by Pati Buehler
Philadelphia-broadwayworld.com -August 10, 2008
This married couple can reflect on more than 20 years of experience on stage. Long before they met, Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit each enjoyed a life of entertaining audiences. Kevin was on the rise as "an actor who sings" as he calls it and Dodie was an aspiring ballet dancer/songwriter hopeful.
Kevin first came to the attention of New York audiences for his portrayal of Kayama in the 1985 revival of Stephen Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES. He was then seen on Broadway as The Prince in CHU CHEM and Off-Broadway in THE KNIFE and THE DEATH OF GARCIA LORCA at The New York Shakespeare Festival and the list of his credits goes longer than a New York City block.
Ms.Pettit has the distinction of performing on Broadway in history's two longest running shows, Andrew Lloyd Webber's CATS and The Phantom of the Opera, in which she was an original cast member. She spent 10 years in these two shows, and has over 4,000 shows to her credit, a milestone that very few Broadway performers have achieved. Other credits include the First National Touring Company of the Tony Award Winning Titanic, and regional shows of A Chorus Line (Cassie), Footloose (Vi), A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline (Patsy Cline), Singin' In The Rain and They're Playing Our Song.
Dodie Pettit was born in Princeton, New Jersey. She was a charter member of The Princeton Regional Ballet Company and later a founding member of Princeton Ballet's professional company, now known as American Repertory Ballet. There she performed many leading roles including The Nutcracker, Coppelia, and Cinderella among many others.
I caught up with the couple who call the lovely state of Connecticut their home to talk about where they have been and where they are going.
Pati Buehler: Dodie, your career seemed grounded in dance. At what point did you realize you appreciated all these other abilities such as acting, and song writing?
Dodie Pettit: I actually starting songwriting along with my ballet interest back in junior high school, picking up the guitar and falling in love with all the singer songwriters early on. I really wanted to be a pop songwriter as early as high school. I put a band together and had aspirations of becoming Bonnie Raitt. I really wanted that, although I was good at ballet too. Like a split personality, I did both at the same time.
Unable to choose between careers, Dodie passed on opportunities to dance with larger ballet companies in New York. While continuing with An Interview with Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettitdance, Dodie pursued a career in music, becoming a guitarist and songwriter and making much of her living working in pop/rock bands. She has performed at The Bitter End, The Electric Circus The Criterion Center, Don't Tell Mama's, Danny's Sea Palace, Panache Encore, and Steve McGraw's in New York; The Troubadour and The Palomino Club in Los Angeles; The Exit Inn in Nashville, and at Caesar's Palace and Arizona Charlie's in Las Vegas.
She had her first songwriting credit "Wonderland of Love" on Vicki Sue Robinson's Billboard Top Ten Album; "Turn the Beat Around". Later her song "Sweet Temptation" by Gem hit the Billboard Dance Charts and two more of her songs, "Power of the Night" and "Leather" appeared in the Feature Film "Critters". She also underscored Shel Silverstein's Grammy Nominated children's book "A Light in the Attic." Between Broadway tours, she recorded her two solo albums in Nashville, "Songs from the Journey" and "Playin' With the Boys". Dodie also produced "Voices of Broadway, Songs of Conscience and Hope" for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, an album of her songs featuring the voices of many of Broadway's best-known names.
PB: Kevin, looking back, what made you pursue your dream?
Kevin Gray: I started a bit late, in fact in my college years. I took the attitude that if I got positive feedback I'd continue with this. I was not one of those people that felt if I don't get positive feedback I'll still do this. I didn't grow up in a family that promoted that kind of a mentality. I moved on from college productions to summer stock to non-union stock and on to New York. I was at least accepted enough to move forward. I always had the idea that if people stop asking me to do things I would stop. I still have the same attitude; when they stop asking, I'll find something else to do.
This was about 30 years ago and people are still asking Kevin to "do things". Following the trends and desires of what producers want, Kevin seems to rise to the occasion and has not been pigeon holed into any one-character type. He encourages young people interested in this business to do the same. "You can try to be somebody else but somebody else already exists," says a leading man who has played many wonderful villainous and iron-willed roles.
He has most recently starred as Scar in the National Tour of Disney's THE LION KING. Prior to this, Kevin toured the United Kingdom as The King in THE KING AND I, reprising his role from the Broadway revival of Rogers and Hammerstein's classic, in which he became only the third actor in history to play the role on Broadway. He starred as Pontius Pilate in the Broadway revival of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and starred in Harold Prince's production of SHOWBOAT as Gaylord Ravenal. He toured as the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's MUSIC OF THE NIGHT, and appeared as The Engineer in the Los Angeles and Toronto productions of MISS SAIGON, receiving the Dora Mavor Moore and Dramalogue awards for his performance. He appears on THE COMPLETE MISS SAIGON, recorded in London. He was the youngest actor to play the title role in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on Broadway and on the U.S. National Tour, receiving The Carbonelle Award for his performance as The Phantom. Before that, he played Raoul in PHANTOM on Broadway and created the role of Valentin in the world premiere of the musical KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.
Part of Kevin and Dodie's longevity in this industry is the fact that both are fortunate to have come along during a time when the "mega musicals" CATS, Phantom, Les Miz, and Miss Saigon were on top and there was a lot of work because these shows ran a long, long time. What they will not tell you is that as individuals they each possess an enduring measure of talent and versatility. Both keep themselves in top shape vocally and physically. Kevin shares, "Being with one of these shows has wonderful advantages but there's always the fear that you'll never be able to leave and learn new skills. My generation of Broadway actors who played in CATS, Phantom, and Les Miz faced the same dilemma. They never had the chance to broadened out and stretch themselves, to try other things".
PB: Kevin, a BWW reader wants to know of all the leading roles you have played, which have been the most challenging and the most rewarding?
KG: They are all challenging and rewarding in very different ways. For example, The King and I, where the challenge is living in the shadow of a legendary performance that can never be avoided. Pacific Overtures was particularly challenging, with 19 actors portraying 170 roles. The last role I played (Scar) was also difficult because it's so stylized. You are working with a 45-pound costume and asked to manipulate a huge headpiece and to do so in a very specific way involving dance, stylized movement, music and text. The Phantom was extremely challenging because you are so fully covered facially, which forces you to express yourself with what can be seen, wearing a black costume against a black box set. You use your hands and face to catch the light, and use vocal color to internalize feelings and reach out to the audience. Phantom of The Opera was especially rewarding for Kevin in that it was not only his first big commercial Broadway role but also the turning point of his life, having met Dodie in this production.
PB: Now that you brought it up, tell me about this wonderful time.
KG & DP: (both laughing) Which version do you want?
DP: Here's the prologue to what Kevin will tell you. Kevin joined a year after it opened on Broadway. I was going through a very sad and nasty divorce, so I was pretty down on relationships at that point. In walks Kevin Gray… Take it from there, Kev.
KG: She's selling herself short as she was also going through the death of her mother. What should have been a triumphant time turned out to be very difficult. I came into Phantom replacing Steve Barton. I was very different from Steve in type, age, coloring, and background. My casting surprised everyone, including myself. However, Hal Prince is a remarkably open-minded director. He saw something in my audition.
Kevin had just been fired from a role in Chu Chem and thought his performing life was pretty much over. As Kevin recalls, "I was rehearsingAn Interview with Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit Masquerade, desperately trying to learn the dance steps when I heard this strange thumping noise behind me. There was a tiny little person hobbling across the stage with orange hair and purple jeans. Apparently, she had come back to the theater to pick something up as she was recovering from an injury. Therefore, I began to, for lack of a better word, 'stalk' Dodie when she came back to the company. I asked her out three times a week and she always turned me down. So about the sixth week, I thought I had better do something. One night during the performance, I passed her in the hallway and told her I needed to see her in my dressing room after the show. I was sitting there with a friend of mine Simone Gee, a very pretty Asian dancer whom I knew from my first King and I".
"So Dodie comes to my room and I said to her, "Look I've been asking you out for several weeks and you keep saying no. I'm just here to tell you that I very rarely feel something in my gut that is this clear, but I feel certain that we're going to know each other and I think there's a pretty good chance that we're going to spend the rest of our lives together. It's on you". (laughing)
DP: You can imagine what I thought, seeing this gorgeous Asian girl sitting there, thinking he's either really quite a playboy or maybe I should take this seriously. Finally, one of my friends convinced me that I should go out with this guy and see what's up. It was the best thing I ever did.
Over a 20-year period, they have been in numerous shows, sometimes together. Kevin and Dodie were in A Chorus Line, Titanic the Musical , and Phantom of the Opera, where Dodie had the opportunity to play 'Christine' opposite Kevin's 'Phantom'. This proved to be an emotional experience for them both.
One of the reasons they remain such a solid team despite long separations with production tours is their unique understanding of what is important to each of them. They share their passion for performing and both are supportive of each other's work.
KG: Our passions are complimentary as opposed to being smothering or threatening to each other. I think that's another reason it works. When we decided to write Dracula…The Covenant people told us you can't do this. You'll kill each other! Well, it was just the opposite. I feel most like myself when I work with Dodie.
In all, they have written two full-length musicals: Dracula…The Covenant, and A Christmas Carol, produced four albums, and are now in the studio recording an original children's musical book. Quite an extraordinary journey.
Kevin Gray's new solo CD "It's My Time To Shine" was begun in February 2006 and completed in 2007. During most of this time, Kevin was performing in The Lion King. The CD contains songs from many of Kevin's biggest roles, as well as two songs from "Dracula… The Covenant". In addition, Kevin performs two other songs written by Dodie.
PB: Dodie & Kevin, please tell us more about this long overdue CD?
KG: This is really all Dodie's doing. So if people like it or not it's all on her ! (laughing). For years, she has been pushing me to do this. I didn't think people would really be interested. While touring with Three Phantoms in Concert, Craig Schulman and Cris Groenendaal played me their wonderful CD's. As we were working with Sue Anderson, Cris's wife and our pianist for the concerts, Dodie told me "I really want to get you two into a studio and record a CD before you can't sing anymore (laughing).
DP: I also thought that Kevin's performances with all these big roles should really be preserved. I know how happy I am to have my recordings, and Kevin should have that too.
KG: I have the advantage of living with someone who can actually do this for me. It's not as if Dodie has been resting on her laurels during my extended tours or shows. She went back to school to study conducting and arranging. The traditional way to do a record is to have a band and vocalist and you sing together. Or you sing over tracks that are recorded first. This CD is unique in that it is recorded with piano and vocal first and then Dodie orchestrated around these. She put pen to paper and put timings to everything, shaped around my performance. Then she took these to Nashville, hired the best musicians she could find and did the songs in small groups. Finally, she brought them up to New York to our engineer, Butch Jones, and put it all together like a mosaic.
DP: Usually a singer has to follow the tempi of the conductor and in this case, the orchestra is actually following Kevin's performance exactly the way Kevin felt these songs. I think that people who may not understand this technically can sense it when they hear it; that the orchestra is really knitted to his performance.
KG: This is a very unusual way to record and I am thrilled with the orchestrations.
Kevin Gray's solo CD "It's My Time To Shine" is a mix of selections from classic Broadway shows. He sings from Phantom of the Opera, Nine, Miss Saigon, The King and I and others. This recording highlights Kevin's versatility and passion.
PB: Please tell us more about "Dracula …The Covenant".
DP: We were on tour together with Titanic the Musical. I had always thought Kevin would make a terrific 'Dracula', having seen Frank Langella do the play. I thought 'they need to make a musical of this'. Mind you, this was way before Frank Wildhorn or anyone else to our knowledge was doing this. Itching to get back to my writing, I decided to tackle it. So we started playing with ideas. I was a swing in Titanic and had a lot of down time to take advantage of a piano in a rehearsal room and noodle around and write.
KG: I've always wanted to do something gothic, and again Dodie was prodding me to do this, so I gave in. We just started brainstorming an opening scene, what was taking place and the characters and the feelings and the songs they would sing.
"She kept asking me for more and more, and as I don't really play an instrument, she suggested I sing what some of the themes might be and so on. Within two days, she called me into the Opera House in Chicago, where our next tour stop was, and she had written "Tiny Feet," which is on my CD. She also had written the overture, scored with impeccable notation. She sat down to play the music. I couldn't believe she did all this. I was actually astonished saying, "Who are you and what have you done with my wife" (laughing). It was wonderful writing, very evocative and she had found a truly original sound".
"So, we continued to write the first act. I read the book. I hammered out a libretto. Getting back to an earlier question, this was probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done in many ways. To create this piece with my partner in life was truly exciting and rewarding".
DP: It's only too bad that the market was glutted with 'Vampire' pieces. I thought we were dead in the water. We did a concert version and two producers agreed to get it mounted in an Equity theater, so we had the joy of seeing it onstage.
KG: But we will get it out there again. Of course, I'll have to play Von Helsing at that point (laughing).
PB: This has really been quite a journey for you two.
KG: You know we always say: we don't do it for the money, we don't do it for the glory, we do it for the stories! (laughing). By that scale, we've had a great ride. And who knows what is yet in store? I am teaching Master Classes for Universities, directing, doing concert work, writing, and auditioning for new shows. Dodie is writing, arranging, recording, teaching, and auditioning too ! So we've hardly slowed down.
PB: I'm sure you will both continue to perform, direct, write and entertain for many years to come. Thank you both for such a wonderful chat.
You can purchase Kevin Gray's CD "It's My Time To Shine" online at www.CDBaby.com. Visit Dodie's website at DodiePettit.com.