The Broadway community turned out in force Monday to honor Roger Rees at a memorial for the Tony-winning Welsh actor at the New Amsterdam Theater.
Actors Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera, Sherie Rene Scott and Christian Borle, writers Terrence McNally and Marshall Brickman and stage executives including Serino-Coyne chair Nancy Coyne and Disney Theatrical producer Thomas Schumacher all were among the speakers and performers at the event, celebrating the life of an actor beloved in the theater industry and known to the general public for his TV roles in “Cheers” and “The West Wing” as well as for “Nicholas Nickleby,” the stage role that was his breakout (and won him a Tony in 1982). Rees’ husband, Rick Elice — a former exec at both Serino-Coyne and Disney Theatrical, and the book writer of musicals including “Jersey Boys” — spoke last.
Early in the ceremony, after the Master Voices choir sang a song from “A Man of No Importance” (the 2002 musical in which Rees originated the lead role), Dana Ivey, one of five actors who read letters from friends and colleagues who couldn’t attend the event, announced that Rees, who died of cancer in July, would be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame later this fall. Among the writers of the notes — read by actors including Christian Borle (whom Rees directed in “Peter and the Starcatcher”) and Kate Burton — were Kenneth Branagh, Lynn Ahrens and Lois Robbins, a woman whose life Rees saved when he drove her to the hospital from the theater where she was having chest pains.
Those first testimonies set the tone of the event, which stretched to nearly two hours as those onstage celebrated Rees’ generosity, antic humor, talent and tirelessness, as well as the 34-year relationship he shared with Elice. Oh, and also his notable good looks. “Somebody should mention his face,” Tom Stoppard (the playwright in whose “The Real Thing” Rees starred) wrote in one of the testimonies. “I don’t think Roger had a bad-looking day in his life.”
Neuwirth sang “The Bilbao Song,” the Brecht-Weill tune she performed in “Here Lies Jenny,” the 2004 Off Broadway show Rees co-conceived and directed. Scott and Lindsay Mendez sang a Beatles medley, while Rivera performed “Love and Love Alone” from the “The Visit,” the 2015 musical that was Rees’ final Broadway credit.
Brickman (“Jersey Boys,” “Annie Hall”) noted that in a theater career of some 50 years, Rees never missed a single performance. “He was, in fact, the anti-Liza,” he cracked.
John Caird, who co-directed “Nicholas Nickleby,” told a story about the invited dress rehearsal of “Nickleby” in New York, at which Rees summoned him onstage during the curtain call to surprise him with a birthday cake. Elice followed Caird by leading the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to his own father, who attended the memorial and turned 88 that day.
The crowd of attendees filled the orchestra and extended up to the first and second balcony of the New Amsterdam. During the event, an emotional McNally, who wrote the book for “The Visit,” remembered the impact of watching Rees deliver his character’s climactic line from the end of the show. “‘I’m ready.’ It was only a line from a script,” McNally remembered. “But I think Roger was ready. We were the ones who weren’t ready.”