Back in 1974, when twenty-year-old Ken Page arrived in New York City hoping to make it big on Broadway, one of his first auditions was for Jesus Christ Superstar. "They told me I wasn't right for a rock musical," Page says. "I wanted to be in it so badly."
It's taken 30 years, but Page has finally been cast in the show. He portrays King Herod in next week's Muny production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice "pop" opera.
Page may have been rejected by Superstar, but he became a bona fide Broadway star in 1982 when he created the role of Old Deuteronomy in another Lloyd Webber musical, the mega-hit Cats. "When Andrew received the Drama Desk Award for Cats, he asked if I would accept it for him," Page recalls. "I was happy to do so. The next time he came to the theater, I said, 'I have your award.' He said, 'Hold on to it.' That seemed odd. I said, 'Hold on to it?' He said, 'Why not? Just hold on to it.' It took me a while to realize what was happening. But I had been passed over for all the awards that season. I think he felt that I deserved something. To this day, I still have Andrew Lloyd Webber's Drama Desk Award."
By the time Cats was officially taped eighteen years later, "a thousand actors had played those roles." But Lloyd Webber -- now Sir Andrew -- again cast Page as Old Deuteronomy. He is the only member of the original Broadway cast to appear in the video. "Perhaps because I was playing an older character," Page considers, "I grew into the role, whereas a lot of the other actors grew out of theirs." Perhaps. Or perhaps Sir Andrew sees Page as the definitive Old Deuteronomy.
Born in St. Louis in 1954, Page considers himself a "beneficiary of the civil-rights movement. I didn't grow up with discrimination so much as I grew up with integration." His family lived downtown on Carr Street; eventually they moved out to Northwoods.
In July 1966 twelve-year-old Page sat in the free seats and saw his first Muny production: "It was Oklahoma! The moment Robert Horton made his entrance on horseback, I fell in love with musicals." Because the Catholic school in his north-county district did not offer music or theater, Page's longtime champion Sister Ruth Cecilia fought for him to be transferred to Bishop DuBourg High School, where he acted in numerous shows. "My senior year we did Fiddler on the Roof," he says. "This story about Jews was being staged in a Catholic high school with a black playing Tevye. I think we were a little further ahead than even we thought we were."
After he graduated from high school, Page was cast in the Muny singing chorus. One of his most memorable tasks was to hold Gene Kelly's leg, which was suspended in air during a production number in Take Me Along. "Now jump ahead several years," Page says. "There was going to be a musical about Louis Armstrong and they wanted to see me about playing his mentor, Joe Oliver. Gene Kelly was going to direct. So I had an audition. We did a soft-shoe together, because he wanted to see me move. All I'm thinking is: I'm dancing with Gene Kelly! I didn't care if I got the show or not. He said to me, 'There's nothing more charming than a big guy who can move well.' Then when I told him about holding his leg at the Muny...."
An actor can live on such memories for a lifetime.
"I was taught early in life to use whatever you have to your advantage," Page says. "Because of my large size, I've always played character roles. In New York I might have gotten more ensemble work had I been thin. But I wasn't, so I was always given parts. Who's to complain, right?" He made his Broadway debut as Nicely Nicely Johnson in an all-black revival of Guys and Dolls. Then came The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin' and Cats.
In addition to his stage appearances, Page has lent his voice to animated features like All Dogs Go to Heaven. In Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas he's the voice of Oogie Boogie ("I did it as a cross between Cab Calloway and Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist"). "There's no two ways about it," Page says, "Tim Burton is very eccentric. He lives in his own world. As a child he liked to play in the cemetery. I mean, please. But the brilliant thing is that he's able to create worlds outside of himself that reflect his inner world."
In its own unique way, Page's career also has been a reflection of who he is and what he wanted to be. "When I got to New York, I met so many African-American performers who only knew the black musicals," he says. "But because of having grown up around the Muny, I knew the white musicals too." So it's not by chance that some of his most meaningful performances have taken place here at home. He has returned to the Muny nearly every summer since 1994, often to perform roles that usually aren't available to African-Americans. "Where else would I get to act in Camelot and My Fair Lady?" Page asks. "This is all [Muny executive producer] Paul Blake's doing. He's done it very quietly, without any fanfare, but this nontraditional casting has been a wonderful gift."
The Muny has sustained Page's career, and he has given in kind. He still vividly recalls his first show, South Pacific, in 1973: "Bloody Mary was played by a lovely lady named Theresa Merritt. I told her I wanted to leave St. Louis and go to New York, and she asked why. That wasn't what I expected her to say, but she wasn't giving an inch. So I said, 'I feel like I have to do this.' And she said, 'That's a good reason. Any other reason, think about it. But if you have to do it, then go.' Then she said, 'But if you do go, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, because you don't know anything and you have to learn first.' It was great advice."
Thirty-two years later, as his long-delayed debut in Jesus Christ Superstar approaches, Ken Page is still on the learning curve.