I would have loved to be with all of you today to celebrate the life and talent of Kevin.
And, I want to thank Hal Prince for kindly reading my tribute to Kevin in my absence.
It seems very fitting that Kevin’s tribute gathering should be held at the Majestic Theatre.
In my life, Kevin was a majestic presence in every way.
In 1996, before many TV personalities were making appearances on Broadway, I was cast as Anna in “The King & I to replace the stellar talent of Faith Prince in the role.
Let’s just say, I was “A Little Bit Country…and A Little Bit Terrified.” I was overwhelmed by learning the dances, the songs, the lines….all within 18 days…as well as a proper British accent. Then, I met my king. Kevin Gray.
Poet John Keats wrote these lines: “They shall be accounted poet kings, Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.”
Kevin did ease my heart…and each of my worries. His unlimited generosity through the rehearsal process gave me the confidence that I had everything I needed to raise up to the challenge of playing Anna.
He would say things like “We’ll just take the show one scene at a time.”
He tuned into my sense of humor and allowed his “King” to match wits with Anna.
And, always during the run of the show, he would orchestrate some type of insider prank…just to be sure I wasn’t taking it all too seriously. One night, during the scene where the King’s many wives bow to him, wearing hoop skirts for the first time, Kevin had arranged for the ladies to tape pictures of my brother Donny’s face on each of their backsides, viewable only to me. Well….my brother can be quite an….(never mind).
All of the children in the show adored Kevin, as he was equally playful with them.
They could run towards him at any given moment backstage and count on Kevin to toss them into the air, swing them over his shoulder, or hang them upside down, to their delight.
In the show, Anna slowly falls in love with the King. That part didn’t take much acting. It was impossible to NOT fall in love with Kevin’s king during the course of the performance every night. With his talent, his humor, and his kindness, the whole audience would be completely smitten with him by the curtain call. The memory of Kevin’s King will never fade for countless numbers of people who saw him perform the role.
I send my love to his wife, Dodie, and my condolences to all of you…the “family” called Broadway.
And, Kevin…when I see you again, and hear you sing, “Shall we Dance?” My answer will be “yes.”
“As I go travelling down life’s highway whatever course my fortune’s may foretell I shall not go alone on my way for thou shall always be with me…”
Nearly two years ago, I was fortunate enough to be one of several Rollins students to sing these words on the Annie Russell stage. The show was Grease, directed by beloved Rollins professor and accomplished actor Kevin Gray. Kevin—who always encouraged his students to sing their feelings—brought a passion to the stage that was only matched by his passion in the classroom.
In the week following his passing, it is this continued love and the words he taught his students to sing that have brought comfort to many mourning hearts on campus. Kevin was known to many across the country as a tour de force of the American stage. Starring in some of the largest productions in the biggest Broadway houses, Kevin was known for breathing life into favorite shows such as The Lion King, Misgon, The King and I, and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera, where he met his wife and fellow performer, Dodie Pettit. Both Kevin and Dodie—as they requested to be called—are much-loved members of the Rollins family.
The work they did in their short time at Rollins has extended far beyond the perimeters of any stage, into the hearts and souls of students, faculty, and friends alike. When most people remember Kevin Gray, they will remember his resume; both impressive and important, it was the work he so fully he met with absolute devotion. But, I also hope that there are those who will look to his students; his colleagues; his friends; his family. These were his greatest achievements. Kevin is kind. Kevin is joyful. Kevin is passionate. Kevin is an incredible listener. Kevin takes amazing risks. I write “is” not to diminish the impact of his passing, but to honor the reality of his presence.
Next time you see a music student encouraging a friend, know that while you see their kindness, you also see Kevin. When you see a theatre professor sitting in the rose garden listening to a student, know that while you see their compassion, you also see Kevin. When you see a student take a deep breath and boldly step onto stage, know that while you see their courage, then, in that moment, you also see Kevin. The impact he has made on Rollins can be seen in each and every person he came in contact with. His influence is not lost.
In his parting letter to the theatre department, Kevin wrote, “I am grateful to have had the privilege of standing beside you, and I have learned so much from all of you. I cannot thank you enough for the patience, support, humor, love and talent you’ve shared.” Truly, it was we who are privileged. We who have learned. We who are grateful.
Celebration Service for Kevin Gray will be held at the Annie Russell Theatre on March 16 at 11 a.m. The non-denominational event will honor his contributions to the college during his tenure as well as his life and accomplishments.
Although you don’t know me, I wanted to express to you how saddened I was to hear of Kevin’s passing. I graduated from Staples with Kevin and sang in choir also. My husband and I were blessed to see Kevin as the Phantom in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1991.
I sent a note to Kevin through an usher letting him know that we were at the performance and wishing him luck. Even though we really didn’t know each other too well in High School, he was so gracious in sending a note back to us asking if we cold stop by to say hello after the show! Of course his performance was incredible because he was so talented, but what amazed me even more was his genuine kindness as a person. I was grateful for the chance to talk with him and meet other cast members. We had so many questions to ask Kevin and yet, he kept asking us about our lives instead! This really left an impression on us, and I have shared this story about Kevin many times, and wanted to share it with you. May god comfort you and be with you.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Kevin Gray
You know him as The Phantom, Mr. Saigon, Pontius Pilate, the King of Siam. This is a portrait of Kevin Gray as a young man, before all that. And perhaps some clues to the answer: What experiences forged him into such a powerful actor?
Act I, Scene I
The Football Field, Coleytown Junior High School, Westport, CT. (September 1972)
Hot, humid, muggy. Temperatures and humidity both in the high 90s, on a football field, Coach Ron Weir calls for the stick drill. The dummies are placed 30 yards away, we sprint towards them, diving head first, face up, neck forward, grunts, face guard hits bottom of dummy, forcing it backward along the ground. “Stick!” we scream. Next. Repeat. Next. Repeat. Says Coach: “Good thing you’re tough.” It made us all tough. Remarks Bob Wiggins, who went on to play college sports, of those practices: “They would be illegal today.” On the field that day is a tall lanky kid with jet black hair and a broad white smile who would play Slot Back in the Belly Offense–Kevin Gray.
Act I, Scene II
The Locker Room (October ’72)
We have lost another game and what promised to be a good season is very mediocre. The coaches are pissed and they show it. Fists are banged against lockers. There is one road to redemption. Win the final two games against all odds.
Act I, Scene III
Jr. High Football Game of the Century vs. Long Lots (October ’72)
The Long Lots Jr. High School team was undefeated, ranked high in the State and a heavy favorite. If our school was the “freaks” Long Lots was the “jocks” and it would be an away game on their field. During practices that week the coaches inoculate us with a positive spirit, a belief in the possibility that we can win. When the weather forecast is questionable, Coach says, “I wish it would rain – rain is an equalizer for the teams.” He knows we need any break we can get.
On game day our team “came to play” and neither side is able to put points on the board. Kevin is even taller in spikes and helmet, mean and lean with shoulder pads. In the huddle “Belly Right” is called. “Ready, break” the offense chants in unison as it breaks huddle and Kevin takes his position in the slot between right tackle and wide receiver. The quarterback takes the hike, pivots counter clockwise and carries the ball off tackle behind Kevin and two running backs who create a wedge in the defense. Kevin buts heads with a defender then leaves his feet to throw the “stick” block we had practiced so many times that summer. He rises from the dirt and this antelope trots back to the huddle for the next play.
We run the ball into the end zone and make the two point conversion for an 8 – 0 lead. “If they score, remember you made the extra point,” says Coach. Indeed, they do score, but our defense thwarts their run for extra points short of the goal line. We are ecstatic! We hold on to win and Kevin and our team have been part of the greatest upset in junior high school football history (at least in our minds, at least in our town). Despite the odds, we emerged victorious. On the way back to school, Coach asked the bus driver stop at Carroll’s the fast food burger chain (there was no MacDonald’s in town those days) and purchased burgers for all of us, including the driver.
Act I, Scene IV
The Jr. High Championship Game
There was one last game to play for the town championship that would pit the “freaks” against the “greasers.” As their stereotype indicated, the kids from Bedford were from the rough side of town (if there was such a thing in our suburban community just 50 miles from Broadway). Again, we were underdogs (at least the coaches made us think that). Again we beat the odds and emerged victorious. Again, Coach ordered the bus to stop at Carrolls for another feast of burgers.
Coach instilled in Kevin and all of us toughness, confidence and the knowledge we could succeed when the odds were against us. One other memory: At the end of season banquet, Kevin’s mom made egg rolls for the team and our parents.
The Gymnastics Team (1973)
Ron Weir also coached the Gymnastics Team where the competition was against ourselves, to perform as best we could. Football was violent force. Gymnastics was strength, elegance, concentration, grace. Self-improvement and excellence required practice, practice, practice. In the opening number, younger members of the team march in and perform simple, coordinated tumbling routines, while Kevin and the seniors walk 50-ft on their hands without losing balance.
Kevin’s main event was the pommel horse. He, my elder by one year, was the master and I the younger apprentice. “Justice, come here,” he called to me one day. “Hold your hands out with your fingers up,” he said and when my arms were raised and my hands exposed 10 fingers he interlocked my hands to his and bent mine backwards into the patented “Kevin Gray death grip.”
“Do you give up?” he asked, applying more pressure. “No,” I said defiantly. He applied more force twisting me down to the floor in agony. I gave up to fight another day and remember telling him “Someday when you’re famous I’m going to tell everyone you used to torture me.”
I observed Kevin’s routine on the horse so many times I have it memorized. His signature move was making his body perfectly level, toes pointed. He removes weight from his left hand and while remaining perfectly balanced and level raises his left arm in the air – with all of his weight supported by one hand and remaining level. (This is not easy.) Then, he brings his left hand back to the horse’s pommel and from a level position extends his body into an erect handstand which he holds. A demonstration of strength, grace and athleticism. He dismounts to applause, one of his first acting roles.
Bobby Lyon, Co-Captain of the gymnastics team with Kevin recalls that time: “Coach Weir recognized that Kevin was truly a performer. He was so much more than a kid barreling down the mats with reckless abandon. Coach Weir recognized the elegance that was Kevin. He saw a very modest kid who was beautiful, a body with graceful lines that he held with great posture. Kevin was steadfast and tackled things like the Horse which was one of the most difficult and disciplined apparatus. I have to give coach Weir a lot of credit, he knew about Kevin’s presence.”
At the end of our performances and the season we hold a celebration dinner at the Gray household. Two memories remain fresh – the sight of one team member completing 19 continuous back handsprings — and a serving plate full of egg rolls. Kevin’s family is introduced. Is his mom Chinese?
Scene I Duke University, Branson Theater (Fall, 1978)
By coincidence or fate, Kevin and I attend Duke University and I arrive on campus 16 months after him. (I never asked him why he selected Duke? I will ask at his memorial.) He has already had a lead role in Godspell and has earned a reputation as a good actor before I matriculate. I hear he’s acting in a play set to the verse of Dylan Thomas. I go and remember seeing Kevin, whom I’ve always known with a gregarious Cheshire-cat smile, with an actor’s animated voice and an actor’s serious stare into the audience, a frozen face, as lights fade to black. He goes to London to study.
Act III, Scene II
Duke University, East Campus Quad (Spring 1979)
The Spring of Kevin’s return from London I’m helping organize “Joe Baldwin Day” events, games and entertainment. We invite Kevin to perform on the Quad and he graciously agrees. He will be singing. I’m on stage assisting with set-up and Kevin’s there and he tells me he’s developed his own singing style. His performance starts and it’s not what you’d expect from a college performer. He sounds (to my uneducated ear) like a young Frank Sinatra belting out a Cole Porter tune. He’s making his own way in an era of rock and roll.
If there had been “American Idol” in those days I suppose Simon Cowell would have said, “Kevin, you have a good voice, but it sounds a little too much like Broadway for me.”
Act III, Scene III
Duke University, Page Auditorium (Spring, 1980)
The Hoof ‘N Horn production Kevin’s senior year (1980) was Fiddler on the Roof. I’m friends with the director who needs a Stage Manager so I volunteer. Kevin auditions and is offered the role of Perchik – the intellectual — which seems to fit Kevin’s sometimes brooding nature. For most of the cast and crew, it is a tough few months as we try to balance a rigorous academic load with rehearsals and personal lives. (One of the actresses has married a Russian and was trying to get him out of the Soviet Union). The musical conductor for this production is Michael Kosarin who already seems to us to be a living legend. Everyone knows Koz is going to be famous someday. My memory of Kevin at that time are his seriousness – there are times as we near performance he spends off to the side, practicing by himself, improving, perfecting his role, getting himself into performance mode. There is one time he steps out of line – I can’t remember exactly what it was – perhaps late to a rehearsal or clowning around at an inappropriate time – and I ask myself, “Who am I to discipline my master?” I realize the best way to “manage” Kevin is to let him be, give him his space. His performance during Fiddler was strong. Everyone came through. We didn’t use microphones to amplify the performers’ voices. Kevin’s lyrics are heard at the back of the 2,000 seat auditorium. Like the victories of junior high football, the challenges and fun of the gymnastics team, and being a member of the Fiddler cast and crew, these are some of the best memories of our lives – as I’m sure they were for Kevin too.
Our adult lives were just beginning then, weren’t they? The day after the last performance of Fiddler, Kevin graduated from college and we never met again. At least not face to face.
San Diego, CA “Eggroll Deja Vu”
Over the years, I heard about Kevin’s rise in the theatrical world and many of our classmates were able to see his performances and report back. I remember hearing about the Phantom, remember hearing about some controversy with Miss Saigon and why wasn’t Broadway using more Asians in Asian roles? Then there was a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, and more. Life seemed not to offer an opportunity for me to see him perform on stage. I celebrated the year 2000 by making the trip back to Kevin’s 20th college reunion – to see him and the classmates I knew a year ahead of me. Yet he didn’t make it. His friends told me about his accomplishments and we were so proud of him, the man who almost broke 10 of my fingers simultaneously.
My own life journey brought me to the land of the Rising Sun and to a woman who could have been Madame Butterfly but unlike Pinkerton I married this cherry blossom and from that marriage a child was born, a 200% baby: 100% American and 100% Japanese. As she grew I encouraged her to participate in school plays and she attended college in Connecticut which was as far away from her parents in San Diego as she could get and yet Connecticut was still a home to me, as it was in ways for Kevin. Our daughter continued acting in college plays and even wrote her own and when she graduated from college she said, “Dad, I want to be an actress.” Her Asian education-mama protested and pleaded with her to become a doctor while I advised her you need to pursue your dreams and my thoughts turned to Kevin.
The daughter is working as an intern at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and invites the cast to our house among the vines for a party and my wife the Butterfly is sautéing the vegetables in a pan and then placing them in wrappers and plopping them into the deep fryer and when golden brown extracts them and pats the oil and stacks them, a pyramid of Egypt on a serving plate. Harumaki in Japanese. Chun Juan in Chinese. Spring Rolls in English. 40 years ago as kids in Westport, Connecticut we called them “egg rolls” and now my wife has become the Egg Roll Mother to my daughter’s generation. I take a picture of the spring rolls and log in to Facebook and search for Kevin Gray and send a friend request. We haven’t spoken in 30 years. Kevin has just joined Facebook that week. The date is May 9, 2010. Kevin, forever gracious, accepts.
“Reunion & Reconciliation”
I write to Kevin about my memories of his mother’s Spring Rolls and that we have become the Spring Roll parents of San Diego and that our daughter responded to a YouTube contest by a director of Miss Saigon asking people of color to submit a video exploring “What does Yellow Face Mean to You?”
I write to Kevin, “It never occurred to me you were partial Chinese.”
“I think that’s been the case for most of my life — people being a bit surprised when they learn my background. It’s an interesting issue for many mixed ethnicity young adults, and seems especially so for Asians, reportedly the least assimilated of the major races in the U.S.” Kevin wrote.
“The ‘least’ assimilated ‘ I shot back. “Certainly not in California’s major cities. Perhaps that’s the exception. Perhaps we will be beyond race by the end of our lifetime ….”
I reminded Kevin of that kung-fu move he performed on me that almost crippled my hands.
“Did I do that?” he writes in Facebook. “Sad.” I thought it was pretty funny, but I always had a mean streak in me.
Kevin is new to social media, a subject I know something about, and it’s time for the student to repay the teacher so I encourage him to use Facebook and YouTube as a way to post videos of his performances and information about his career, so people like me who have never seen him live on stage can experience his performances and follow him.
I make plans to attend his 35th high school reunion in 2011 to see Kevin and his high school classmates but once again life comes up and I need to leave Connecticut early and head back to San Diego so we miss each other again. From living in Japan and learning to speak Japanese and Chinese and experiencing Confucianism I have an understanding of the important relationship between “senpai” and “kohai”, between the upper classman and the freshman and to me Kevin is my senpai and I owe him and his classmates my respect.
When I heard about his passing and his memorial on Broadway I realize this is Kevin’s last performance and this one I will not miss. As a winemaker, when it comes to weddings and funerals and special occasions my gift is wine because wine is my art and it comes from my soul. I send bottles of wine to two of Kevin’s classmates (Peter Byrne & Mark Miller) who are also my “senpai” as a gesture of thanksgiving for their guidance and friendship in earlier days. I have not seen them in 30+ years and it’s time to catch up. A student should always pay tribute to his master. Kevin would have understood that and if you see me in the theater with a backpack there is likely a bottle or two of wine in it and if I know you then there’s a bottle with your name on it that will be delivered in the fullness of time and if we haven’t met yet then life’s short so let’s share the wine together while we’re here. “L’Chiam to life!”