Remembering Kevin Gray

Kevin Gray — a very talented member of Staples Players in the 1970s, who became the youngest actor to play the lead role in “Phantom of the Opera,” and acted in or directed more than 150 productions — died last night of a massive heart attack. He was 55.

Kevin met his wife, Dodie Pettit, in “Phantom.” She starred in “Cats” on Broadway, and worked with Staples Players in a summer production of that show.

In December 2011, the Hartford Courant‘s Frank Rizzo wrote a long feature story on Kevin’s many talents and contributions:

Kevin Gray has taken off the mask.

Kevin Gray

Kevin Gray

As the youngest actor to have played the title role in Broadway’s “The Phantom of the Opera” — not to mention scores of other leading roles in New York and beyond — the Westport native and resident decided to show a new face and take a different career path, that of educator.

Gray began this fall as associate professor of theater, teaching music theater and actor training majors at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford. Though most of his credits feature him as a musical theater performer, his first directing task was to stage Arthur Miller’s drama “A View from the Bridge.”…

(The off-Broadway role of “Pacific Overtures”) launched the career of the actor whose parents are American and Chinese. (A director once remarked to the handsome performer, “You are the Tab Hunter of ethnic actors.”)Since that 1984 show, Gray has appeared in more than 8,500 Broadway and national tour performances, and has acted in or directed more than 150 productions.

He recently starred as Scar in the national tour of “Disney’s The Lion King” and toured the United Kingdom as The King in “The King and I,” reprising his role from the Broadway revival. Before he became the Phantom, he first performed the role of the romantic lead, Raoul.

Kevin Gray in "Miss Saigon."

Kevin Gray in “Miss Saigon.”

Gray starred as Pontius Pilate in the Broadway revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and starred in Harold Prince’s production of “Show Boat,” 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.”

The story of Gray’s parents would make compelling musical theater. (He thinks so, too, and has 90 pages of a libretto.) His father — a double Purple Heart recipient and the youngest officer in the Marine Corps during WWII at the age of 19 — moved over to the State Department (and what would become the CIA) after the war.

On his Asian assignment, his father met the woman who would become Gray’s mother. Born outside of Shanghai, she was an airline stewardess for China Air Transport. In 1955, Gray’s parents married, his mother converted to Judaism and the couple moved to Connecticut, thinking that the liberal state would be more welcoming to a mixed marriage.

Gray’s first stage experience happened in his senior year at Westport’s Staples High School when he was cast in “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

“But I didn’t give myself permission to dream [of performing on stage professionally] until I was in college,’ he says.

He was a history and English major at Duke University when he began performing with the Duke Players. In his junior year, he had a semester in London where instead of going to classes he immersed himself in theater. He took voice lessons with a teacher whose husband was actor Denis Quilley, who was preparing to do the play “Deathtrap” set in Westport. Because Gray was from that part of Connecticut, they formed a bond which helped the student studying theater in England.

But it wasn’t until Gray saw a production outside of London of “Side By Side by Sondheim” that he says he could envision himself on the professional stage.

Kevin Gray and his wife, Dodie Pettit.

Kevin Gray and his wife, Dodie Pettit.

After he graduated from Duke — and feeling he did not have enough theater training — he bypassed New York and went with friends to Boston. There he joined the Boston Shakespeare Company, run by Bill Cain, and spent the ’81-’82 season in a multiple of roles performed in repertory.

The next year he moved to New York where he landed the lead of Kayama in the first revival of “Pacific “Overtures.” There he got to know leading musical theater figures such as Sondheim, writers John Weidman, Hugh Wheeler and especially legendary director-producer Harold Prince, who would later cast Gray in the out-of-town workshop of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the acclaimed revival of “Show Boat,”” and “Phantom.”

Gray’s agent, Alan Willig, asked him a question he had never heard before nor since: “What do you want in an agent?” Gray’s response was: “I want an agent who thinks I can play Curly in ‘Oklahoma!’ He said, ‘I think you can — but maybe not everywhere but somewhere.’ That was the perfect answer and he built my career.”

Gray says he and Willig were determined that the actor not get stuck in solely Asian roles “because there wasn’t enough work. When I did those roles it would only be at the top level, like ‘The King and I,’ ‘Pacific Overtures’ and ‘Miss Saigon.’ ”

Gray also tried for non-Asian roles, in musicals such as “The Baker’s Wife,” “A Little Night Music,” “The Knife” and, at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, “Irma La Douce.” Non-musical credits over the years include “The Death of Garcia Lorca,” “Romance Language” and “The Real Thing.”

Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit -- a "Phantom couple."

Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit — a “Phantom couple.”

In 1989 Gray was tapped to play Raoul in “Phantom” which had opened the previous year on Broadway…. Being in the blockbuster show was an overwhelming experience for the 31-year-old actor. “My wife saying to me then, ‘Just remember, it can never be better than this. It can only be different.’ ” Gray eventually took over the title role.

“I never thought on any level that I was attractive enough, skilled enough as an actor, singer or a dancer, nor did Ii have what I thought was the emotional breadth that I had seen in some of my colleagues. I was always thinking, ‘I have to get better; I have to get better.’ Maybe it was a neurotic Russian-Chinese-Jewish thing. Maybe it’s like my mother who never felt truly at home in this culture.

“I was never a star though I did starring roles. I always thought of myself as a character man. It’s like what [actor] Robert Duvall once said, that every role is a character role. In that way I think I potentially became a useful educator and have something to teach students.”

Gray says for the past few years he was looking for an opportunity to teach and “Hartt has been on my radar for some time. I was looking for a home and a place where I could be a piece of a larger puzzle.”

Alan Rust, head of Hartt’s theater department, says he was looking to hire someone who was closely connected to the professional theater at the highest level.

“Kevin was qualified in every way,” says Rust, who with former Hartt dean Malcolm Morrison created and built the theater department and growing reputation as a leading training school over the last 15 years.

“Kevin said he came to the realization that you can’t take it with you and you have to start to give it back — and I felt he really meant it. He is a genuinely giving person who clearly wants to help the profession he is a part of by working with younger people.”

The response by the students, says Rust, has been “overwhelming. He just inspires that positive response from everybody. It is a better place by his being there. He directed earlier this fall of a ‘A View from the Bridge’ and got one of the finest performances I have seen here. A lot of the students here have that potential and Kevin can bring that out of them.”

24 responses to “Remembering Kevin Gray

  1. Charlie Greenwald

    I went to for acting lessons from time to time, and Kevin was not only a great teacher, an exceptional Broadway talent, but also just a good man and friend with a great heart. Always generous with his time, he knew exactly what to say to make me a better actor. Anyone who knew him knew he was a great actor who could scare the crap out of you, but it was the person in real life that makes a tough pill hard to swallow.

  2. Charlie Greenwald

    *that makes this a tough pill to swallow

  3. So saddened and shocked by Kevin’s passing.
    What a great story of himself and family. Great career and what he wanted to do. He was an awesome actor and great guy.
    So very sad. He will be missed.

  4. Gerry Kuroghlian

    Kevin was a light in the classroom, on the Staples stage and on the stages of many theaters. I was very pleased when he began to teach at Hartt. Good night sweet prince.

  5. Love…Tears…Heartbreak…and the rest is silence.

  6. I had the pleasure of teaching Kevin and Dodie the dances to A CHORUS LINE before they went off one summer to perform the show at Surflight. Primarily and great actor/ singer, Kevin was concerned about his being a “dancing Zach.” I remember us all having such laughs during our rehearsals. He pressed on, and did a remarkable job! My favorite moments with he and his bride were at Mario’s where we talked philosophy, psychology, and a bit show biz (of course!) and Kevin always seemed to find a way to not take anything too terribly seriously. Kevin was a “mensch,” a man with great humility, and he was tremendously kind. I cannot imagine him gone…. This is a deep, deep loss for all of us. My love and greatest sympathies to our dear Dodie.

  7. I am very saddened by this news. I grew up next to Kevin, so have known him for 45 years at least. Kevin, my brother, other friends and I played basketball, football and our own form of dodge ball in our yard back in those days. We broke many windows in my parents’ home together with balls sailing off on errant trajectories. I was so happy to see what a successful performer Kevin became. He was a talented, generous person, who will surely be missed by all the people he touched in his too short life. My deepest condolences to his wife, Dodie, and his sister, Linda.

  8. Jeff Pomerantz

    I have known Kevin since 1975. While we met through golf our friendship far surpassed any golf game. I am in a state of denial right now because I’m having difficulty accepting the fact that someone so young and talented is gone. Kevin always made the time to call me when he was on the road. I will miss those calls and the good times we spent together. I feel very lucky to have known him.

  9. Damn this is a sad sad shock. I first met Kevin in 2000, when I shot a commercial for Jesus Christ Superstar (he had a great cameo in it), we talked about acting and westport and staples players and the crazy broadway business… years later he taught my son Charlie in preparation for some auditions, and he was endlessly patient, inventive and generous with his time. What a great guy.

  10. Von Ann Stutler

    Von Ann Stutler – Westchester Broadway Theatre
    We were blessed to have Kevin star in our production of Kismet. He was simply wonderful! Everytime he walked out on the stage all the women would gasp- he was so physically beautiful, but then he would sing…….OMG!
    Each time we met in later years, he was always very gracious and thankfull for his experience with us.

  11. Cullen Wheeler

    Extremely saddened and more than stunned to hear of the death of my first friend in the theater, Kevin Gray. In the summer of 1978 Kevin and I were roommates and and cast mates in a little dinner theater on the campus of Lambuth College in Jackson, TN. I was a senior in high school and he was a junior at Duke. He was a true big brother. It was the first time either of us had been paid (though not very much) to do the thing we loved and we both were more than a little giddy. Over the years I watched in awe as, through talent and sheer force of will, Kevin became a Broadway star and respected artist as a Chinese-American actor in both traditional and non-traditional roles.

    Over the years when Kevin was on B’way we would bump into each other on the street, go out to dinner between shows and I marveled at how the young man I knew in 1978 was still the same kind and generous man sitting across from me. It’s a cliche I know but he never truly changed. Thoughts and prayers to his wife Dodie for her loss. Godspeed Kevin.

  12. This is terrible news. The world has lost a wonderful talent and a lovely man. I didn’t know him well, but he was a very kind, caring guy who seemed very invested in his students.

  13. Deeply saddened today to learn that Kevin has left us. He was a great guy who loved life and brightened the lives of those around him as these heartfelt posts attest. I was a Staples classmate and swimming teammate of Kevin’s and right now I’m thinking of him doing donuts in his Mustang in the icy Staples parking lot one night after a meet while I was in passenger seat.

  14. Kevin and I starred together in “Pacific Overtures” in 1984-85 – I would never have known about the upcoming auditions because they were closed unless you had an agent – which I didn’t. We had just finished doing “Kismet” and he really encouraged me to audition – “You’ll be perfect for this show” were his words to me. He was the most caring and giving actor. He wanted you to be great – that was the kind of artist he was. Because he realized that if everyone around him is great the whole thing will be great. I’ll miss you terrible Kevin!

  15. Kevin will be sorely missed by many and by me in particular. He was cut above in talent, personality, warmth, loyalty and friendship. He left us way too soon.

  16. I asked Kevin to join me and my friends with the production of Brel at Staples. His first reaction was to say no, he was not part of the Players group. How lucky are we all that we convinced him to do it.
    A star was born.

  17. Melaney Douglass

    Kevin was kind enough to share his generous talent and spirit with my students when we were the first high school in Florida to produce The Phantom of the Opera. Watching him direct and encourage my young Phantom and Christine in the musical he loved so much is a memory I will cherish forever. Love and prayers to Dodie from University High School.

  18. Leeann Lukianuk

    I am shocked and saddened to hear of Kevin’s passing-his talent and energy and generous spirit will be sorely missed. We were in a musical together in our senior year at Duke,written by my husband, Rick. Over the years we followed his career and managed to see him in Phantom and Miss Saigon while we lived in Michigan. Just this past summer we saw him give an unforgettable performance as the king in the King and I in St. Louis. It was our 32nd wedding anniversary and we spent a wonderful afternoon together reminiscing and laughing before the show and then more time with he and Dodie afterwards as his adoring fans. Our hearts are broken and our prayers go out to Dodie and Kevin’s sister. Love you and miss you Kevin.

  19. Here are the calling hours:

    Friends are invited to greet Kevin’s family this Saturday (February 16, 12-4 p.m.) and Sunday (February 17, 12-3 p.m.) at the Shaughnessey Banks Funeral Home, 50 Reef Road, Fairfield. Interment will be private.

    In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made in Kevin’s name to the Pet Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), 504 Main Ave., Norwalk, CT 06851 (www.pawsct.org), or the Connecticut Dance School, 42 Halley Ct., Fairfield, CT 06825 (www.ctdanceschool.com).

    To send an online condolence, visit http://www.shaughnesseybanks.com.

  20. George and Eleanor Weigle

    The shocking news of Kevin’s sudden death shook me to the core. He was too young and had so much more to give.

    I was Director of the choral program at Staples High School when Kevin entered the program. It was soon evident his singing voice had potential.

    He was an active member of the A Cappella Choir and Orphenians where his acting ability and the ease in which he “put over a song” were evident to all, if not to himself.

    i saw him first as Raoul in the Phantom and then as the Phantom. The range and control of his voice were quite a surprise. His voice was truly remarkable. He told me, as he took us on the stage and explained how the staging was done, that he had studied very hard to achieve what was needed vocally for the part of the Phantom.

    We were in LA and saw Kevin as the Engineer in Miss Saigon. Talking to him, I never got the feeling he knew how good he was. Each time we saw him after a show he seemed more interested in showing us the stage and how everything worked than talking about himself.

    He never took on the personality of “a star”. He was always the old Kevin but in a new setting. The remarks about him I have read attest to that. He was full of grace.

    He left us too soon, but his life was filled with what he loved doing and those he loved and who loved him. We will miss everything that made Kevin, Kevin.

    The Orphenians ended every concert with “The Parting Blessing”. This is for you, Kevin, my friend.

    May the road rise to meet you.
    May the wind be always at your back.
    May the sun shine warm upon your face.
    May the winds fall soft upon your fields.
    And until we meet again,
    May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

    • A lovely tribute, George and Eleanor, and I am sorry for your loss.

    • Dear Mr. Weigle:

      I found your message to be both comforting and inspiring. I share your thoughts and wish you well. I will never forget the “Parting Blessing” and sing it silently every so often as I reflect upon the wonderful experience you gave to all of us. Paul McKibbins, Kevin and I remained the closest of friends. Paul and I had the opportunity to share so much of last evening with Terry Eldh following Kevin’s memorial. Thank you for having been such an integral part of our lives.

      Fondly,

      Jamie Wisser

  21. Kevin Gray, the performer, actor, vocalist, dancer, director and educator was terrific at his craft. I knew because of the way he spoke about the process behind his endeavors, having missed the opportunity to have personally seen him perform in his chosen profession. There are so many elements to Kevin’s complicated personality and story that have been touched upon by all those who have spoken and written about him these past few days. What made Kevin such a special person was not his list of professional achievements, but his conviction to being true to himself, his genuine honesty, ability to emotionally and mentally commit to every task he pursued, and self-determination to not just continually better himself, but to be a better person for those closest to him, his wife, family, and friends as well as all those whose lives he briefly enriched as members of his audiences. Kevin’s drive for personal perfection far superseded any need for personal gratification or ambition. He was simply a man whose dreams and desire to do as much as possible within the time in which he could remain a productive individual were unfortunately and tragically cut far too short. As I had spoken about with so many people who attended Kevin’s memorial last evening, I hope his legacy serves as inspiration for all of us to fulfill our time to the best or our abilities, while making a commitment to taking enough time to pursue those activities we too often feel can be addressed sometime later. I truly believe Kevin’s last gift to us all is the inspiration to look within ourselves and reprioritize our lives accordingly to make this so. Thank you Kevin, for who you were and will always be. . . a tremendous friend and inspiration. May we all find peace and comfort within ourselves and one another as we celebrate your life. My very best now and forever to both you and your beloved bride Dodi. . .we all miss you. . .
    Your friend, Jamie