Back to Bond Street: An Interview with West End Legend Ray Shell

Photo: Flying Perfect Media

Forty years after Ray Shell left New York for London, the original Rusty in Starlight Express finds his way home to the East Village.

How did Ray Shell get from Boston to New York? He followed the yellow brick road. Indeed, Shell's search for The Wiz (1975) brought him back home after graduating from Emerson College and touring in the national companies of Hair and The Me Nobody Knows. He found the Wiz himself, André De Shields, and frolicked in the city's downtown art scene, a veritable Oz of theater and music. 40 years after leaving New York for London, where he originated lead roles in Starlight Express (1984) and Five Guys Named Moe (1990), Shell's back in New York with a different show: his own.

When Shell brings Phoenix to Joe's Pub at the Public Theater on 22 January, he'll be coming home — literally. In the mid-'70s, he lived on Bond Street, just three blocks south of the Public's headquarters in the East Village. Shell walked untold miles in the neighborhood, from forming a punk band with Wiz vocalist Carl Weaver, to hanging out at CBGB's, not to mention fronting Black Magic, an early incarnation of Mystic Merlin, the funk group that foretold Freddie Jackson's rise to stardom.

A ten-minute stroll from Joe's Pub to the New York Theater Workshop (formerly the Truck & Warehouse Theater) on E. 4th Street maps the route to Shell's earliest stage work in New York, The Dirtiest Musical (1975). Henry Krieger's musical adaptation of Tom Eyen's Off Broadway hit The Dirtiest Show in Town (1970) critiqued air pollution (hence the "dirty" title), the Vietnam War, and urban decay. It also culminated with a nude orgy that made Hair seem Victorian by comparison. Shell's mother watched the show with her eyes closed.

Meanwhile, Oscar L. Johnson and Bubbling Brown Sugar (1977) star Lon Satton eyed Shell for the title role in Little Willie Jr's Resurrection (1978). Billed as "the first soul gospel musical", the show traveled to London and premiered at the Regent Theatre in November 1978, kindling Shell's four-decade career in the city's vibrant community of actors, directors, and playwrights.

Before relocating to London full-time in 1980, Shell made a detour to Berlin where he filmed The Apple (1980), the infamous sci-fi musical that seemed predestined for a cult following. He briefly returned to New York and joined Loretta Devine and Cleavant Derricks in Marc Shaiman and Robert I. Rubinsky's City Center production of Dementos (1980), which The New York Times later described as "a series of interwoven confessional monologues, spoken and sung, that stand or fall on the ingenuity of the actors".

Both Devine and Derricks subsequently joined the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls (1981), the blockbuster musical that seemed tailor made for Shell's vocal talents and dynamic stage presence. Instead, Shell moved back to London where he signed with EMI Publishing and flirted with a pop career. He released a cover of "Them Heavy People" by Kate Bush, recorded with postpunk bands like Magazine, and sang background for the Police on their Synchronicity (1983) tour.

Just a couple months after Synchronicity went to number one in July 1983, Shell commenced rehearsals for what became his breakthrough role: Rusty the steam train in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express. Though not necessarily a favorite among critics, the show dazzled audiences, winning applause from backstage visitors like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and members of the Royal Family.

Over the next few decades, Shell captivated audiences in West End productions of Blues in the Night, Five Guys Named Moe, Miss Saigon, Children of Eden, The Lion King, and The Bodyguard. In between, he authored his first novel Iced (1993), a searing account of crack addiction that Dr. Maya Angelou called "a powerhouse". He also continued his work as a vocal coach and performance director for artists like Sia, Marsha Ambrosius, and Grace Jones, plus contestants on X Factor and the UK edition of The Voice.

No matter the endeavor, the world of Ray Shell thrives on constant motion. Fresh from directing Gilgamesh at the White Bear Theatre in London, filming scenes for his forthcoming film Grayhound, and completing the cast recording of his musical Starboy, Shell met PopMatters at the Pubic Theater to retrace his years in New York and discuss the spark behind Phoenix.

It's a pleasure to be here with you at the Public Theater, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of Hair (1967) in 2017. How did you first become aware of Hair?

I remember hearing this amazing singer Ronnie Dyson sing "Aquarius". I didn't know he was a black boy. Hair was a show that had black kids at a time when there weren't a lot of black kids showcased like that. It was incredible. I'd heard about the Public Theater, but I wasn't living around the corner from it — yet!

Where were you raised in New York?

I tell people I'm a southern boy with city boy ways. I was born in Wilson County, North Carolina. My mother and I moved to Brooklyn when I was two-years-old. I remember coming into New York. All of these people looked like ants because I'd never seen that many people in my life.

When I was really young, we lived on Dean Street in the Boerum Hill area of Brooklyn, then we moved to Linden Boulevard in East Brooklyn. I took the subway at ten or eleven-years-old. It cost ten cents. We used to have to go from Linden Boulevard down to Hoyt-Schermerhorn because that's where we'd go to choir rehearsals. I worked at May's Department Store on Fulton Street, which isn't there anymore. In fact, I was working at May's when the call came in that I'd gotten a part in The Me Nobody Knows — the first show I ever did.

How were you cast in the national touring company of Hair?

I'd auditioned for the Broadway production. They didn't have any spaces for boys, but they had all of these different companies. I might have told the Hair casting director in New York that I was at Emerson College, which is why the company manager might have heard that I was in The Me Nobody Knows at the Charles Playhouse in Boston.

The company manager of Hair came to see a matinee of The Me Nobody Know. He said, "We'd like for you to join the company." I'd promised my mom that I wouldn't leave school to do a show, so I told them I couldn't do it. He said, "At the end of the school year, I will contact you and we'll bring you in the show." I said, (sarcastically) "Yeah … right!" I thought I had missed my chance to be in Hair.

The school year ended in May 1972. By this time, my black consciousness had risen up. I was sitting upstairs in the black dorm. I heard, "Ray! You got a letter from Hair!" It was a bright orange envelope with the Hair logo on it. Sure enough, there was a contract inside. I think it might have been two days later they flew me to Philadelphia. They put me onstage at the Shubert Theatre the same night!

Now that I'm older and understand how the business works, I realize I have a bunch of blessings that I didn't appreciate at the time because I just thought that that happens to everybody, but it doesn't.

In a recent interview you did with SiriusXM, you talked about the song "Walking in Space", specifically the lines that Melba Moore sang on the original cast recording. Musically, what was it about Hair that you responded to?

The different sounds — the Motown sound, the pop sound, the British sound. Hair had the most incredible singers. It was like our X Factor or The Voice. If someone was in Hair, you knew there was something about that person. Sometimes, they didn't take the best singers, but they took the singers who had personality and passion.

Once you got in Hair, it was like a school. It's like what Hamilton is doing now. They would ship you out to whoever needed you. It was so interesting because, at the height of it, every night at 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m, you'd have companies all over the world getting ready to do Hair. You felt like you were part of this special fraternity. In fact, we recently wished (Hair composer) Galt MacDermot "Happy Birthday". We call him "Daddy Hair". Even now, all of us are still connected because we all know what each other went through to get into the show.

Coming full circle from how you first heard about Hair, you eventually crossed paths with Ronnie Dyson. Describe that experience.

Oh, man! It must have been in 1975 because he replaced me in the company that went to Hawaii. At the time that I met him, he had left the Broadway show and he was a recording artist. I'm sitting there going, "Oh my God, this is Ronnie Dyson!" I didn't even want to sing in front of him because he had this iconic voice, this clear, clean voice of an angel. I remember him being really generous.

Photo: Flying Perfect Media

One of the current Broadway season's most anticipated musicals is Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (2018). You performed in Hair with two of Donna's sisters, Linda Gaines and Andrea Gaines. What do you recall about performing with each of them?

I saw Linda and Andrea audition together in Boston. They sang "Sweet Inspiration". Baby, they tore the song down! Of course, they were hired. Andrea was very quiet and very reserved. Linda had enough personality for both of them. She had all that energy. She used to call herself "Tweety Bird".

Sometimes, people don't realize that "Ray" and "Shell" are two names. Linda used to call me "Rayshell". She'd say, "Rayshell, my sister Donna's a star. She's in Germany doing Hair." I'd say, "Yeah, Linda, yeah …" After I left Hair, I kept hearing about "Donna Summer". If it had been "Donna Gaines" I would have known. With the first song, "Love to Love You Baby", I couldn't tell it was her because she sang that in her falsetto. Those Gaines girls had these belting voices. When I moved back to New York, I went to see Donna perform at Roseland. Linda came to the door and said, "I told you my sister was a star!"

What inspired you to move back to New York after graduating from Emerson?

Getting back to New York was always paramount. I'll never forget, I was in school in Boston, and I heard Stephanie Mills singing "Soon As I Get Home" from The Wiz (1975). I thought, I'm going to meet this Wiz, child! Sure enough, as soon as I was able to get to New York, I think it was that first summer in '75, I went straight to the Majestic Theater. I knocked on the door, and André De Shields came out.

I'd heard about André before The Wiz because he was in The Me Nobody Knows as well. People don't know this but he choreographed the original Harlettes for Bette Midler. He was very integral, creatively, to the art-theater-cabaret scene that Bette and the Harlettes came from, along with Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow, and all of those people. He's very underrated. People don't give him the props he's due.

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