Marcia Lewis, Belting Star of Grease! and Chicago, Dies at 72

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
and Kenneth Jones
21 Dec 2010

Marcia Lewis
Marcia Lewis

Marcia Lewis, the brassy and beloved musical star of hit Broadway revivals of Grease! and Chicago, died in Nashville, where she lived, in the early morning hours of Dec. 21, according to The Publicity Office. She was 72 and had been battling lung and brain cancer.

Ms. Lewis was short, sturdy and could make herself heard without the aid of a mike. She liked to tell the story how, while making her Broadway debut with Ethel Merman in the original Hello, Dolly!, the Broadway legend told her, "Marcia, you and I are never going to have to worry about reaching the balcony."

Also on Broadway, she played the comically evil Miss Hannigan in the original run of Annie, Rachel Halpern in the short-lived Rags, Golde in a 1990 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, and squared off with Vanessa Redgrave as the distrusting Nurse Porter in Orpheus Descending.

But it was in the 1990s, when she was in her 50s, that Marcia Lewis achieved her greatest fame. She was Miss Lynch in the critically disliked but long-running 1994 revival of Grease!, and nominated for a Tony Award for her work. Two years later, she stepped into a black pant-suit and fire-red lipstick as the saucy, hard-as-nails Matron "Mama" Morton in Kander and Ebb's Chicago. She owned two of the revivals show-stoppers: "When You're Good to Mama," in which she suggestively detailed the house rules of the women's jail she ruled with a velvet fist; and "Class," in which she and murderer Velma Kelly mourned, in quite blue language, how the world had grown vulgar. ("JE-sus Christ!" she bellowed, "ain't there no decency left?") Her work is preserved on the revival's cast album.

"All of a sudden, I'm playing this very sexual tough cookie, and I love it," Lewis told Playbill. "I love sitting on the sidelines and watching the audience's reaction to the show. It's exciting every night."

Bebe Neuwirth, who played Velma Kelly, reflected on Ms. Lewis' work on Dec. 21, telling Playbill.com, "Marcia was a deeply talented, and extraordinarily entertaining artist. But beyond that, she was one of the most profoundly good people I've been blessed to know. She was so kind, sweet, compassionate and loving. When she flashed her smile — one of pure love, sparkling delight and mischief — your world lit up, and joy reigned. Everyone who knew this beautiful woman — colleagues, friends, family, audiences — loved her; she will be deeply missed by us all."

 

Marcia Lewis in Chicago



Ms. Lewis was widely hailed for her work in the hit musical, which was likewise acclaimed. It was the biggest success of her career, and she was again nominated for a Tony Award.

Her stage work tapered off after that triumph. But she pulled a surprise finale out of her sleeve. In 2001, Ms. Lewis — who had been previously wed once before — married Nashville businessman Fred Bryan, a financial advisor who had seen Chicago 15 times. The two had met in 1999 at the 21st anniversary party of friends at the Hotel Europa in Venice.

"By the end of the party, I was glowing," Ms. Lewis said. "I had been pretty much on my own and working every night for two decades. But about two years ago I started thinking about love, and I made a list of every characteristic I wanted in a man." Mr. Bryan began traveling to New York to visit a daughter — and to see Chicago.

The wedding was attended by a host of Broadway stars, including Gary Beach, Lee Roy Reams, Karen Ziemba, Conrad John Schuck, Tommy Tune, Sandy Duncan, Linda Lavin and Joel Grey.

Marcia Lewis was born in Melrose, MA, and raised in Cincinnati, OH. She was a registered nurse at the The University of Cincinnati and Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, receiving her RN from the Jewish Hospital School of Nursing, Cincinnati.

She appeared at the Off-Broadway Theatre of the Zanies in An Impudent Wolf (1965), the Players Theatre in Who's Who Baby? (1968), and Playwrights Horizons in Romance Language in 1984 and When She Danced in 1990. She also had an extensive cabaret career, appeared in a 2002 benefit concert of Funny Girl, and starred in productions of Nunsense.

Nunsense creator and director Dan Goggin told Playbill.com on Dec. 21, "Marcia Lewis played Sister Mary Hubert in the first 'star' company of Nunsense with Kaye Ballard and Jaye P. Morgan.She was nothing short of brilliant! I remember she was very nervous about singing the gospel finale 'Holier Than Thou,' saying she didn't know if she could do gospel music. When she finished the number on the first night, the audience went wild and Marcia came off the stage ecstatic, saying, 'I feel just like Madonna!' I adored her."

Karen Ziemba, who took over the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago during Ms. Lewis' tenure in the show, told Playbill.com, "I just spoke to Marcia a few weeks ago. She told me she seldom picks up the phone, but had just come back into the kitchen to put a beautiful rose from her garden into a vase. Well, she indeed picked up, and there I was on the other end of the line, her with her rose in hand. Marcia was a beautiful rose of the highest order. Never had an unkind word to say about anyone, yet, as an actress, could play the most diabolical characters that you still cared about, because each one had a heart underneath and a smile as big as all outdoors. I will never forget her."

In 2001, after her honeymoon, the actress returned to the role of Matron "Mama" Morton of Chicago. She also toured with the show in 2003. She lived in Nashville, and considered herself retired from the business.