Lee Roy Reams “Wanted to Be an MGM Star” Part II

Lorelei was a flashback, take-off on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Lee Roy played Henry Spofford, a rich Olympic athlete. “When I showed up in a sport coat the first day, Charles (Carol Channing’s husband) assumed I knew about PR.” The pair would take him along on press junket dinners. “Charles took notes on the critics, then cued her so it looked like she remembered every wife, child, and food preference. I was arm candy.” They toured a year before opening on Broadway. Carol “with a voice range that goes from purr to gurgle…” got the only good review. (Clive Barnes – The New York Times)

First day of rehearsal Lorelei – standing, director Joe Layton

Hello, Dolly!

1978, Carol asked Lee Roy to play Cornelius Hackl in her revival of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!  Thus began his Dolly saga. Apparently Jerry Herman declared Lee Roy’s was the very voice he heard in his head for the character. “Whether he meant it or not- maybe he said it to everybody- I was so flattered, I can’t tell you.”

Sixteen years later, he directed Carol herself – or “Cairawl”, as Lee Roy says (he does a pretty fair imitation). “The difference with me as a director/choreographer is that I’m an actor. Carol was defensive. She didn’t like the fact I was telling her what to do.” When she originally starred in Dolly on Broadway, one of the chorus boys made her a present of an a script annotated with everything she did. During Lee Roy’s production, Carol was referring to a phone book-sized tome.

“I didn’t want her trying to remember what she did, I wanted to  make a few slight changes. It was like talking to a spoiled child. She was 76 years old. I said, ‘You know Carol, you don’t need a director. What you need is a stage manager to tell you what’s in that script. And it’s not worth our friendship. Be my guest. I won’t do it.’ Jerry (Herman) reassured me everything would be fine. Next morning I go in and she said, ‘Good morning, Herr Director.’ And I said, ‘Good morning Star.’”

Lee Roy Reams, Carol Channing, Florence Lacey (played Irene Malloy) and Jerry Herman- Christmas at Carol’s

“We slowly started getting along. I wanted to redo ‘So Long Dearie.’ ‘I’m going to put you back on the ramp when you leave Horace’, I told her. “Dolly doesn’t go back on the ramp after the ‘Hello, Dolly’ number!” Carol petulantly retorted. (She referred to Dolly in the third person.) “Have you ever thought what that ramp represents?” the director reasoned. “It’s her road back to the human race. That’s where she talks to her dead husband and starts fresh.” The actress learned from audience reaction.

At Carol’s insistence, Lee Roy played Cornelius again in a 1995 revival. He was over 50. He then directed Joanne Worley, Randy Graff, Madeline Kahn, who actually complained she didn’t “do bits,” Nicole Croiselle, “a blonde, French Chita Rivera,” in Paris, and Leslie Uggams, in the role. “He was a great director,” Uggams tells me. “Lee Roy and Lewis (Stadlen, her Horace) made me a better actress….Every place we stopped, my husband and I would schlep to museums and antique shops with Bob and Lee Roy as they called out ‘Look at this!” as if discovering the Holy Grail. I can hear her smile.

Lee Roy finally played Dolly at the Wick Theater in Boca Raton. “She’s an aggressive, masculine woman. I’d also like to play Rose (Gypsy) and Mae Peterson (Bye, Bye Birdie). Jerry (Herman) was onboard as was Michael Stewart’s sister.” (Stewart wrote the book) “It was the first time in America a man played the part. Danny La Rue played Dolly in London but camped it up, so didn’t last. I played it straight.” Reams’ ability to inhabit those profound emotions of the book scenes is deeply touching and perhaps superior to most performances you’ve seen of the role in that respect… He (also) expertly excavates every comic nook and cranny in the piece…   (Florida Theater On Stage 2015- by Bill Hirschman)

Lee Roy Reams as Dolly Levi

During the run of Applause, Stewart confided to Lee Roy he was writing a book for a musical of 42nd Street based on the 1933 Warner Brothers film. “I told him I’d like to play the Dick Powell role.” When the piece was ready, he was instead asked to audition for the role of Andy Lee, a choreographer.“The casting director thought I was too old for Billy Lawlor.” Bob talked him into going. Lee Roy sang and tap danced. Gower Champion loped down the aisle. “You’re not right for Andy Lee,” he said. “I know.” “You’re right for Billy Lawlor,” he continued. “I know.”

Because of mixed reviews at Kennedy Center, David Merrick postponed the opening. The wily producer then bought out his partners in the guise of protecting them. Ask Lee Roy to tell you the story of why Wanda Richert (playing Peggy Sawyer) became known as “The Breakfast of Champions.” Meddlesome Merrick was not allowed at New York rehearsals, nor, as his dictate, was anyone else. Security saw to it. The cast filled front rows with teddy bears and dolls.

David Merrick and Lee Roy Reams; Gower Champion and Lee Roy Reams

“Gower revealed he had an anemic blood condition and needed a transfusion now and then. Later, we learned it was Waldenstrom’s Disease, cancer of the white blood cells. He seemed in good physical condition and was still a handsome man,” Lee Roy recalls. “My doctors told me I shouldn’t do this show because of stress, but I don’t want to be remembered as a has-been,” Gower told him. Like Lee Roy, he spoke longingly of wanting to have been an MGM star. Opening night, after 15 curtain calls, David Merrick came forward. “This is tragic. Gower Champion died this afternoon.” The audience gasped. Jerry Orbach had the presence of mind to get the curtain brought down. Lee Roy says Gower saw the last full run through. He pauses.

“Our emotions did a re-run and we went to the opening night party. It was a sit down dinner with an orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Bob Fosse was the first person who greeted me. He said, ‘That son of a bitch! I filmed my own death in All That Jazz and he still had to one up me by doing it opening night.’ We howled.” All the productions Lee Roy directed used Gower’s immutable work. He remained Marge Champion’s friend.

Opening Night

“Our picture was on the front page of newspapers around the world the next day with that captured look of horror on our faces after Merrick’s announcement from the stage. David was criticized for what he did but I don’t agree. He lived up to his legendary reputation and took advantage of the situation.” Lee Roy received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, the show won for choreography.  42nd Street broke Hello, Dolly!’s longest Broadway run record.

La Cage aux Folles

Lee Roy’s audition for La Cage aux Folles was such a success, Arthur Laurents said, “I’m not saying IF I do the show with you, I’m saying WHEN I do the show with you.” Unfortunately, they wanted him to go on the road. He loved 42nd Street. “I had a social life and I could sleep home.” Then Keene Curtis left the Broadway production. Lee Roy took over Albin. “I was on the side of a bus!” he says with a wistful grin. “They posted closing notice during rehearsal. I heard several theories…” 

One factor was likely the incursion of the AIDS epidemic. Lee Roy served on an early benefit committee. “No one wanted to be associated with it.” A good friend whose lover died told him that he went back to the baths after –because he still looked good. At her request, Lee Roy visited an AIDS wing at St. Clare’s Hospital to be named after Helen Hayes. “It was devastating.”

Lee Roy Reams as Zaza in La Cage aux Folles

La Cage moved to Paper Mill Playhouse, costumes and scenery intact. Lee Roy acted in it all over the country five years on and off. “I did it playing a character, not because I get a kick out of dressing up as a woman.” He also assumed drag for Victor, Victoria at the Playhouse. It never hurts to have a dream cast. Lee Roy Reams walks off with the audience’s heart as Toddy…This master comedian made every line count and his final appearance in high drag made a mostly straight, suburban audience blow the place apart with cheers. (John Kendrick – Musicals 101.com)

The Producers

Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks came backstage when Lee Roy was in Applause. He hadn’t met Mel and assumed he’d been anonymous as one of Bancroft’s young dancers on a variety show. “My little Lee Roy!” she gushed to his surprise. Years later, he went to a preview of The Producers, then down the street for dinner. In walked Mel, Anne, Tom and Carolyn Meehan. It was his turn to gush – about the show. “Anne said, ‘Honey, what part do you want in the national tour?’ I said, ‘Ulla.’ She screamed.”

Lee Roy got the call to audition for transvestite, Nazi Roger De Bris, the worst director in New York. He’d had the song “Heil Myself” only a day and didn’t learn it, so asked Mel Brooks if he might perform something in the style of the character. Thoroughly prepared, he sang: I had a dream…a dream about you, Adolph! It’s gonna come true, Adolph!  They think that we’re through, but Adolph! You’ll be swell, you’ll be great. Gonna have the whole world on a plate… (The tune is from Gypsy) He sings it for me, replete with salute. Mel loved it. He got the part. Lee Roy did the first and second national tours, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and closed in New York.

Lee Roy Reams and Mel Brooks

I have the following story about opening night in Fort Lauderdale from Lewis Stadlen, who played Max Bialystock to Lee Roy’s Roger De Bris: “His character has a five minute song entitled `Keep It Gay.’ The entire thing depends on Lee Roy continually turning down my offer to direct the play Springtime for Hitler. For whatever reason, instead of refusing, Lee Roy, looking like a doe in headlights, announced that he WOULD direct the play even though the number depends on him turning it down.” 

“After several attempts at reminding him that he was performing Roger De Bris in The Producers and not Cornelius Hackl in Hello Dolly!, I screamed out the last night line of what was supposed to be a large group number. The end result being that Lee Roy was not only given Florida’s prestigious Carbonell Award, for that very evening, but was lauded the next day in the review as the single actor giving a spontaneous performance. Which only proves that if you love performing as much as Lee Roy, it doesn’t matter what play you think you’re in. Just give him a microphone and he is off to the races……I love the man!”

Lee Roy Reams as Roger De Bris

The multifaceted artist has always performed in cabarets. “I love the intimacy. Doing cabaret made me a better actor and gave me more material for auditions.” When his generation was listening to Elvis Presley, Lee Roy found Ella Fitzgerald, then worked his way through every composer on her album cover as if it was a bibliography. “Marge Champion gave me the best advice: Get rid of the fourth wall and play to the people.” He’s entertained on dozens of cruises all over the world and crisscrossed the country with revues, needlepoint – “Liza Minnelli taught me”- in hand. Current musical director, Alex Rybeck tells me, “Lee Roy ‘takes stage.’ He projects, grabs an audience’s attention… The sly, playful nature of his stories is offset with generosity and genteel nature.”

“In this unenlightened age of sensitivity training—obsession with sexual harassment (as if most of us didn’t get into the theater other than to find romance), Lee Roy remains the same shameless, politically incorrect artist that makes great theater possible.  As we wallow in what hopefully will be a short-lived phase—Lee Roy Reams has never forgotten THE FUNNY PART!” (Actor Lewis Stadlen)

Singing at 54Below

Lee Roy Reams is on the board of the Chita Rivera Awards. He loves to go out and see what’s happening. There are shows he wants to perform – about dancing, his leading ladies, Lauren Bacall, Jerry Herman and an evening of Gershwin. Having hung up his tap shoes -“Leslie Caron was bitter, I’m not. Let the kids take over”- the artist nonetheless vocalizes every day. Regrets? “I never worked with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Sandy Duncan or Bernadette Peters.” Oh, and a role for which he auditioned and didn’t get- the lead in Phantom of the Opera. Lee Roy was told his personality simply wasn’t dark enough. There are two houses worth of collections he hopes to get through in time to decorate for Christmas.

“Lee Roy Reams… may be a seasoned musical-theater veteran, but in his cabaret act at Rainbow and Stars he seemed as stage-struck as someone just off the bus.”  Stephen  Holden The New York Times 1990. 

This gloriously infectious attitude remains. These are not, by any means, all his credits OR all his stories

Unattributed quotes are Lee Roy Reams
All photos courtesy of Lee Roy Reams

Opening photo by Deborah Jean Templin

Read Part 1

About Alix Cohen (1787 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.