By Bill Hirschman
It’s not a drag show.
Broadway veteran Lee Roy Reams may become only the second man to play Dolly Levi in a sanctioned production of Hello, Dolly! when it bows this week at The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, but he is committed to playing it straight.
“It’s not a parody, it’s not a take off, it’s not an imitation, it’s my concept and the way I see the character,” Reams said between rehearsals that he is directing as well.
Reams, who has appeared as Dolly’s male romantic lead and directed the work many times, stresses he is approaching the matchmaking matron as an acting challenge.
“We’ve talked about how English actors do women’s roles. In Shakespeare’s time there were no women, and in the Kabuki theater there were no women, so men were trained to play women’s parts.”
It’s no different, some observer say than women playing Hamlet or an all-black cast performing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway or Brian Bedford becoming Lady Bracknell. But the only time a professional company has attempted a male Dolly was when Danny LaRue assayed Dolly in London in 1982, at least that Reams is aware of.
Reams has starred as Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, but “it’s not that I like women’s clothes, that’s not it at all.” He grimaced. “To go through all that stuff you have to put on. No one would want to do that, walk around in high heels. To me that’s not a very glamorous thing.”
The appeal is “I like the character. Dolly is a lady who takes charge and makes everything work which is a masculine position. So I think it plays well for a man to do that and she’s manipulating everything.”
He has acted with and directed the iconic creator of the part, Carol Channing, but she is far from his mind. “If I had any inspiration as far as a person who I would cast in the role, I would play it the way I think Rosalind Russell would play the part because I think the body of her work lends herself to that character. She was always good with the dialogue and being a gal taking charge and manipulating.”
Will it take a while for Boca Raton’s conservative older crowd to buy him as her? “When they first see it, yes. But once I start talking to them, they will adjust. And then they will get involved in the character and the plot. And also the wonderful songs.”
What will be evident to any audience member is Reams’ adoration for the well-crafted material and the emotional heart about a middle-aged widow coming back to life. His dark eyes light up as he says, “I love the show. I love the content of what it says. I love the core. I just feel so strongly about what it says and its philosophies. It’s a classic practically perfect musical comedy.”
He also connects with the secondary story of shy store clerk Cornelius Hackl who abandons his job at a Yonkers feed store to embrace a day of adventure in New York City that includes romancing milliner Irene Molloy.
“He says that even if I have to dig ditches, at least I would have had a wonderful day. And I think that’s a wonderful thing about life. There are people who are stuck in jobs, they’re stuck in marriages they don’t like. So change it and open the door and get out of it and open another door and get in it, for all of us.”
“I Put My Hand In Here”
A crucial issue is whether to reproduce precisely theatergoers’ recall of past productions. Reams’ answer, repeated over and over, is “We’re not here to reinvent but to rediscover it.”
“My vision is to maintain the integrity of the work of the people who created it, all of whom were friends of mine, who I worked personally with” especially the underrated script by Michael Stewart and the score by Miami resident Jerry Herman who the equally legendary Jule Styne once told Reams “is the Irving Berlin of his generation.”
On one hand, the original director “Gower Champion’s work is so meticulous and having learned the show from him… I promise you no one is ever going to do it better than Gower Champion.”
But creative people create, Reams said. “We’re not robots and we’re not machines and it’s never going to be that. You have different building materials each time. We don’t have the same set, we don’t have the same costumes, we don’t have the same environment, we don’t have the same people. So what you do is try to get the blueprint down and you adjust to the building.”
There are always compromises. “It’s like going into the kitchen to make dinner. You can’t scream and yell about what’s not there. You have to make dinner with what’s in the kitchen and make it as tasty and digestible to the people. That’s what we do every time we put on a show.”
He’s practical. “I’ve always said putting on a show is like giving birth, it doesn’t matter how many times you do it, you still go through the pain… But rather than waste all of your energy in fighting that, I always say when the wave comes, I’m not going to stand there and let the wave hit me in the face, I’m going to get on it and ride it. That’s how I try to do my life. It’s never that simple and it doesn’t always work out that way. But that is what I try to do.”
“It Takes A Woman (?)”
Reams’ runway to Dolly’s staircase dates back decades. Dolly’s original producer David Merrick kept replacing lead actresses to keep the show a vibrant draw throughout its six-year-run. Merrick told Reams later that he had offered the role to David Burns (the original male lead Horace Vandergelder) and even Jack Benny who had played in drag in the film version of Charley’s Aunt.
“But (Benny) wouldn’t do it because it was in the theater and eight times a week,” Reams said a smile. “But then (Merrick) wanted Liberace to play it. But Liberace was at that point suing people because they thought he was gay.”
Meanwhile, the work became part of Reams’ repertoire. In 2007, he was directing a revival at St. Louis’ Muny amphitheater starring Randy Graff as Dolly and his old friend Lewis J. Stadlen as the curmudgeonly Vandergelder.
During a break in rehearsal, “Lewis turns to me and said, ‘So, when are you going to play this part?’ So I said, ‘Do you think I could do it”’ and he said, ‘No, I know you could do it. You do it and I’ll play Vandergelder.’ And I said, ‘And I’ll hold you to it.’ “
Fast forward to last January: Reams was playing Albin/Zaza in The Wick’s revival of La Cage aux Folles. The older audience welcomed Reams’ portrayal and producer Marilynn Wick told Reams he had to do another show next season. She asked what he wanted to do and he said Dolly.
Reams related, “She said, ‘No, no, I want you to be in the show. I don’t just want you directing.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to be in it.’ And she said, ‘You want to play Vandergelder?’ I said, ‘No, I want to play Dolly.”
Wick recalls going to dinner with Herman when came up from his Miami home to see the show. “He said to me that he knew we would do a classy job and he said if you will put the money in it, I will give you permission,” Wick said.
But a lot of skeptical eyebrows shot up all over the theater community and its patrons. Wick said, “I presented it to my staff and there was some pretty strong opposition.” At the box office, one lady asked incredulously, “Why would you do that?” Wick said, “Because it’s theater. It’s pretend.”
Few connected to the project pretend there isn’t an artistic and financial risk for this company occupying the structure that the venerable Caldwell Theatre built before going bankrupt in 2012. The Wick is just starting its third season presenting doggedly mainstream musicals to appeal to retirees and older snowbirds seeking reaffirming offerings they recall from their past.
Reams notes, “It’s really brave of Marilynn to do that, because there are a lot of producers and companies that wouldn’t.”
It’s meant to cement the fledgling theatre’s reputation. But “there’s a lot of pressure,” Wick said. “The logistics are double, triple the budget we’ve had…. Even if we sell to it out to the walls, we won’t make a penny.”
A Broadway Baby
But Reams has an edge. He played Cornelius with Channing in 1978. He has directed it numerous times including in Paris, an all-Asian production in New York City, summer stock and regional productions with Leslie Uggams, Michelle Lee, JoAnne Worley and a memorable stint with Madeline Kahn. Along the way he has worked with people he has rehired for this “old home week” production including James Clow as Cornelius, former Miss America Susan Powell (who was in The Wick’s George M) reprising Irene, choreographer Randy Slovacek, and stage and film character actor Stadlen making good on his pledge to play Vandergelder.
Reams has a special stature in the business. Newer audiences and even many mainstream audiences of yore might struggle to place the name and face – even though a vast majority have seen him work in Applause, Beauty and the Beast, The Producers, Lorelei, La Cage aux Folles and 42nd Street. But to dyed-in-the-wool theater fans across the country and to the insider family of theater pros, he is as well-known, well-respected and beloved as the A-list people he has worked with from Channing to Bacall.
Those experiences fuel his addiction to storytelling. He doesn’t drop names; he’s just relating hilarious anecdotes about the profession he loves and the genuine friends he has been grateful to have worked with: Mel Brooks, Bob Fosse, Richard Rodgers, Cy Coleman and Charles Strouse; Champion in 42nd Street in which he choreographed and led the stunningly percussive tap number ”We’re In The Money;” playing with Channing in Lorelei and then playing Cornelius to her Dolly in a revival and finally directing her last Broadway run at the part in 1995; an adoring friendship with his favorite composer-lyricist Herman.
He laughs uproariously when telling of a driving to driving to a party during the run of Applause and realizing that he had as passengers in one place: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jule Styne and choreographer Ernie Flatt. “I slammed on my brakes and said, look who I have in my car! I forgot. They were people to me,”
But the best-known celebrities, creative geniuses and long-haul performers like Reams and Stadlen bond personally over their love of theater, he said. “When you work with great people, they all have that thing in common: They love the work and if you love it the way you do, you’re friends for life. And that’s never changes. And we’re all insecure.”
Even with a half-century of experiences with Broadway hits and being on-the-road with boldface names, Reams has a seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of stories that he clearly relishes retelling – many of them repeatable – gossipy and insightful and deeply affectionate.
But his backstage vantage point and friendships enhance even oft-told tales. For instance, he was on stage during the fabled first night curtain call of 42nd Street when producer Merrick came to the stage to announce that its director-choreographer Champion had died that afternoon and star Jerry Orbach ordered, “Bring down the curtain!”
The story usually ends there. Not with Reams. “The curtain hit the floor and my first thought was I flashed back to a conversation I had with Gower. He said, ‘Leroy, you know in the ’70s, I was trying to be with it with the music and I went to all the discos. I did the drugs, did all the things. And then one day I woke up and realized I was an old song-and-dance man. And when David asked me to do this show, even though my doctor said I wasn’t well enough to do it, I had to do it because I don’t want to be remembered as a has-been.’ ”
And there’s more. Merrick had already ordered a classic opening night party gala at the Waldorf Astoria complete with a sit down dinner with nameplates and an orchestra. Bob Fosse, who had directed the autobiographical film All That Jazz the year before, “came up to me and said, ‘That s.o.b…. I filmed my own death and he had to do me one better by actually doing it!’ And we laughed. I said, ‘Bobby, you know Gower is up there tonight having a big laugh about what you just said. How flattered he would be by that.’ ”
The Broadway baby was born in Covington, Kentucky, in 1942 and attended the University of Cincinnati. He wanted to go to New York immediately but visited Europe, then earned money as an admittedly-miserable accountant and substitute schoolteacher. His heart’s dream had been to dance in MGM movie musicals, but the era had passed; by the time he got to Broadway, Hair had opened.
But upon that arrival, he got a job dancing with Juliet Prowse’s road show for $400 a week – much better than Broadway gypsy’s salary of $125. He spent three years in California dancing in numerous television variety shows fronted by Red Skelton, Carol Burnett and Dean Martin among others. His first Broadway show was Sweet Charity in 1966 which led to Fosse casting him in the movie. Then another stint with Prowse, a Richard Rodgers-led revival of Oklahoma as Will Parker in 1969 and his breakout role as the openly gay hairdresser to Margo Channing (Bacall) in the musical Applause in 1970.
“Before The Parade Passes By”
Reams doesn’t hide the fact that he recently turned 73. Like his audience, his voice isn’t as strong, his figure not as trim and legs not as sturdy. Revered dancer Gwen Verdon told him “You die twice as a dancer” and his old schoolmate, the legendary ballerina Suzanne Farrell (“she was Suzie Ficker then”) has had two hip replacements.
No remorse for the restricting aches and pains. “There’s a price you pay, but it’s worth it because it’s so glorious and I still feel it.” He does miss it; during Dolly auditions, his feet unconsciously moved in time to the steps that a choreographer was teaching the hopefuls. “But the nice thing is rather than be bitter about it, I try to pass it on… inspiring someone with the knowledge that I have so that they become inspired or more knowledgeable or smarter about what they’re doing and opening up… When you can no longer jump in the air, tell someone else how to do it.”
So over the years, he has adjusted by falling back on the directing and choreography skills he began honing back in college.
“I like just being part of the creative process… I love everything about it, to be involved in it, so long as I can do something… I do a lot of concert work and cabaret stuff…. To be honest, I’d rather perform because it’s more gratifying to me, but I’m very good as a director and as a choreographer if need be. So I can work on both sides.”
Retirement? “Not until they put me down with a silver bullet or a stake.”
Hello, Dolly! plays through Nov. 5 – Dec. 6 at The Wick Theatre, 7901 North Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Performances 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. All parking is complimentary valet. Tickets $70-$80. For tickets, visit www.thewick.org or 561-995-2333.