THE LEADING MEN: Merry Poppins!

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Merry Poppins! Like Santa's sack of goodies, this holiday column is a grab bag. It includes a cheery chat with Gavin Lee (Mary Poppins), our list of highlights of 2006 and exclusive news about "The Leading Men II" concert for Broadway Cares.
Gavin Lee
Gavin Lee Photo by Lyn Hughes

HE'LL SWEEP YOU OFF YOUR FEET
As Mary Poppins (played by Ashley Brown) sings at the New Amsterdam Theatre, "It's a jolly holiday with you, Bert," and indeed, gentlemen like Gavin Lee are few. Though the Olivier-nominated star from Suffolk, England, spends his time "in the ashes and smoke" as the Cockney chimney sweep, "in this 'ole wide world, there's no happier bloke" making his Broadway debut. As delightful as Dick van Dyke was in the 1964 Disney movie of "Mary Poppins," Lee is even more perfectly suited – and sooted – to singing "Chim Chim Cheree." And in "Step in Time," the six-foot-three Brit turns the show on its head when he does an upside-down tap solo at the top of the proscenium, suspended by wires about 40 feet above the stage. He says, "I've got the best job in the world!"

Brown, who plays the "practically perfect" nanny, adds, "Gavin's amazing. He's been doing the show for a couple of years in London, so I was a little nervous not knowing a step or word of the show. But he's been so patient and gracious, and our sense of humor is right in line with each other. We both have the struggles of filling the big shoes of Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, and he's such a gift. We're having a ball."

Lee's favorite roles have included Bobby Child in Crazy for You and Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain. And it's in London that he met his lovely wife, Emily Harvey; she played Madame Firmin in The Phantom of the Opera. Lee, 35, says, "Em's from South Dakota, and I've always wanted to get married in a non-traditional British way, so we got married in a cornfield there. We were wed in September so 'the corn was as high as an elephant's eye.' It was fantastic."

Question: Congrats on your Broadway debut. In your show, Mary Poppins is this magical nanny, but Bert's a bit of a mystery, too. Who is he?
Gavin Lee: The director, Richard Eyre, said to me: "It's up to you to decide who Bert is." I've decided that Mary is not human. She's a spirit. And she lives somewhere in the sky. And I've decided Bert is human. He's a regular jack of all trades: a chimney sweep, whatever. And the reason I can walk up walls or pull flowers out of paintings is only because she's around. She's got the magic. Mary has a soft spot for Bert, and he's madly in love with her. I'll try to kiss her, but she pushes me away. That's why it's touching when she says goodbye to me. It might be another year until I get to help her again, so she gives me a peck, and I won't wash my face for six months.

Q: "Step in Time" is spectacular. What's that like to perform?
Lee: Amazing. It was Stephen Mear's idea to give me that gravity-defying solo, and both he and Matthew Bourne choreographed the number, and it couldn't be better. It keeps building and building, and my special trick is the pinnacle of it. When I first learned it, I was s***-scared. It was so high, and you think, "These wires are not gonna hold me," but it's all secure and computerized, so you're safe. I think I'm upside down for about a minute, and I'm singing and it's a high note. The pressure builds in your head, and if I had to hold that note any longer, I feel as if blood would come out my ears. And now it's just a buzz; I feel so privileged to do it. You'll hear gasps of amazement. One night, a guy from New Jersey in the first row said, "No f***ing way!" Q: What's it like working with Ashley as Mary Poppins?
Lee: She's a hoot and such fun. I've had three Marys: Laura Michelle Kelly; then after the first year, Scarlett Strallen, and now Ashley. It's amazing how three actresses can play Mary so differently. Ashley has brought way more heart and warmth. For me, Laura was Mary Poppins. She's still and gracious. She played it very much like the books. Scarlett's a dancer, so she added a bit of grace and poise. And Ashley has found comedy in this role that no one else has. She's such a funny person. When she runs up and down the stairs, she puts her nose in the air and flicks her hands. But there's two flights, so she's not just gonna get one laugh; she'll get two.

Q: Julie Andrews came to see the show in London. How was that?
Lee: Fantastic. She came onstage after the bows and talked about how Mary had been her role for 40-odd years, but it's now time to pass the torch to Laura and the whole cast. She was so gracious. She said, "All I can say is …" and then she spelled out the letters in "Supercalifragilisticexpialodocus" as we do it in the show. Then I was honored to stand between Laura and Julie and sing "It's a Jolly Holiday."

Q: While you're here, another Gavin has taken over your role as Bert in London: Gavin Creel. He says you're "the coolest."
Lee: I first saw Gavin in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was on vacation, and I thought he was brilliant. I bought the CD to sing along with his songs and realized I couldn't sing them. Gavin's got such a good voice. I tried out for that part in London, but I didn't even get a callback. So when he came to London, we got on really well. He didn't know anyone there, so he came to our house in South London. During rehearsals, I told him, "I'm gonna come see you, and any bits you do better than me, I'm gonna nick them and bring them to Broadway." (Laughs.) Before we left London, me and Em got tickets at the back of the stalls, so he couldn't see us. After the show, I called him and asked, "How was the show?" He said, "It was good." I said, "I know. I was there." He said, "You bastard!" Then we went out for drinks and I praised him to the hilt.

Q: Before Mary Poppins, you understudied leads and played featured roles but weren't sure if you'd get to be a leading man, right?
Lee: That's right. I was 30. I was still getting jobs in the West End and around the country. I was doing pretty well. But then I met Em and fell in love. The career wasn't as important as I thought it was in my twenties. As soon as I came to that conclusion, I got Bert, and this has been the most fantastic six years of my life.

Q: What do you remember about your first date with Emily?
Lee: Liza Minnelli was doing a show at Albert Hall, and my agent knew David Gest, so he got me a couple of freebies. I called Emily for a date. I was playing it cool. "None of my friends are free, I don't know if you'd like to go," all that rubbish. She saw right through that. She knew I was nervous. She said yes. This was our first date. But on the day of the concert, Gest recalled my freebies because the show was selling out. I called Em to tell her I was sorry and maybe we could go for a meal. Meanwhile, Em had bought a dress and gotten all dolled up. She said, "Yeah, I think we'll go out for a meal. There's no way you're getting out of this, buddy." And this turned out even better than a concert with Liza because we spent three, four hours in a restaurant, talking. We just clicked. So thank you, David Gest!

For info about Mary Poppins, visit www.DisneyonBroadway.com.

20 VOCAL HEROES OF 2006
Taking a cue from Santa, December is the prime time for making lists. So even though we still have a few weeks left in 2006, we wanted to get a jump on the holidays. Here are our "Leading Men" highlights from Broadway, Off-Broadway and cabaret:

TERRIFIC TOUR DE FORCES
Michael Arden, The Times They Are A-Changin'
Jonathan Groff, Spring Awakening
Stephen Lynch, The Wedding Singer

AMAZING MUSICAL MOMENTS
Samuel Barnett, "Bewitched" (The History Boys)
David Burnham, "Moon River" (Birdland)
Harry Connick Jr., "Hernando's Hideaway" (The Pajama Game)
Raúl Esparza, "Being Alive" (Company)
Neil Patrick Harris, "Making the Leap" (Joe's Pub)
Marc McBarron Kessler, "Both Sides Now" (Rose's Turn)
Gavin Lee, "Step in Time" (Mary Poppins)
Norm Lewis, "Stars" (Les Misérables)
Hugh Panaro, "Right Before My Eyes" (Lestat)
Jason M. Snow, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" (West Bank)

DYNAMIC DUETS & TRIOS
Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter and Tim Di Pasqua, "Southern Comfort" (West Bank)
Matt Cavenaugh and Cheyenne Jackson, "We Kiss in a Shadow" (Broadway Backwards)
Gideon Glick and Jonathan B. Wright, "Word of Your Body" (Spring Awakening)

‘THE LEADING MEN II' CONCERT
Last year, we produced the first "Leading Men" benefit for Broadway Cares, and we had such a ball at Joe's Pub with Cheyenne Jackson, Matthew Morrison, Jai Rodriguez and other topnotch talents from Broadway and cabaret. So, we're gonna do it one more time: Monday, Feb. 5 at 7 PM at Birdland, 315 W. 44th St., New York City.

John Tartaglia, the Tony-nominated star of Avenue Q, will return to host. Now back on Broadway, he's lighting up the stage as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, and next month he'll light up the Disney Channel with a new half-hour version of his hit musical kids' show, "Johnny and the Sprites." For his work on both these endeavors, Out magazine named the openly gay entertainer "one of 100 men and women who rocked 2006." Also returning to "The Leading Men" concert will be our director, Alan Muraoka, and our musical director Seth Rudetsky, who's acting the blazes out of Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy through Dec. 10 at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn. As for our lineup, it's so hard to feature only a handful of the 150 guys we've interviewed over the past four years, but here goes: Tom Andersen (MAC Award winner)
Jim Caruso (Jim Caruso's Cast Party)
Matt Cavenaugh (Grey Gardens)
Tim Di Pasqua (Bistro Award winner)
Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening)
David Gurland (Bistro Award winner)
Telly Leung (Rent)
Norm Lewis (Les Miserables)
Perry Ojeda (On the Town)
Daniel Reichard (Jersey Boys)
Christopher Sieber (Spamalot)
Ben Strothmann (Playbill Yearbook)
Jim Walton (Merrily We Roll Along)
John Lloyd Young (Jersey Boys)

Tickets are $50 for general admission and $75 for VIP seats (first two rows), and there's a $10 food-drink minimum. Thanks to Birdland owner John Valente for donating the door to Broadway Cares. Tickets are available only at www.instantseats.com. Last year's concert was sold out weeks before the show, so get your tickets now!

A FRESH FACE TO WATCH IN 2007
In the 1953 Broadway musical Wonderful Town, Ruth and Eileen are two sisters who wind up in New York and wail, "Why, oh why, oh why, oh … why did I ever leave Ohio?" Well, that's one lament you won't hear from Rob C. Mayes, a bright 22-year-old actor who just moved to the Big Apple from Cleveland. In less than a month, he has been signed by Stewart Talent, met with Warner's, Fox and ABC, and booked a gig on "Law & Order: SVU," in which he'll star as a prep-school kid. Earlier this fall, the six-foot personal trainer, model and former Naval midshipman from Annapolis got his first national TV exposure on "Inside Edition" as "one of Cleveland's hottest hunks." He grins, "I got tons of MySpace requests from girls from all over the country."

In October Mayes received raves in M4M, an all-male version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, at the Cleveland Public Theatre. There, he tackled multiple roles, including Claudio and his own fiancée, Juliet. "Depending on who I was playing, I wore tight leather pants, leopard-skin shorts or a creamy white dress with a veil. I also got to sing and play the guitar. It was so amazing, and I'm hoping it gets done in New York." Another of his favorite roles was Robby, the Irish bus driver, in the Flaherty & Ahrens musical A Man of No Importance. "It's my goal to bring it back here." He recently turned down the part of Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, which just opened in Cleveland, because Mayes hopes to strike while the iron is hot in Manhattan. "It's been nuts. I want to do TV, film and theatre, so this has been a dream."

SO LONG, FAREWELL, AUF WEIDERSEHN, GOODBYE …
As I said, I've been writing for Playbill.com for four years now, and all good things must come to an end, so I've decided this will mark my last "Leading Men" column. It's been tons of fun and lots of hard work, but I want to return to my playwriting. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to get a play, Whiskey Chicken, produced by the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco, where it won a Drama-League Award for Best Play, and I'd like to give that another shot. This summer, I skydived for the first time, and I figured it was time to take another leap into the unknown. As for the "Leading Men" column, Playbill program editor Tom Nondorf will continue it, and I wish him all the best.

Looking back, it's been a blast to chat with stellar celebs like Harry Connick Jr., Hugh Jackman and Brian Stokes Mitchell, but I'm especially proud that this column first spotlighted rising stars such as Michael Arden, Cheyenne Jackson and John Tartaglia before they made their big Broadway "Leading Men" debuts. The first guy we featured back in January 2003 was David Miller, from Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme, and he recently opened for Barbra Streisand as part of the acclaimed vocal quartet Il Divo.

It's been this column's mission to celebrate the diversity of "Leading Men" from Broadway, Off-Broadway and cabaret. So thanks to all the great guys who've shared their insights and stories, both onstage and off. Thanks to Philip S. Birsh, the president and publisher of Playbill, and Andrew Ku, the director of Playbill.com, for giving me a home on their wonderful website. Thanks to Andrew Gans, the sterling senior editor who asked me to start this column and edited each one with care. Thanks to Ben Strothmann, whose fantastic photos accompanied our profiles. And finally, thanks to you: the readers who made "The Leading Men" column one of the best-read features at Playbill.com. Your support and loyalty have meant so much to me. Happy holidays!

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for The New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

John Tartaglia and his Sprites, Basil and Ginger; Rob C. Mayes
John Tartaglia and his Sprites, Basil and Ginger; Rob C. Mayes Photo by Disney Channel and Ben Strothmann