Growing up near Westport, Connecticut, father and son would watch the late, late show on TV together. "We'd be sitting there with cookies and milk," Gray recalls, "and he'd say, 'Now watch this. This is Joseph Cotten. This is Van Heflin. This is Paul Muni.' It was always the character guys. When Shane came on, he said, 'Don't watch Alan Ladd. Watch Jack Palance.' So in my mind I was always thinking of character men."
Gray got into musical theater in high school. Then, during his senior year at Duke University, he broke his nose in three places and was unable to sing for two years. Assuming he would never appear in musicals again, Gray turned to serious acting. He studied at New York's famed Neighborhood Playhouse. In time his singing voice did return, stronger than ever. But by then Gray had learned the importance of diversifying his roles. Now he's as prone to play Shannon in The Night of the Iguana as Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat. He's one of the few actors to star on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera as both Raoul, the male juvenile, and the more character-driven title role.
"I happened to catch the time of the great mega-musical, the long-running shows that really ran longer than anyone could have known," Gray says. "Phantom, Miss Saigon, Les Miz, Cats. Being cast in one of these shows is like wearing golden handcuffs. A part of you doesn't want to leave. My fear for the American theater is that in time everyone who shows up at an audition will have the exact-same résumé. I often meet young actors who have all been in the same shows playing the same parts. By the time I was their age, I had performed 50 different roles. I'm not saying I was any good, but I was learning. That's very different from getting a job and staying put."
But Gray differentiates The Lion King from these other mega-hits. "This show is different than any I've ever been in," he says. "It doesn't have the mythology of trying to follow in the footprints of Yul Brynner. It has a totally different kind of footprint, which is extremely complicated and difficult, and only a portion of which involves acting as we know it traditionally. The movement skills and the puppet work that are required here are remarkable.
"When I was cast, I was told that we would be rehearsing for seven weeks. I thought that sounded like a long time, so I phoned some friends who were in the show. They all said the same thing: 'If you can get seven weeks, grab it. Because even with seven weeks of rehearsal, the learning curve is such that you will be rehearsing in public for another couple months.' And that's exactly what happened. I've been in the show for more than a year now, and we're constantly discovering new things and trying to get the visual and dramatic elements right. Every time you are onstage, you have a technical challenge as well as a storytelling challenge, an emotional challenge and a musical challenge."
Gray has done three shows — Phantom, Miss Saigon and The King and I — more than a thousand times each. He would like to add The Lion King to that list. Not for the longevity, which in other musicals can become tedious. Rather, because "there's still a lot more ground to cover here before I feel like I own this part."