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Broadway and Hollywood greats took the stage at the packed New Amsterdam Theatre today to salute the life and adventures of Roger Rees, the Broadway and television (Cheers, The West Wing) star who died in July at 71. Among those remembering the Welsh-born actor with words, song and, in one spectacular instance, dance, were Chita Rivera, Marshall Brickman, Rees’ husband Rick Elice and Bebe Neuwirth, who appeared with Rees in the musical version of The Addams Family, on the TV series Cheers and whose salute to the songs of Kurt Weill, Here Lies Jenny, was staged by Rees. Looking as fevered as a Jules Feiffer dancer celebrating spring, Neuwirth captured the spirit of the much-loved actor and captivated the audience as she moved beneath a projected image of Rees, who first achieved stardom as the title character in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s celebrated adaptation of Dickens’ The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby.
The gathering began and ended in song, fittingly for an actor whose classical training didn’t interfere –and surely enhanced — his appreciation of the music that was so much a part of his life. A choir led by the writer, actor and musical-theater veteran Martin Moran started the 1 p.m. proceedings with “Love Who You Love,” from the musical A Man Of No Importance, based on the Albert Finney film, with a book by frequent collaborator Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The chorus was Master Voices, aka the Collegiate Chorale, of which Rees was a longtime member.
Disney Theatricals head Thomas Schumacher officially welcomed the crowd to the company’s flagship house (current home to Aladdin), who recalled that “Roger loved sharing himself and his passions,” a sentiment that carried through the 90-minute program. A quintet of actors — Heidi Blickenstaff, Christian Borle, Kate Burton, Mark Linn-Baker and Dana Ivey — read dispatches from many who could not be present, among them Kathleen Turner, his Broadway co-star in Indiscretions, who called him “a divinely sexy man and a light in everyone’s life.” Indeed, Rees’ physical beauty was as common a theme as his qualities as actor and friend: “Somebody should mention his face,” wrote playwright Tom Stoppard, in whose original West End production of The Real Thing Rees had starred. “I don’t think Roger had a bad-looking day in his life.” Television writer and producer Tom Fontana put it succinctly: “Roger was a prince.” Ivey announced the news that in November, Rees, an American citizen, would be inducted into the Theatre Hall Of Fame. Marshall Brickman (the Annie Hall screenwriter who also wrote the book for Jersey Boys) recalled a visit from Rees and Elice at his Montauk home; upon arrival, the actor had disappeared into the back yard and began creating a garden that flourishes to this day.
“Roger always left something of himself behind,” Brickman said, adding that “in a 50-year career, he never missed a performance.” Declaring that fact worth repeating, Brickman added, “he was the anti-Liza,” eliciting a knowing roar from the crowd. There were similarly poignant remembrances by theatrical advertising queen Nancy Coyne and playwright McNally, whose adaptation of The Visit, with score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, would be the final show of Rees’ life. “We had Roger’s early fall,” he said, speaking through tears. “We were denied his deep winter.
“No actor,” McNally added, “played simple decency more effortlessly than Roger.”
McNally was followed by Chita Rivera, Rees’ co-star in The Visit, who lamented coming into his circle later than the others and who sang “Love And Alone” — stunningly — from that show. John Caird, who with Trevor Nunn had staged that ineradicably beautiful production of Nicholas Nickleby, recalled his star’s generosity, indefatigability and his instant love affair with New York during the first weeks of rehearsal at the Pymouth, now Gerald Schoenfeld, Theatre, in the fall of 1981.
There was a constant change on screen above the speakers of Rees across the years, sometimes formal, other times rusticated, always mesmeric. A clip from his remarkable performance in Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy from just a few years back captured his subtle intensity as well as the youthful beauty that had aged into an austere patrician grace. Elice, the final speaker, recalled falling in love with him in the early 1980s. Rees would quickly become his partner, then husband and eventually converted to Judaism as well as to U.S.-ivism.
“Roger was basically always happy,” Elice said, “and never happier than when he was working.” His death from cancer came near sunset on a Friday. “As the Sabbath began,” Elice recalled, “his work was done, and he rested.” With that, several companies of actors who had been in the Tony-winning musical Peter And The Starcatcher, written by Elice and co-directed by Rees with Alex Timbers, closed the program singing that show’s “swim on against the current,” as the crowd began to file out.