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Gavin Lee: My Supercalifragilistic Broadway Run

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When Broadway.com last checked in with Gavin Lee, the supremely talented and ebullient star of Mary Poppins had just arrived in New York from London with his bride, actress Emily Harvey, and discovered the joys of Dallas BBQ ribs. A year and a half later, Lee feels right at home on Broadway, with a Best Actor Tony nomination and Best Featured Actor Drama Desk Award under his belt for his performance as Mary's confidante Bert, the charming and elastic! chimney sweep. Now well into his second year on the Great White Way, Lee shared some of his favorite memories with Broadway.com.

If you'd told me back in 2004, at my first audition for Bert in Mary Poppins in London, that four years later I'd be writing an essay for Broadway.com about my experiences living and working in New York, I'd have said “Yeah, right!” This really has been the most amazing few years for me, and in the words of Ms. Poppins herself, “Anything can happen if you let it.”Did I really just quote from the show?!

After nearly two years with the London production, my wife, Emily, and I packed up all our worldly goods and got flown first class woo-hoo—the first time we'd ever turned left when walking onto a plane to the Great White Way. New York was always a holiday destination for us, so to be actually living here was unreal.

On the first day of rehearsals, I got off the subway which I was still calling “the tube” at that point at Port Authority and starting walking to the rehearsal studio. This was when it really hit me how lucky I was—on 42nd Street, staring up at the massive Poppins billboard and thinking, “I'm in that, on Broadway. Shut up!” But as soon as I got into rehearsals, it felt exactly the same as in London. Maybe I was expecting a totally different process, or that “Broadway actors” would have a completely different way of creating a role possibly some sort of ritual act like sacrificing a young goat—ha ha, but, alas, no. Both casts were fun, talented and, as it got closer and closer to the first performance, just as insecure!

Our director, Richard Eyre, was eager for the Broadway cast to create each scene from scratch rather than just recreating the London production, and it was great for me to go back to the beginning and work out the entire show with a new bunch of performers. I remember at one of the last run-throughs in the studio, Richard and producer Cameron Mackintosh asked me to take out all the physicality in my performance. They said I was putting a hand gesture or move to everything I said. At first I was a bit miffed “Ooh, so you don't like what I'm doing then?!”—typical insecure actor but they were right, of course. When I did the run-through minus the gestures and just narrated the story, it felt fresher. After playing a role for a while and getting into habits, you sometimes forget how to keep it real.

As in London, we had the slowest three-week tech in the world, not getting past the prologue in the first five-hour session. Anyone who's seen the elaborate Mary Poppins sets will appreciate just how many automation, light, sound and fly cues there are, and how crazy it gets in the wings during the show. After the very first preview, the crowd went sooo mad and were sooo loud, it kind of shocked us all. I mean, London audiences are appreciative, but a Broadway audience beats them hands down. Standing ovations, cheers, frantic applause—every actor's favorite stimulant! Also, in London, maybe two or three fans would be at the stage door after the show wanting autographs. Here? Well, some nights the screams as you open the stage door make you feel like Brad and Angelina must be following you out!

Speaking of famous faces, I've been lucky enough to meet people like Vanessa Redgrave, Felicity Huffman, Cindy Crawford, Kelsey Grammer, Zach Braff and Supernanny ! Jo Frost backstage, at restaurants like Bar Centrale or at the Tonys. At the Dreamgirls movie premiere, I even trod on Beyonce's dress as my co-star Ashley Brown and I walked through the press tent. Her enormous bodyguard slammed his hand onto my chest, gestured down to my foot on Ms. Knowles' train and sucked through his teeth as he slowly shook his head—a showbiz highlight for me!

The biggest thrill of the year had to be awards season. My acceptance speech at the Drama Desk Awards was so animated, you'd have thought I'd won $10 million. I was ridiculously excited. And then came the Tonys. Getting to perform on that stage, at those awards and then to be nominated? Whoa! We had a rehearsal at Radio City on the Friday before, and all the way up the aisles were large cards with photos of the nominees slotted into the seats so the cameramen would know where everyone was sitting on the big night. I quickly found mine, had photos taken with it numerous times, and then noticed that Bernadette Peters would be sitting behind me. Shut up! Now I'm really mixin' with Broadway royalty.

At the end of Mary Poppins' first year on Broadway, all the principal actors signed on again—a sure sign of a happy, happy cast. For me, roles like this just don't come around that often. Also Em and I love it here in New York City. So many friends and family have been over from the U.K., we're kinda sick of doing the same ol' touristy things, but I never tire of walking through Times Square, Central Park or just being part of this city. There's still so much to explore. Only in the past few weeks did we get out to Brooklyn for the first time to look around. Cool place! It also helps having a few new great friends here, especially Ashley, my Broadway Mary. Oooh, she does make me laugh!

On the whole, the past year and a half has been such a whirlwind of excitement, I doubt we'll be leaving anytime soon.

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