The many chapters in Roger Rees’ professional life include an early stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a Tony-winning performance in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, recurring roles on Cheers and The West Wing, a three-year term as artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, star turns in Broadway plays (Indiscretions) and musicals (The Addams Family) and a Best Director Tony nomination (with Alex Timbers) for Peter and the Starcatcher. Now headlining Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, Rees is busier than any stage pro in his late 60s (or even late 30s!) could ever hope to be. This theatrical Renaissance man chatted with Broadway.com about his current role and his happy collaborations with his husband, Peter playwright and Jersey Boys librettist Rick Elice.
The Winslow Boy is well known in England, but not here. Does that surprise you?
This is the first revival since it was done on Broadway in 1947, and it’s lovely to see the audience reacting so well. I’ve always loved the play, so I jumped at the chance to do it. It’s British in its sensibilities, but the subject matter—a father’s belief in his son’s truth and honor, and the ends he will go to to protect that honor—is universal.
Americans have fallen in love with the Edwardian era because of Downton Abbey.
Yes, it’s very much a Downton Abbey sort of thing, although these are not aristocrats; this man is a banker. It was such an interesting period, just before the first world war. That whole generation of young men went off to France and were killed, so there’s a wonderful poignancy about that.
It’s great to have you back on Broadway, and also Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Mrs. Winslow.
She’s one of the great, great actresses, and it’s thrilling to be on stage with her. We’ve never worked together before, but we plan to work together a lot in the future!
You’ve concentrated on directing in recent years. Do you find yourself second-guessing directors when you’re acting?
Lindsay Posner is one of the great directors of the world, so I wouldn’t presume to do that. I think like an actor when I’m acting, and I think like a director when I’m directing. Having a knowledge of both is actually very useful, but it’s lovely just to be an actor and worry about myself.
Speaking of directing, what was the highlight of working with your husband, playwright Rick Elice, on Peter and the Starcatcher?
I love to argue and share bright ideas in a rehearsal room, and when you live with somebody who is working on the same show, the delight can go on all evening! [Laughs.] We spent 24 hours a day working on the show with [co-director] Alex Timbers, and it was thrilling to share that experience with loving, strong-minded, clever people.
Some couples might find that notion horrifying, and take every comment personally.
Well, I think the thing is not to take things personally or get upset. We like working together a lot. I think Rick did an extraordinary job, and the nomination for Best Play at the Tony Awards substantiated that.
There was sweet story in The New Yorker last year about your relationship with Rick. Have you become more public as a couple since getting married and collaborating on Peter?
We’re two men who love each other, and we’ve been together for 32 years; that has never changed. I think it’s the perception from other people that would make you think we “came out.” We’ve always been out. We’ve always been together. I think other people suddenly realized we’re together. And good for them. I’m glad the world is waking up.
What did you enjoy most about playing Gomez in The Addams Family, which Rick wrote with Marshall Brickman?
It was a rare opportunity for me to sing and dance, which was thrilling. Nathan Lane is a hero of mine, and I so enjoyed him in the show. I thought the whole show was a wonderful vaudeville, so it was such a pleasure for me to go in, especially with my friend Bebe [Neuwirth as Morticia], and then to continue with Brooke Shields. She and I got on tremendously well, and we ran for quite a long time, which was a great achievement.
Any dream musical roles? Have you ever done My Fair Lady?
No, but that would be a wonderful thing to do I’m always open to the next thing that comes along, and hopefully some of those will be musicals, because I’m singing really good now. In the Victorian age, actors played Romeo until they were 60 or 70 years old. Age didn’t seem to matter then, so hopefully I can lead the way and do more musicals. I don’t think I’ll be playing Pippin, but other things!
Can you believe Nicholas Nickleby was more than 30 years ago?
No. I don’t think I’m 30 yet! I feel like I’m just beginning.
Do you have a favorite memory of that experience?
When it was announced I had won the Tony Award, I was in Bangkok doing a movie with Judi Dench. I remember coming back from the location to the Oriental Hotel and hearing someone yelling across the reception area, “You’ve won the Tony!” It was wonderful and strange to be halfway around the world. But the best thing was, someone had recorded the ceremony, and it was Ginger Rogers who gave the announcement of Best Actor. Talk about passing things on from generation to generation! That was pretty good
You’ve always had an appreciation for pop culture—mixing TV roles with Shakespeare.
I think Shakespeare would be making movies now if he were alive. And remember, More people see you on one episode of Cheers or The West Wing than if you played Hamlet on stage every night for the rest of your life.
What’s coming up for you after The Winslow Boy?
I’m going to direct Rick’s new musical with [Altar Boyz composer] Michael Patrick Walker at the Old Globe [in San Diego] next May. It’s called Dog and Pony, and it’s an original musical about two people who write movies together and have a “work spouse” relationship. They’re together 24/7, and the only thing they don’t do is go to bed together—which intrigues everybody.
Who are your stars?
I can’t tell you. It will be great people. There are five magnificent parts.
Will Dog and Pony come to Broadway?
Hopefully it will go around the world, yeah. It’s a great, great musical with a fantastic, funny story and beautiful music.
Have you ever directed a musical?
I directed a wonderful Anything Goes while I was at Williamstown. I think big Shakespeare productions are just the same as musicals. I can’t wait to get my hands on some musicals for Broadway because I could really fix it for them. I know what they need to do.
Really? Sum it up for us!
Oh no, I’m not giving you my secrets!
See Roger Rees in The Winslow Boy at the American Airlines Theatre.