those shows. Unfortunately, there haven't been parts for me. I loved The Light in the Piazza. I also loved Jersey Boys. It was a beautiful concept, and even though I grew up during that period, I had never related to those songs because I was always listening to Ella Fitzgerald and music like that. I never listened to that genre and Elvis Presley and all that stuff. It just wasn't my taste. But I thought that show (Jersey Boys) really captured a good story plot and the songs fit. Really a great show! I also thought Billy Elliott was a well done show. Not that it was my musical taste either, but I enjoyed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson when I saw it. I didn't think I would.
Mostly events now. But people thought I had given up performing when I was directing shows. I like to do it all, but it seemed like people were getting confused. I like to perform; it's just something that's in my soul. So I have to get up and get in the spotlight.
Thank goodness for our sake that he does. Catch Lee Roy Reams perhaps doing "Lullaby of Broadway" or some other song to be determined from 42nd Street... and many, many other great singers/dancers like Carol Channing, Rita Moreno, Sean McDermott, Dale Kristien, etc on April 2 in Original Cast 2 for S.T.A.G.E @ the Luckman Theatre.
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