Ray Shell
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

‘Starlight’ and Street Angels: An Interview with Theatre Royalty Ray Shell

From touring in the musical Hair to keeping time in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Ray Shell has done it all during his 50 years on stage and screen.

Carolina Red
Ray Shell
BookBaby / Street Angel Books
8 December 2020

You’d mentioned wanting a “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” or “Memory”-type song. For me, as a listener, I would say that the title song is that. Describe the meaning of “Starlight Express” in a more global sense.

It’s about wanting to be protected, wanting to be loved, wanting to connect with something more powerful than yourself that will protect you. “I want to believe, I need you to be here, I need to believe in you.” The original premise of it was that Rusty was gonna be physically changed because he was a water pump train and Starlight was supposed to make him into this locomotive but Andrew got rid of that idea because it was just going to confuse the audience.

Rusty always had it in him. He just needed to believe in himself, and that’s true of all of us. Everything that we want to do is right here inside of us. I told you about my dream, about waking up and there’s the bathroom light down at the end of the door. I touched my head and I felt these spikes and hard things. I went to the mirror and up in my head were diamonds and silver and gold. The Lord said to me, “Everything that you need is right here” [points to head], so that connected with Starlight. It was like an affirmation.

What’s one of the greatest challenges you’ve overcome in your career?

Staying on those skates, baby! I learned that you should always do something for the right reasons. The German production of Starlight Express was a big challenge. I was only there because I needed to pay this mortgage and when I got to Germany, I had to pay rent in Germany, rent at the hotel, mortgage back home. For whatever mad reason, I thought that by smoking marijuana it would help me learn the German. I think what made it more difficult was that I already knew the show in English so every time I would forget the German I would go into English.

I think for me, that was the biggest challenge, as well as dealing with disappointment. It was harder when I was younger. Everything isn’t for you. Sometimes you can feel “lesser than” because I was never a dancer. In fact, I remember when I auditioned for Michael Bennett, who directed everything. He directed Dreamgirls. He was doing a show called Chess and I was up for the role of the arbiter. What they really wanted was somebody who could dance the hell out of the chess thing. I apologized. I said, “Mr. Bennett, please forgive me for not being a dancer” and he said to me, “Ray Shell, with a voice like yours, you don’t ever need to apologize to anyone”. I didn’t get the part. My friend Tom Jobe actually got it, bless his soul. Rest in peace, Tom.

Ray Shell
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

I want to talk about another character that you didn’t play but you brought to life, Cornelius Washington, Jr. How did that character manifest in your book Iced?

Wow. I knew him. I won’t give his real name. You know how there’s always somebody in your neighborhood that your mother says, “Why can’t you be like that person?” This guy was at Columbia University at sixteen. He was the smartest person. He had the best clothes. Girls loved him. He was handsome and he was absolutely brilliant. As we were growing up, he was someone who helped me with my homework. He was a nerd and that was okay because I was a nerd, too, but he was a cool handsome nerd. His parents and his family were the same like mine. “Upper lower class” family.

I was on tour. I was getting ready to do “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” with Michael Crawford. Me and my sister Virginia went back to my old neighborhood. I went to see the man Mr. Brown who used to cut our hair and I said, “Who’s around?” He told me that this guy was around. I was like, “Are you sure?” because this guy was so brilliant. Clinton was president at that time. I knew that this boy should have been in Clinton’s cabinet because he was that brilliant.

He was upstairs. I went there and knocked on the door. Nobody came. I knocked on the door again. I could see somebody looking. He opened the door and my first impression was that there was a satyr of half-beast in there because this immaculate man had no teeth here, hair just all over the place.

He recognized me. He said, “Come in.” You know how if people had pictures on the wall and the pictures aren’t there but you could see where the pictures were? It was like that with the furniture.

I said, “Chile, what happened to your stuff?”

“They took them.”

I said, “They who?”

“I never see them. I only see what they do to me.”

I said, “Ghosts?”

“Yeah, ghost people.”

That’s where the whole language of Iced came from. I left there and I felt like somebody had died. He was a crack addict. This guy who was just so incredibly smart had turned into a crack addict. Crack hadn’t gotten to London, so we didn’t know what the deal was. I went to the library and there was nothing written about it from the crack addict’s point of view. It was very sociological: the pushers, society. I figured there were crack addicts all over the place so I interviewed them. I wanted to know, What is it?

Iced is like an extended character study like Trevor Nunn used to make us make character studies for our character just to give the character background and something to play. That’s all it is. It grew from there.

What kind of release did writing Iced give you?

I had to explain to myself why this man’s life ended up the way that it was. I felt like it was an out-of-body experience because the character was smarter than me, do you know what I mean? I knew how this guy talked. This wasn’t the way Ray Shell talked.

In fact, after I finished it, HarperCollins wanted more Iced diaries. My publisher died before he could explain “genre publishing” to me. I wanted to write science fiction. I didn’t check that John Grisham wrote lawyer books and Anne Rice wrote about vampires. They offered me a two-book deal. By now, Cornelius could be reporting about George Floyd and all those people from a crack addict’s point of view.

The other thing was that I read about how this crack addict threw a baby off the roof. That was the ending of the book. My whole journey through Iced was how did that crack addict get that baby on the roof? That’s what the story was.

The German publisher looked me in the eye and said, “That’s really you isn’t it?” I could have made a whole lot of money if I’d said, “Yeah, it’s me. I did it.” My children didn’t send me to America to become a crack addict. In fact, the addicts told me “be careful about the drug because it will find you”. I thought, Yeah, right …

I walked out of the Ford Theater one night in Washington, D.C. I stepped on something, picked it up. It was a little vial of crack. They said it would talk to you. I picked up the thing. “You need to know what it feels like don’t you, Ray? You’re writing about it.” I took that thing home and flushed it down the toilet.

Going to London saved my life. I would have been the first crack addict. Seriously. I was in the arena for that stuff to happen. People have got their whole families hooked on crack. That’s who you sell it to first. Coming back to the country, seeing all this stuff with fresh eyes, that’s what made the writing so vital because I didn’t have anything to compare it to.

Ray Shell
Christian John Wikane with Ray Shell / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

You once told me that you learned how to be “Ray Shell” in London. What are you learning now?

How to be a producer. Everything I’ve done is a rehearsal for what I’m doing now. I always made records. I took my first Starlight Express royalties and made a record that I sold to MCA. During the pandemic, I created this band called TRIBE:wilson. We did five singles with this lady called Nia. What Nia would do is write her little things and then send them to us in North Carolina in the studio. Everything that she’s done has been played by the BBC.

You mentioned earlier that you’ve had a different kind of career than most people, in terms of the different realms you’ve worked in. What words of encouragement would you give to anyone who’s not following a conventional trajectory?

Listen to yourself. Read about other people. We are taught as actors to be reactive. You get a line, I get a line. We don’t listen to people. We’re thinking about what we’re gonna say next. The person that we don’t listen to at all is ourselves. Stop and think and listen to yourself.

I looked in the mirror the other night and it scared me because I could see my mother. She passed away in 2013. What I was seeing was my mother in me. Even when things are hard … that’s why you have to know what you want and keep going for it. It may not happen right then and there, but if it’s for you, it will come to you.

I needed the message of Starlight Express because there was a time when I didn’t believe in Ray Shell. I was scared. I’m this little church boy that can sing a little bit, but even back then I would still go, “I can do it!” even if I couldn’t do it. [laughs] It is about belief. Jesus said if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, great oaks can grow. It’s true. It’s just belief.