Happy Tony Weekend, everyone! As the theatre world gears up for the biggest night on Broadway, we take the chance to catch up with a performer whose adventures I've been following for over a decade.
Easily one of the hardest-working people I know, it seems like, in that time, Raymond J. Lee has been constantly showing up on my TV, in workshops/readings/benefits, on viral videos... all while simultaneously rehearsing or performing in a show somewhere.
With his silky pop voice, commanding stage presence and quirky character turns, the man has made a name for himself on Broadway with Mamma Mia!, Anything Goes, Honeymoon in Vegas and his current show-stopping performance as the chronically “over-served” Ralph in the Tony-nominated new musical Groundhog Day.
While juggling the 8-a-week schedule, Lee also runs the increasingly-influential Asian American Performers Alliance group on Facebook and is a devoted husband and father.
He's also just a really nice guy and perpetual class act. That isn't a given these days. If you're reading this and wondering if it's aimed at you, it probably is.
Somewhere in all of that, Lee took the time to chat a bit about his life, work and current project!
We've been pals for awhile and I try to see everything you do, but let's go back a little bit. Where did you grow up and when did the theatre bug first bite you? Was your family supportive of this path, and was there a specific moment you realized you wanted this to be your career?
I know, Matt! We’ve been buddies ever since the Mamma Mia! days and you’ve always been such a good friend. I truly appreciate you having my back in this crazy business.
Okay, so baby Ray was born in Atlanta, GA, to Korean immigrant parents. My dad is an engineer and my mom was a pharmacist but stayed home to raise my brother and me. Theatre first bit me in elementary school when I would sing in the school choir and do shows.
My first ever show was a production of It’s Cool In The Furnace based on the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Bible. I gave it fiercely as Abednego for a full weekend of performances. I think I always knew I wanted to be an actor or at least be involved in the entertainment industry from an early age.
My parents haven’t always been supportive of my career. They had groomed me to be a doctor ever since I was a kid, but then I changed majors from chemistry to radio/television/film sophomore year of college so they assumed I was going to be some sort of lawyer.
Only recently have they come around and supported me. I think it took them a while to realize that I took this seriously and that I could support myself in this field. They didn’t see many Asian faces on TV, film or onstage so they always worried that there wasn’t room for me.
It’s funny because to this day my mom will say, “Raymond, Matthew Broderick makes so much money each week. Why can’t you do that?” Ah, Korean parents…
How did you first get involved with Groundhog Day?
I first went in for Groundhog Day in April of 2016. They had given me either Gus or Ralph sides to prepare and I definitely prepared the higher singing part. Funny fact – Andrew Call who plays Gus in GHD went right before me at the audition!
I went in for a couple rounds of auditions and then found out in the fall that I’d be getting an offer. I’m such a huge fan of Matilda so to work with this entire creative team has been an absolute dream! I'm also a huge fan of the original movie!
You definitely have one of the standout moments in the show, with "Nobody Cares." Did you put any particular research into your role as the town drunk? Are you "method?"
Thanks so much Matt! We have an amazing time with “Nobody Cares” and I feel lucky to be on that stage with Andy and Andrew, who are both comic geniuses. Luckily I’ve had a few years of drinking experience from college to base the character of Ralph on, so it wasn’t too hard of a stretch!
It’s fun to hear and watch the audiences’ reactions to what happens during the number. I think they’ve gotten so used to the first 20 minutes of the show that they really get sent on this amazing adventure during our number. Plus I believe it's the first time an actual car chase has been attempted on a Broadway stage!
What has been the most challenging part of the process, and do you have a single favorite moment for you character?
This is the hardest I have EVER worked during a show. The most challenging part of the process was the tech process and finally getting all the elements together. I have the second most costume changes (25 changes total) and for the entire ensemble, when we’re not on stage, we’re backstage quick-changing or dodging scenery or running to get props for the next scene. It’s an absolute marathon, so having my body adjust to the stamina of doing GHD was a tough process.
My favorite moment has to be “Nobody Cares” because it’s just a fun friggin’ number. I’m living my Broadway dreams of singing a song on stage with a mullet in a small-town accent!
You always seem to be working, and I rarely hear of you calling out. How do you stay energized for that 8-a-week grind, and how do you balance it with your exquisitely healthy appetite for delicious (aka crappy) food?
That’s so nice of you to say, Matt. There are definitely frenzy working moments and then lulls in this career so I try to keep it as positive and as active as I can. Being a Dad really teaches you to balance family and career.
When it comes to the 8-a-week grind I rely heavily on a diet of coffee and jelly beans. Joking! Well…kind of. I do try and make smart choices when I eat, especially for a show. Because GHD requires so much physical stamina I try to keep it relatively light and healthy before the show.
Post-show is a whole ‘nother story and I usually up raiding the fridge when I get home and see what leftovers my husband left me.
During the show I make sure to have a big jug of water and a cup of throat coat just to make sure I’m hydrated and that my voice is taken care of.
Let's move on to race. I'd like to discuss your overall experience as an Actor-of-Color. What have been the major challenges for you personally, in the casting process? Also, any benefits?
There definitely have been many challenges to being an Actor-of-Color in this business. I guess I have to start off and say that college was difficult. I was lucky to be cast in a lot of awesome student productions that took a chance at me. They saw the person I was inside and not just my skin tone.
It’s also been tricky for me because I’m mainly a pop singer so I didn’t really fit into the ensembles of the traditional King and I’s or Pacific Overtures. It took a while for me to realize who I was, be proud of who I was, and show that off in a room.
I guess on the flip side, being an Asian guy who sings pop made me stand out in a crowd when I first got to New York. I was able to do a lot of readings which led to friendships and relationships with various people behind the table, who all saw what I could do and then took a chance and cast me in their shows.
I think the most important thing was showing people that we, as Asian Americans, exist and that we can fit into the ensemble or have roles that reflect who we are as modern day Americans. I'm not a fan of being boxed into a label and love to surprise people. If I can be on that stage, and there's an Asian kid out there in the audience who wonders if there's room for him/her on the stage, and sees that I'm up there huffing and puffing it, and that inspires them to pursue their dream, then I've done my job.
With so much talk about diversity these days, Groundhog Day has sort of become a surprise example of the necessity and achievability of a multi-colored Broadway ensemble. What are your thoughts on the show and its progressive approach to color-blind casting?
I always tell people that Groundhog Day is doing diversity RIGHT on Broadway. We have such a beautiful cast and the great thing is that a cast member’s ethnicity isn’t justified at all in the show.
We have two Asian American men playing two different roles in the show. I remember seeing Vishal Vaidya at the auditions and thinking, “Oh, clearly we are going in for the same track.” To my surprise we were both going in for different roles, and that was across the board. They wanted to find the right PERSON for the roles.
I applaud Matthew Warchus and this entire creative team for bringing theatre to modern times. And not one audience member has ever objected to our diverse casting, so clearly we are doing something right. We are representing America. Plus having Barrett Doss, a beautiful and strong African American woman in a role that was originally cast as Caucasian in the movie, as our leading lady is awesome. She is such a wonderful leader and truly inspiring.
Given the nature of the business, you end up sometimes taking on roles that might be seen as Asian stereotypes. Have you run into any blowback or criticism from "the community?"
One of the hardest roles I’ve done in my career was Brother John in Anything Goes. That role is infamous for not being the most racially sensitive and I truly didn’t know the history of the role and the show until I got cast.
Kathleen Marshall, our awesome director, took me and Andrew Cao (who was playing Brother Luke), aside and we all brainstormed how we could make these historically stereotypical characters more modern and less offensive. I’m proud of how we accomplished that and especially proud of that production.
I’m lucky to have amazing representation who all submit me for roles that go beyond the color barrier. Sure I go in for Asian American roles and sure I’ve turned some down because they might be racially insensitive, but I do try and make that decision based on each project.
If I can take on a role that is an “Asian stereotype” and change it and make it better for the next person who takes on the role, that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something for the community.
Meanwhile your Facebook Group, the Asian American Performers Alliance has really blown up and become a vital sounding board and community. How did you come to form it, and are you surprised at how large it has become?
Thanks, Matt! I am super surprised and honored at how large it has become. My husband and I wanted to start a group that celebrated all the amazing working Asian American actors, directors, producers, choreographers, musicians, etc. and wanted to create a forum that kept everyone aware of who was working where. That’s how we first started the group and slowly people started joining and posting as well.
It’s gotten so big that I’m considering starting an AAPA Casting page just so people with casting notices can post there. It’s all about helping each other out as minorities in this business, in my opinion, and showing one another that we are out there and that we are doing it.
As with all social media, the Group sometimes turns into a bunch of people attacking each other. How do you deal with that, and what are your general thoughts on how we can work together as a community to reduce the in-fighting and create some change?
As long as people are constructive and cordial with their disagreements that’s all I ask. We have a no insult/cussing/disrespect policy but I encourage open and civilized debate. That’s how we all learn and grow from each other. Sure we’ve had to block some members who solely post to create drama... but ain’t nobody got time for that!
Moving away from theatre and race, you have a beautiful family! Tell me about your experience so far as Disney Daddy? How has married life and fatherhood affected your approach to work, or your overall outlook on life?
My husband and I wanted so much to be Daddies so when the time was right we did our research and worked with an adoption agency – Spence Chapin, which was actually recommended to me by a Mamma Mia! cast member. After a bunch of classes, home studies and a two-year wait, our daughter Ella came home at 6 weeks old and she’s our entire world. She fills our lives with so much laughter and love, and as a #DisneyDad, I am doing my best to raise a proper Disney Princess.
However being a dad in this business is HARD! I think being a parent is hard period, but also having the added pressure of juggling such a crazy career has been insane and a steep learning curve. There have been moments when I’ve wondered if I need to get that “stable” office job so I can have a normal schedule, but I realized that I take pride in knowing that my daughter sees her dad working hard for his dreams and making them work.
The great thing about being a dad is that it also puts things into perspective. Before Ella, I would have lost sleep over a bad audition or a rejection. Now because I have this beautiful little soul that greets me at home with hugs and kisses, I realize that there are bigger things in life. Also a huge shout-out to my amazing husband Robbi who keeps me sane and has been taking the majority of the parenting responsibilities while we were rehearsing and teching GHD!
Do we get the sense that Ella might be an aspiring Broadway Diva?
She is SUCH A DIVA! I don’t know where she gets it from… She will tell us where to stand, what to eat, what color marker to use, which shoe she wants to put on. She will also run around the house singing all sorts of songs, especially “Let It Go,” so if that’s the career she wants to try, at least I can steer her in the right direction. I’m thinking maybe she can take over the role of Rita in a few years?
Not sure how long you're with the show, but any side projects or future endeavors you can talk about?
Right now I call the August Wilson my second home and office. I’ve been doing various readings and projects here and there but haven’t had the chance to commit to anything yet. I hope to be a singing small town drunk with a mullet at the August Wilson for as long as I can.
I would love to do some television though in the meantime and if there is ever a revival of Little Shop or The Producers please call me up!
What is your ONE dream role, male or female. The role where, if it was the last thing you did, you would die a happy man?
Wow one dream role?! I have so many! Leo Bloom in The Producers, The Baker in Into The Woods, Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, Mark in Rent, Elphaba in Wicked.
Finally, to any aspiring performers or artists of any race, age, or background, what are your best words of advice?
Be yourself in the audition room. Make strong choices. Be proactive. Don’t just sit and wait for the opportunities to come to you. Don’t ever let anyone box you in and tell you what you should be. Take chances. Be a nice person. Learn how to read music. And always remember to have fun!
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.