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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

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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