Between them, since 1991 Ken Page and Lee Roy Reams have been featured in nearly 50 shows at the Muny. This week, with both actors appearing in The Little Mermaid, seemed a good time to catch up with two of the Muny's most popular veterans.
Dennis Brown: Can you remember the first time you walked out on the Muny stage?
Ken Page: That was back in '73. I was in the chorus, and they took photographs of us on a trolley. I remember standing there, looking out, thinking, I made it! I'm actually on the stage.
Lee Roy Reams: I beat you by a couple years, Ken. For me it was Applause, which we brought out from Broadway in 1971. It was a little daunting to see such a huge space. But also wonderful, because I like to perform big. One reason I like the Muny is because I never get the note, "Lee Roy, could you bring it down a little?"
Page: Playing the Muny stage is a specific. You don't play it the way you perform in an 1,800-seat theater like the Palace, where Lee Roy did Applause. You have to use some physicality, so the audience knows where to look. A couple summers ago I did Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl. All through rehearsals people kept saying, "The Bowl is really big. It's going to throw you." And I just sat there and thought to myself: You have no idea; I've got this. And the Bowl is 6,000 seats larger than the Muny. But it was a piece of cake.
How do you account for your longevity here?
Page: God knows it's been a long and really wonderful association. [Muny executive producer] Paul Blake has given me opportunities to play nontraditional roles that I would never get cast in elsewhere, due to race. But once having done them, I think it speaks well of the St. Louis audiences that nobody really cared.
Reams: Any time you talk about the Muny, you have to start with the audiences. In Forest Park it is always the audience that makes the show. I too have played what were for me nontraditional roles. No agent would have submitted me for Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady at other theaters. And where else would I have gotten to play Captain Hook? I was given those opportunities by Paul, because I think he understands that the Muny audiences enjoy seeing the same actors, but they like to see them doing different things. I've spent my life in the theater, but until last week I had never played one of the gangsters in Kiss Me, Kate. And I have to tell you that when John Schuck and I made our first entrance and the audience applauded, it touched me deeply. But that's the Muny audience for you.
What are some of your most vivid Muny memories?
Page: Oddly enough, doing Cats here the first time. I'd already done it hundreds of times on Broadway. But to perform it outdoors, in its proper setting, was indelible. The song "Memory" is based on a fragment poem by T.S. Eliot called "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Just as Judy McLane walked to center stage to sing "Memory," a wind blew across the stage and lifted her tail up. It was waving behind her. And it was a full moon. You don't forget moments like that.
Reams: I know exactly what Ken means. One summer when I was in rehearsal, at night they were performing 1776. I had seen the original production in New York and didn't remember being bowled over by it. But I went, out of a slight sense of duty. It was another of those delicious Muny nights, with the breeze blowing through the trees, and the show swept over me. It completely captured me. I was overwhelmed by the patriotic fervor of the entire experience. I think it's one of the best productions I've ever seen.
What has the Muny meant to your careers and to your lives?
Page: Well, God, everything. The first professional show that I ever saw was at the Muny. Seeing Oklahoma! from the free seats gave me the knowledge that there was a world called "the theater." Imagine being introduced to that world at this heightened level. I mean, huge! Then I had my first job here. Working at the Muny gave me the confidence to take a shot at New York. And although I enjoyed success on Broadway, for which I am forever grateful, you don't do a Broadway show every season. Since 1994, when I returned to the Muny, this has been my theatrical home. It has been the most important consistent theatrical experience in my life. I am always thrilled to come here, because the environment allows you to exhale and relax.
Reams: I like to joke that coming to the Muny is like going to summer camp. But it's more than that. I am deeply moved by the fact that the Muny experience is communal.
Page: Lee Roy, I know what you're about to say, so say it for both of us.
Reams: For the past twenty years, Ken and I have watched kids here at the Muny grow up from being teenagers to young adults. Some of them graduate to Broadway, but we've also watched them become doctors. It doesn't matter. They are all richer because of their Muny experience, just as Ken and I are richer. When the breeze is blowing and the lights are shining and that full orchestra is playing, it is such a rush to walk out on that stage and face that mass of people. The experience is magical. I don't say that as hyperbole. It really is: It's magic! And it returns me — and I think Ken would agree — to the kind of theater we most love.