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Interview: Lee Roy Reams Sings Jerry Herman and Tells Some Tales

Reams takes the stage at Feinstein's/54 Below this week for a new concert celebrating the Tony-winning songwriter.

Lee Roy Reams
(© David Gordon)

It was love at first sound. The first day that Lee Roy Reams sang for Jerry Herman, he blasted forth with that happy, hopeful tenor of his, "Out there! There's a world outside of Yonkers"—

Startled, Herman jumped out of his chair and stopped him right there. "That's the voice!" he shouted with genuine astonishment. "That's the voice I hear in my head when I write!"

This is still a primal memory for Reams: "Whether he meant it or not, I don't know—maybe he said it to everybody—but he did say that to me. I was so flattered by that, I cannot tell you."

Carol Channing had engineered this instant click. She knew Reams as a co-star in her musical, Lorelei. One fine day in 1978, she phoned him. "I want you to play Cornelius Hackl in my revival of Hello, Dolly!' she told him. "Unfortunately, you have to pass Jerry Herman, but that doesn't matter, darling. You got the part." He did, too. In 1995, when she revived the show again, he got upgraded to director-choreographer and used Gower Champion's original staging. By the time he last saw Herman in 2019, he'd taken over the title role for a run in drag in Boca Raton.

An hour-long love offering to the late composer—warm reminiscences, punctuated by 11 of his songs—had a sold-out lift-off June 28 at Feinstein's/54 Below. Accompanied by Alex Rybeck, Reams faced his first post-pandemic audience, so it was nice to have friends for first-nighters (Karen Akers, Klea Blackhurst and a couple of Chorus Liners, Baayork Lee and Donna McKechnie).

He may not have been readily recognizable to others. The world's oldest living male ingenue had, during this eternity between gigs, turned into a silver fox, with lots of snow on top.

"Since I wasn't working, I thought this pandemic was a perfect time to find out what's under all that," he said. "I never knew what it looked like. It's an adjustment. I don't quite know who this person is—I'm so used to having dark hair—but it's easier to keep, so I think I'll leave it like this."

On July 13, at 7 pm, he'll take the show from the top again, hoping to get in "If He Walked into My Life" (with special female lyrics by Herman) and "I Am What I Am," the gay anthem from La Cage aux Folles. The latter contains Herman's personal favorite lyrics: "I am what I am / I don't want praise, I don't want pity / I bang my own drum / Some think it's noise, I think it's pretty."

The show opens with a song inspired by Herman's mother. She was baking a fancy cake when her teenage son wandered into her kitchen and asked whose birthday it was. "Nobody's," she answered. "It's today." Even then, the composer-to-be knew a song cue when he heard one.

Lee Roy Reams as Dolly Levi at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton
(© Amy Pasquantonio)

"Jerry started out to be an architect but wrote songs as a hobby for a summer camp his parents ran," Reams relays. "His mother liked them enough to find a friend who knew a friend who was friend of Frank Loesser. She set up a meeting so her son could display his musical gifts. When he was done, Loesser declared, "You're wasting your time in design school. You're a songwriter."

"Jerry and I were both mama's boys," Reams admitted. "He adored his, and I adored mine. We loved talking about them. The sad thing about Jerry's is that she never saw his Broadway success. She set him up for it but died before all that happened. She only knew his camp songs."

After college, Herman got a job playing cocktail piano at a Greenwich Village bar, often doing his own songs. These caught the ear of a regular customer, who said—like in the movies—"I'm a Broadway producer, and you're going to do my next show." Then, he promptly sent Herman to Israel for an atmosphere soak so he could compose Milk and Honey, his first Broadway show.

David Merrick saw Milk and Honey and thought it "just a Jewish operetta," but Herman scored a meeting anyway. Merrick gave him Michael Stewart's script to Hello, Dolly! on a Friday and told him to come in Monday with four songs. Three of the four made the show (one was Reams' audition song, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes"). Merrick actually said, "Kid, the show is yours!"

Dolly dovetailed into Mame, whose positive enthusiasm was on a par with Herman's. Dear World, Mack & Mabel, and The Grand Tour, which followed, were not hits, but they weren't hurting in gorgeous songs. Show Seven, La Cage aux Folles, was luckier. He exited with a hit.

Songs like "The Best of Times Is Now" and "I'll Be Here Tomorrow" explode with his buoyant optimism. "They were his mantra, what he lived by. He was Mickey & Judy putting on a show."

It was announced Reams would replace George Hearn as Zaza on Broadway and he'd put in a week of rehearsal when producers opted to close La Cage aux Folles rather than move it to the Mark Hellinger. Reams made up for that with a vengeance by starring in a Paper Mill production, a San Jose production, a summer stock tour and the tenth anniversary tour.

Herman also provided Reams and his partner of 50 years, Bob Donahue, with a home-away-from-home—in Connecticut. "He transferred his house up there to us, and we had it a couple of decades. Then, when Bob died, it was just too much. I didn't like being up there by myself.

"The last time I saw Jerry, he wasn't well enough to see ‘'Dolly'' in Boca Raton, so I went to see him on my day off. He was in a wheelchair then, but he still had that happy attitude. He was smiling and optimistic and sharp as a tack. We spent the afternoon talking and laughing."

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