Age: "I just had my 35th birthday. In fact, my birthday's on the 15th of October and our first preview was on the 14th, so it's probably the best birthday present I ever had: making my Broadway debut!"
Currently: Reprising his Olivier Award-nominated performance as chimney sweep extraordinaire Bert in the London-to-Broadway transfer of Disney's Mary Poppins.
Hometown: Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Lee kicked off a lifelong dedication to dance around age eight when his older sister, Penny, started taking a disco dance class. "She'd come back and put on her pop music and I'd go, 'Oh god what'd you do today?! Teach me, teach me, teach me!' I'd be the stupid, annoying kid brother behind her going, 'Ooh, like this?'"
West End Story: Despite his mum's fears that he would be the only boy in dance class, by age nine, Lee was performing alongside his whole family in community theater shows. His first West End credit came at age 11 as one of 42 kids in the first-ever musical production of Bugsy Malone, and he moved to London at 16 to study at Bird Theatre College. After school, Lee found steady work as a swing in the final year of Me and My Girl and the entire three-year run of Crazy for You, stepping into the lead of the Crazy for You national tour in 1997. "If it wasn't for doing my time in that show, I may never have got onto the second rung of the ladder: being seen as someone who could play a lead role, instead of just a really good ensemble member," he says now, pointing to a poster next to his dressing table that he keeps as a memento.
Finding Love—and Success: One of Lee's favorite pre-Poppins credits was playing the Gene Kelly role in Singin' in the Rain. "To get rained on every night," he recalls with a smile, "was an amazing, weird, fantastic experience." Hitting 30 proved to be a turning point for the charming actor, who had just met his now-wife, American-born actress Emily Harvey. "I'd realized that she was the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with. Before then, my relationships had been a bit barren," he says with a chuckle. "It was all about the career. And then I met her, and it all seemed to change. I just thought, I can pay my mortgage, I have a nice life and I'm almost constantly working, whether in a little show up in god-knows-where or in the West End or choreographing for colleges or tours. And then—it's weird—when I decided that it wasn't that important whether I got to the top of the ladder, suddenly this job turned up."
Nesting & Noshing: Lee and his wife lovingly referred to as Em found a big, "lovely" apartment in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood and enjoy spending his days off trying to rise from the status of Big Apple visitors. Asked if he's picked up any New York-style guilty pleasures, Lee grins. "People are going to go, 'Oh god, what a tourist, that's not authentic,'" he says with a laugh, "but I can't get enough of Dallas BBQ! My favorite is baby back ribs. In England, they're not normally very good. I like American home-cooked food. I like gravies. We don't have white gravy. Janelle [Robinson] in the cast was telling me, 'Oh I'll take you up [to Harlem] to Mama's home cooking place!'"
Screen to Stage: "Before people have seen [the show], they'll say, 'Oh, so how do they do the penguins?'" he says, referring to an animated sequence in the classic film, "and you sort of have to go, 'Well, they're not…in it…but you're not going to miss them!' And they don't." Beyond minor line changes to shorten the evening, the only difference between London's Poppins and New York's is a brightening up of "Jolly Holiday," which was originally staged in gray tones with only Bert and Mary in bright costumes. "The creative team was never 100% happy with it; they didn't want to copy the cartoon sequence in the film, but people sort of expect 'Jolly Holiday' to go Technicolor. And now you'll see that: 'Whoa! It goes Technicolor! We get a much bigger response at the end of it than we ever did in London—so much so that they're now trying to put [the changes] in there."
Supercalifragilistic… "Eventually this whole Bert thing's got to come to an end for me, whether they kick me out because I'm 48 or, you know…" Lee says modestly. "Me and Em, we've got to see how we like it in New York. At the moment I'm completely happy. Just to be on Broadway is amazing, and it would be silly to even think about what's going to happen next October; it's all so new and brilliant and fun that we're just living for today. I haven't done any TV or film work apart from being a dancer in the Phantom of the Opera film and in Beyond the Sea. So, of course I'd love to branch out, but if someone wants to offer me another Broadway show in a lovely lead, I'll take it like that!" he says with a Bert-like finger snap.