How Lee Roy Reams Got Cast in Original Broadway Cast of 42nd Street

I’m writing this from a beach chair in Mykonos Greece. For real. On a side note, we get back to NYC Friday night, and we drive to Rochester Saturday morning so I can do my deconstructing show aka Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show. Come see me perform with a tan!

The backstory is: We have four Broadway cruises planned, but we want to go to new locations on the next one. James thought we could combine scouting for a locale with a vacation and we wanted to celebrate Stars in the House raising $1,000,000. So, James looked to see how many frequent flyer miles we had and where we could go that’s COVID-safe and a possible cruise locale. He saw that Greece still has an indoor mask mandate and no inside restaurant eating, then he saw that we had enough miles to fly round trip to Greece in first class! After we got the fabulous tickets for Delta One, we checked how much they would have cost if we paid for them. It’d be twenty thousand dollars.

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Because of Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Cruise, we got a fellow travel company deal at a stunning hotel called the Mykonos Riviera. There is an infinity pool which is so pretty, but the more amazing part is that the pool is directly above the lobby and the ceiling has parts that are see-through. So, if I’m in the pool, you have the option of looking up at the lobby ceiling and see the underview of my love handles. It’s a win-win. Plus, our room has its own private balcony with its own hot tub—we never want to leave!

We first came to Greece when I used to work on the Rosie O’Donnell cruise. Even though it was for work, it was also going to be a romantic trip for James and I. Well, a few days before, the plans we had for Juli (who was 10) to stay in NYC fell through and we had to get her a last minute ticket with our miles. The only roundtrip ticket available for her was in first class. So, we were in coach and she was literally upstairs in the plane. The “fun” part was, while she was sleeping in her lie-flat bed, we had kids sitting right behind us watching a film the entire time and keeping a loud running commentary through the night. #StillFuming.

We had the incredibly talented Lee Roy Reams on Stars in the House last week because he’s appearing at Feinstein’s/54 Below. I am so blown away by his talent. The voice is so amazing….so many solid A flats in 42nd Street. And then the dancing! He actually almost didn’t get that role. He told us that back in 1980, he heard Gower Champion was going to direct and choreograph a stage adaptation of 42nd Street and Lee Roy wanted to play Billy Lawlor (played by Dick Powell in the film). He got an audition, but the powers-that-be thought he was too old for the so-called juvenile (he was 38) and told him he had to audition for the role of Andy Lee. He didn’t want to go, but his long-time partner told him to “do what he does” at the audition and it would work out. Well, Lee Roy had an act at the time and gave the pianist his music telling him that he was going to do an up-tempo and a ballad combined and to not to stop in between. He not only sang and danced up a storm, but his dancing partner came to the audition, so Lee Roy did a partnering combo as well. This, of course, was in the day when you auditioned for Broadway shows on a stage.

Lee Roy firmly said that people can’t really see what you do onstage if you audition in a small studio, you need to be seen in the environment you will eventually perform in. It’s bizarre to me that Broadway show auditions were always on stages and the theatre community has accepted that we can’t do it anymore. Why not? I would love to go back to the way it was, which truly is the ideal way to audition. Broadway performers and creative staff, join my movement! Anyhoo… after Lee Roy showed everything he had, Gower Champion came up to the stage and motioned for Lee Roy to lean down. He told Lee Roy “You’re not right for the role of Andy Lee. You’re very right for Billy Lawlor.” Lee Roy agreed and got the role he wanted. However, everyone warned him that Gower was notorious for casting someone and then reneging the offer. Lee Roy was a nervous wreck, but he did wind up starring in the show.

Wanda Richert, Jerry Orbach, and the cast of 42nd Street
Wanda Richert, Jerry Orbach, and the cast of 42nd Street Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

However, the fabulous Lisa Brown was offered the female lead of Peggy Sawyer and, right before rehearsals, Gower saw another dancer at an open call. He loved her and his associates told him it was the woman who had sent in a video of herself in A Chorus Line. He had never watched the video but flipped out when he saw her in person. True to his rep, he wound up casting Wanda Richert as Peggy Sawyer after offering it to Lisa Brown. What made it worse is that when Lisa was offered the role, she had just quit The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the Broadway show she was in at the time. The good news, however, is that Lisa wound up taking over the role later in the run. Here she is with Lee Roy!

Lee Roy told me about talking to Gower during rehearsals and lamenting that he was born too late. He wanted to be a movie song-and-dance man. Gower agreed that he was an old-fashioned song-and-dance man and he had tried to be “hip” in the ‘70s but it didn’t work. He told Lee Roy that when David Merrick offered him 42 Street, despite his checkered past with him (they had issues during the previous Broadway musicals they had done together) and despite Gower’s health problems, he felt he had to do it because, as he told Lee Roy, “I don’t want to be remembered as a has-been.” Things worked out: Lee Roy says 42 Street wound up being Gower’s greatest success.

He also told me that he saw Gower in Wanda Ritchert’s dressing room right after an invited preview of the show and told Gower that, based on the audience’s reaction, the show would be a hit. Wanda agreed and said to Gower, “And it’s all because of you!” Gower hugged them both and said, “No. It’s all because of us.” Lee Roy was moved to tears… and that was the last time he saw him. Gower Champion died the morning of opening night and, as legend has it, David Merrick announced it during the curtain call. The cast had been called to the theatre during the day under the guise of a rehearsal, but it was really to sequester them so no one would find out about Gower’s death that morning…. and David would be able to drop the bomb in front of a theatre full of reporters whom he had invited. Of course, it was such a dramatic moment caught on camera that the show made headlines around the world and it became a huge international hit. Lee Roy told us that at the opening night party, Bob Fosse came up to him “That son of a bitch. I filmed my own death with ‘All That Jazz’ but he had to do me one better by doing it on opening night!” Lee Roy knew Gower would have loved that and they laughed up a storm.

Lee Roy also told me that Gower didn’t tap. He would stage the numbers in terms of physically placing people and dramatically and musically building what would happen, but the tap steps were left to his associates: Karin Baker and Randy Skinner. Look how incredible Lee Roy is. I’m obsessed with the energy and the uniqueness of his dancing. It’s so physically wild! Watch this below then peace out. See you in the States!