The first thing about the Muny that impressed Lee Roy Reams was the heat. Thirty-four years ago, back in 1971, Reams was kicking up his heels on Broadway with Lauren Bacall in the hit musical Applause when it suspended its run at the air-conditioned Palace Theater to transfer to Forest Park for a week. "We had our technical rehearsal in the afternoon," he recalls. "The stage was so hot you couldn't even stand on it. But that week turned out to be nothing but fun, like going away to summer camp."
Reams has since returned to the Muny a dozen times. He missed the past two summers because he was touring as cross-dressing director Roger De Bris in the national company of The Producers. But now he's back, reprising the role of Lumiere, the candlestick, in Beauty and the Beast, which he first played on Broadway ten years ago.
Memories of his first less-than-electrifying performance still bring shudders: "The show had been running for a year, so I was put in by a stage manager. I had these huge plastic feet, but I didn't get to rehearse in them because the Disney organization didn't want to pay the wardrobe people. Nor was I allowed to rehearse with the actors. I had to press a button that made a spark that lit the butane gas for the candle. Finally I said, 'The only way I'm going to learn all this is if you put me onstage. I'll be hysterical for a couple performances, but the other actors can guide me.'
"As I was waiting to make my first entrance, wondering how I was ever going to get through this ordeal, one of the chorus kids ran by and said, 'Isn't it exciting? Barbra Streisand's in the audience.' So I got out onstage and there she was, sixth row on the aisle. You couldn't not see her -- it was as if she had a light on her. I was so flummoxed, I couldn't even remember my first line. It was one of the worst nights of my life."
Another opening, for the grandiose musical 42nd Street in 1980, was even more memorable, for a starkly different reason. "We knew Gower [Champion, the show's celebrated director-choreographer] was ill, but we didn't know he was dying," Reams says. But the show's flamboyant producer, David Merrick, did know, and he ordered the company to come to the theater on the day of opening night. "We weren't even rehearsing. We were just sitting in our dressing rooms wondering why we were there. As it turned out, David literally held us captive in the theater so we couldn't hear the news." That night, after the show's triumphant opening, Merrick appeared onstage during the curtain call and made the stunning announcement of Champion's untimely death. "We were all dazed. We couldn't move. Jerry Orbach was the only one who had the presence of mind to tell them to bring in the curtain. But of course it was front-page news around the world, and the show ran ten years."
As a youth growing up in Covington, Kentucky, Reams had aspired to work in MGM musicals, as Champion had, so he felt an affinity for the director. "Gower once talked to me about his career. He said, 'I tried very hard to update my knowledge. I went to the discos and I did the drugs. I finally woke up one day and said, 'I'm just an old-fashioned song-and-dance man.'"
Reams too has spent much of his career as a song-and-dance man: "Gwen Verdon once told me that you die twice as a dancer. You die when you realize you can't dance any more, and then again when you finally die. I can still hold my own out there, but I no longer consider myself a tap dancer. Dancing is for young people."
So he's moving on to the next plateau. Later this summer Reams returns to the Muny to direct Singin' in the Rain. Then he goes to the Kansas City Starlight Theatre to direct Michele Lee in Hello, Dolly! For Lee Roy Reams, summer camp just goes on and on.