For those of us who didn’t know Roger Rees personally, the memorial service held Sept. 21, 2015 at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater was an opportunity to learn about a man who was not just loved, but adored. He was “a perfect person” said screenwriter/Broadway musical book writer Marshall Brickman.
Rees died on July 10th at age 71 after a bout with cancer. Born in Wales, Rees auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960’s but wasn’t accepted until he tried five times. He worked his way up the ranks starting in non-speaking roles until he was playing leads.
Besides his stage work in London, New York, and elsewhere, most audiences know Rees best for his roles as Robin Colcord on “Cheers,” Lord John Marbury on “The West Wing,” Dr. Colin Marlow on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and his hilarious turn as the Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” Rees also served for three years as the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he was famously known for encouraging new artists.
The memorial service, which was open to the public, was primarily attended by Rees’ friends in the theater community, including Brooke Shields, Tyne Daly, Blair Brown, Joel Grey, John Cullum, and Henry Stram, among numerous others. Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, Lindsay Mendez, Sherie Rene Scott, Christian Borle, Dana Ivey, Kate Burton, Mark Linn-Baker, and Heidi Blickenstaff either performed or read during the service. Ivey announced the breaking news that Rees will be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame on Nov. 16th.
The afternoon began with a song from the musical, “A Man of No Importance,” in which Rees had played the lead. Marty Moran led a chorus called Master Voices in a touching rendition of “Love Who You Love” from the show.
There were several speakers, which included readings of remembrances from friends and colleagues who were unable to attend. Among those who sent comments were Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons, Kathleen Turner, Kenneth Branagh, Trevor Nunn, Lynn Ahrens, and Tom Stoppard, who wrote, “Somebody should mention his face. I don’t think Roger had a bad looking day in his life.”
The reading that seemed to move everyone most was by a woman in Los Angeles who found herself having a heart attack one evening when Rees happened upon her. He scooped her up and rushed her to the hospital. It wasn’t until she turned on her television sometime later and saw Rees on an episode of “Cheers” that she realized who had saved her life. She was able to find out how to contact him so that she could send him a thank you letter.
Bebe Neuwirth sang Kurt Weill’s “Bilbao Song” from “Here Lies Jenny,” a show that Rees conceived and directed starring Neuwirth. Chita Rivera sang, “Love and Love Alone” from “The Visit” – the last show that Rees performed in during Broadway’s last season.
Marshall Brickman, who wrote several films with Woody Allen and co-wrote the books for the Broadway musicals “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family” with Rees’ husband, Rick Elice, told a story about how Rees took it upon himself to plant a garden at Brickman’s home.
Brickman also told everyone that Rees never missed a performance in his 50-year career, joking that Rees was “the anti-Liza.” (He was referring to Liza Minnelli, of course, who is known for cancelling performances.)
Playwright Terrence McNally, who worked with Rees on “The Visit” and “A Man of No Importance,” admitted to being a bit in love with Rees, but said that most everyone was. He broke down several times as he spoke about his friend and colleague, about whom he said, “No actor played simple decency more effortlessly than Roger.”
Finty Williams, the daughter of Judi Dench, spoke on behalf of both herself and her mother, saying that when Williams was four years old, she asked Rees to marry her.
John Caird, who worked with Rees at the Royal Shakespeare Company, spoke about the days they first arrived in New York with the famous production of “Nicholas Nickleby,” which put Rees on the map.
Rees was also apparently famously quirky and inventive. One of my favorite stories was about how much he loved his mother – so much so that he bought the home next to hers. But rather than create adjoining doors so that they could enter each other’s homes without going outside, he installed a revolving bookcase that allowed them entry.
Nancy Coyne of theatrical advertising agency Serino-Coyne was among those who spoke about the beautiful 30+-year relationship that Rees shared with his husband, Rick Elice. The two were not only partners in love, but also in work. Elice collaborated with Brickman on the books for the musicals “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family.” Rees starred in “The Addams Family” and later directed Elice’s very successful Broadway play, “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Rees is pictured with Elice above.
Elice was the final speaker of the afternoon. He began by listing a litany of activities, saying that Rees was “never happier” when he was doing each of those things. These included painting (Rees started out as a visual artist), acting, writing, and numerous others – but especially working. The point, according to Elice, was that Rees was always happy – even in his last days when he knew that his fight with cancer was coming to an end.
Rees converted to Judaism for Elice, and they were finally legally married in 2011. Elice’s father was also in attendance, and since the day coincided with his 88th birthday, Elice asked everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to his dad.
A group of nearly 50 cast members from more than one company of “Peter and the Starcatcher” ended the service with a song from the show and were eventually joined by Master Voices for a chorus of almost 80. It was a powerful ending to a moving service.
I don’t believe I have ever heard quite this much admiration and love expressed at any memorial service I have attended. It made me feel that I had been cheated since I never knew Rees personally. The program for the service included a letter from theater director Jack O’Brien to Rick Elice, in which he said, “Loss is as hideous as it is inevitable across the board, but some losses count more than others – they just do! Roger’s is one of those.”