English song-and-dance man Gavin Lee, 41, has spent much of the past decade playing Bert in Mary Poppins on both sides of the Atlantic, nabbing Olivier and Tony nods along the way. Now, he’s come home to replace Tom Chambers in the starring role of American dancer Jerry Travers in the frothy musical confection Top Hat, now in its second year at the Aldwych Theatre and nominated for 2013 Olivier Awards. Broadway.com caught up with the charming Lee early in his new West End run to talk life after Disney, the appeal of period shows and what baby name not to choose for his burgeoning family.
Welcome back to London, and to Top Hat!
Thank you! I’m absolutely loving being here. It’s great to do something new after eight years of the same lines and the same songs [in Mary Poppins]. I would hope that somewhere down the line I might get to put on [Bert’s] tatty old clothes and sooty cap once more; I’m certainly not closing that door.
Eight years in a starring role must be nearing some kind of record.
I did two years in London, two on Broadway, two traveling around America, and two back on Broadway. I will be forever grateful to [Poppins producers] Cameron [Mackintosh] and Tom [Schumacher] for re-signing me every year.
It has to be said that you already had a history of committing to shows.
Yes. Back in the ‘90s, I was in the original London cast of Crazy For You, with Ruthie Henshall; I did three years in town and then went on a year’s tour. Every year they offered me something better: swing, dance captain, and by the time we went out on tour, I was playing the leading role of Bobby Child.
How did the Top Hat offer come your way?
You’ll laugh, but when my agent called and said, ‘Would you like to take over in Top Hat?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ After six years away from the West End, you kind of lose touch. I was able to get a night off from Poppins on Broadway to fly over and see the show, and in an instant I said yes! I had to see if Disney would let me out of the show early, which they very kindly did, on a Friday. [Co-star] Kristen [Beth Williams] had to do a Sunday matinee of her show [Nice Work If You Can Get It] and fly to London to start [rehearsal] the next day!
How long will you be with the show?
At the moment, it’s a six-month contract, so I’m already thinking, "What’s going to happen in August?" [Laughs.] In this business, you can never be that complacent or secure. Maybe I’ll extend if they want me to. I feel lucky that Kristen and I have come in as replacements in a show that looks as if it hasn’t peaked yet. It’s great to be coming into something that isn’t on a downward slope. My dream scenario is that Top Hat gets to go to Broadway and they ask me to recreate the role of Jerry there. But this is all just in my head; nothing has been said about moving anywhere.
Does this feel like a very different gig from playing Bert in Mary Poppins?
Well, they’re both period, of course, and feature some beloved tunes, but Jerry is an American, so that’s one thing. And compared to eight years of rags, it’s nice to be wearing pale coats and dinner jackets and having my hair nice and slick rather than under a cap all the time. In that sense, I don’t know if you can get much more of a contrast! I’m having a whale of a time.
Is it daunting following in the celluloid footsteps of Fred Astaire?
When I did Singin’ in the Rain [in 1998], playing the iconic Gene Kelly role of Don Lockwood, there were a few people who actually said to me, "You’re more Fred Astaire than Gene Kelly." I mean, I’m 6'2," so I’m tall and lanky like him. And I’m lucky that there is a fabulous photo in front of the Aldwych of me in a top hat and tails, and just the way they shot the picture, which is very ‘30s, I do look like Fred Astaire— which is a good thing. People have very fond memories of the Top Hat film, and they kind of want you to look like him, so if I can pull that off, I’m doing okay [laughs].
It is interesting how you’ve become the go-to guy for certain sorts of shows: Singin’ in the Rain, Crazy For You, Mary Poppins and now this.
I’ve discovered over time that if you can bear it, you should stick in the box the industry has decided to put you in because you’re probably there for a reason: namely, that is what you’re good at! I must be pretty good at being the kind of jokey period character guy like Bert and Bobby and Jerry. There’s the Les Miserables/Miss Saigon school of leading men who are there to sound beautiful and act their socks off, but that’s not really me. My niche is 1930s stylized musical comedy, and I’m happy to be there. I’ve learned over the years that you can try and spread your wings, but you should also be grateful if there is a box you fit into.
What about where you call home? Are you fully bi-continental?
[Laughs.] As you know, my wife [actress/singer Emily Harvey] is American, so we can both work in London or New York. In America, we now live in Maplewood, New Jersey, about half an hour from Penn Station, and we’ve got friends looking after the house for us while we’re here. At the moment, we’re living in Surrey [southeast of London] because my wife’s best friend from six years ago lives there. What’s so exciting is that we’re expecting a baby in May. Our two-year-old girl will have a little brother.
Aha! Are you going to name him Bert?
In fact, Albert was a name we liked, but that’s just too cheesy! I said to myself, it’s time to leave that in the past. You’ve had a great ride, now move on to your fabulous new show.