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.
Next Page (link below): From New York to London
From New York to London
How exactly did you make the transition from Boston to New York?
It wasn’t so much about moving because I grew up in New York and my parents lived in Queens. I was in a band called Zamcheck. We were a progressive art rock band. We didn’t have a lead guitarist, we had a lead violinist! Michael Levine played his violin like it was a guitar. It was badass. I think that kind of honed my frontman skills.
We played at the Newport Jazz Festival. We had gotten signed to a local record deal by the people who were handling Aerosmith. Mark (Zamcheck) didn’t agree with the deal. I didn’t know enough at that time to influence anything. I was “just a singer”. I had to make sure that Zamcheck wasn’t happening before I left Boston for New York.
When you got back to New York, how did you find work?
I was at André’s house. He got a phone call from Tom Eyen, who subsequently wrote Dreamgirls (1981) and wrote for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I do believe Tom’s words to André were: “Do you know any pretty chocolate boys who can sing?” I heard André say, “Yes. One’s sitting right in front of me.” André took the address. He looked at me and said, “Go get this job!!” I went down there and got the job in The Dirtiest Musical.
For those who are not familiar with the piece, what’s the premise of The Dirtiest Musical?
[Laughs] The Dirtiest Musical was a very bizarre show for me. Tom Eyen had written a show called The Dirtiest Show in Town, which starred Madeleine Le Roux, who was incredible. I was scared of her! She didn’t have to do anything. She just stood there. She had the most amazing voice.
The Dirtiest Musical was a musicalization of that show. It was about exploring the sexual mores of the 70s. From what I remember, it didn’t really have a straight-through book as such. They were more vignettes. I remember Henry Krieger being this bouncy, smiley, happy person that wrote these incredible songs. I sang one song called “Rainbow Shine”. The lyrics were, “I am the highest man …”
I didn’t know what was going on, I gotta tell you! [Laughs] It was outside of my experience. I was wearing these little white briefs singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” going into this orgy circle. Every time I sang it, the audience would crack up. I didn’t know what the allusion to it meant. I didn’t get it, at all, but what I did get from it was a powerful feeling of accomplishment.
That play was where I met Nell Carter, Michele Shay, and Anthony White. Nell was the Queen Bee. I didn’t know her fearsome reputation. I remember during tech rehearsals, Nell was just being unpleasant. I could see the other kids were nervous. I just looked at her one day and said, “Will you just shut up?” Nell came over, put her arm around me, and said, “He’s my little brother — he’s the only one who can tell me to shut up!” She adopted me. I learned then that to be in this business and survive, you had to be able to stand up for yourself, protect yourself, and not be afraid.
Nell was a force of nature, besides having all of that incredible talent. Dreamgirls was never intended for Jennifer Holliday. It was written for Nell. In fact, one of the songs in Dreamgirls, “I’m Lookin’ for Somethin'”, was in The Dirtiest Musical.
For awhile, you lived on Bond Street, which is halfway between the Truck & Warehouse Theater where The Dirtiest Musical was staged, La MaMa, and the Public Theater — the heart of the downtown theater scene. Aside from proximity to theater, why did you move to Bond Street, specifically?
My mother threw me out of the house. I’d had a nervous breakdown when I was 21 and got sectioned in Boston. My body doesn’t manufacture lithium. That’s what keeps your moods together. A lot of artists and athletes burn it up. When I came back to New York, I hadn’t been taking my medicine. Lithium doesn’t encourage your creativity. It makes you flat, so I stopped taking it. My mother said, “You can’t stay here.”
I called my friend Keith Follette Smith. He said, “Come down here.” He was going to take care of me. We were in a band together called Black Magic. We used to rehearse in a cellar. We practically lived there. It was in the middle of winter. There was no heat down there. The amps made it warm … if they were on. Keith said, “If we stay here, we’re going to die.”
One night, we went around the corner to CBGB’s. We met a girl named Jada. She had a loft on Bond Street. She liked Keith. The deal was: the two of us would come and live at the Bond Street loft as long as we helped them build it. Keith did. I sort of …. supervised! I tried to drill something in the ceiling and the drill got stuck so I just left it up there. People would come in and say, “Oh, that’s very unusual op-art!”
I was amazed to learn that Black Magic became Mystic Merlin, the band that introduced Freddie Jackson to many listeners for the first time. Barry Strutt, the band’s sax player, told me you were the most dynamic front man the band ever had.
When I was in the band, it was gritty. It was more rock ‘n’ roll. People were trying to get me in bands that did steps. I didn’t want to do steps. That was an art form of its own. I wasn’t denigrating it. I just didn’t know how to dance! They used to call me the black Mick Jagger because Mick Jagger can’t dance at all! [Laughs]
For me, I have the attention span of this (snaps fingers). I wasn’t willing to wait for Mystic Merlin to become famous. After Black Magic, I was in a punk band with Carl Weaver. If you have The Wiz album, there’s that song called “He’s the Wizard”. The high part at the end is Carl. We wrote two songs, one of them was called “Pretty Boyz”. In fact, that was going to be the name of our band. We got a gig to play CBGB’s … and then I got the call to go to London. I told Carl I couldn’t pass this opportunity up.
Photo: Flying Perfect Media
Ostensibly, Little Willie Jr’s Resurrection (1978) was your ticket to London. How did you get the title role in that show?
I was sitting with a friend in my room at the Hotel Opera on Broadway between 76th and 77th. I’d since moved uptown. I was looking through Backstage. It said there was an audition that day at that time for a gospel musical that was touring. It had the weirdest name. It was called Little Willie Jr’s Resurrection. Oscar L. Johnson and Lon Satton were the producers.
I ran down to the audition and they were leaving! I said, “Look, I want to audition!” They said, “You missed it. You got to come to Philadelphia.” I said, “I ain’t got no money to come to Philadelphia. Can I sing now?” They opened up the door and said, “Go sing.” I sang and they hired me on the spot. I was Little Willie! It was probably less than a month later that they took me to Philadelphia. That’s where I met my wife-to-be Charita. We rehearsed there and had an amazing time.
What’s the story of Little Willie Jr’s Resurrection?
The story is about a black college student who is a basketball star, which I wasn’t. Thank God I didn’t have to do any basketball playing! I just had to sing. He falls in love with a white girl. I bring her home and my dad goes ballistic. It was like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in reverse. It ends in tragedy. Her family sends a detective. They shoot my father. I jump in front of the bullet and I get shot, but my son lives.
The tour started in Philadelphia, then went on to Detroit, Chicago, D.C., and back to Philadelphia. Oscar was always saying, “We’re going to London.” I’d think, “Yeah, right!” He’d tell me, “Ray, you don’t have enough faith.” It just sounded so incredible — “we’re going to London” — but we did! Years later, Lon Satton would play “Poppa” in Starlight Express. I never would have been in Starlight had Lon and Oscar not brought me over to London for Little Willie Jr’s Resurrection.
The show had its London premiere at the Regent Theatre in November 1978. What were your first impressions of London?
I remember it being grey. I remember people talking very quietly. At that time, they didn’t have the black products that we have in the states like cocoa butter and Ultra Sheen. Everybody’s Afro was lopsided! There was no McDonald’s. It was Wimpy. They served fish and chips in newspaper wrapping and you’d see the letters from the newspaper on the fish!
What was amazing about London was the sense of style and the electricity of it. I knew something big and amazing was going to happen there for me. I just felt like I was in a very special place at a very special time. You could walk into a record company and come out with a record deal, which is what happened to me. Punk was at its height. I was staying in a hotel with a band called Magazine. I got to sing on their album.
Yes, I heard one of the songs you recorded with Magazine, “About the Weather” (1981). You and Howard Devoto have such a striking contrast between your voices on that record.
London gave me a platform. I was very “exotic”, which is why I got into teaching. It’s different now but at that time, I’d say that the black singers that were there came from an African and a British-Caribbean tradition, which is different from our tradition — R&B and gospel. That’s why the British were so interested in American R&B. I brought that to them because that was my background.
I learned how to be “Ray Shell” in London. You won’t find a “Ray Shell” birth certificate or anything like that. You’ll find an Actor’s Equity name. My name should be Ayries Lancaster because James Lancaster Jr. was my biological father. Charles Shell is the name of my father who adopted me at 13. I named myself Ray because I got tired of people murdering my first name. There’s a girl who, to this day, thinks my first name is Harry because that’s as close as she could get to saying “Ayries”. [Laughs]
You briefly returned to New York to perform in Dementos (1980) by Robert I. Rubinsky, who was in the original cast of Hair, and Marc Shaiman, who you met through André De Shields. How would you describe that musical?
It was about gentrification. It was about the inhabitants of this hotel having to leave and find someplace else to live. It was their stories, the dreams and aspirations of the people in this hotel, the stories of people who were on the street. Camille Saviola, myself, and Zenobia Conkerite played the three homeless people.
Dementos had the most incredible music. Beautiful, beautiful songs. Zora Rassmussen had a song called “I Saw God”, which I’m going to do in Phoenix. Now I realize that song’s about a person struggling with mental heath. I think Jonathan Larson (Rent) owes a big debt to Dementos because it was way ahead of its time.
Next Page (link below): A ‘Starboy’ Comes Home
A ‘Starboy’ Comes Home
After performing in Dementos, did you consider staying in New York or did you feel it was time to go back to London?
Keni St. George called me back to London to record the Ozo album, In Disco Town (1980). I told Marc Shaiman, “I can’t wait for you guys to get this show on Broadway”. Charita was also pregnant with my second daughter Krystin. My oldest daughter Katryna had been born in the UK. Neither of us wanted Krystin to be born in America, so we went back to London.
Actually, there’s a story I have about Keni St. George and Marvin Gaye. My very dear friend Carol Conroy gave me a call one night. Her boyfriend was Marvin Gaye’s bodyguard. She’d invited me out to see Marvin at a club called the Venue in London. I’d gone backstage, met Marvin, and hung out with him. Carol called and said, “Marvin Gaye is having troubles.” She put him on the phone. I said, “Mr. Gaye, how could you have troubles? You’re Marvin Gaye!” He said, “Look, just because I have the name doesn’t mean I don’t have troubles like everybody else.”
He explained the situation that was happening in America. He had just left Motown. He said, “I don’t really have any money and I really don’t have a place to live.” The hotel that they had given him wanted their money and they were going to kick him out. I said, “I’m with a little tiny record company but I’ll see what I can do.” The next day, I call Keni St. George. I said, “Keni, you’re not going to believe this, but I talked to Marvin Gaye last night and he’s in trouble.” Keni called his chief in Nigeria. They moved Marvin out of the hotel and put him up in an apartment! I guess all Marvin had to do was say, “I’ll do a concert in Lagos for you!” [Laughs].
Listening to this story, all I can really think is “Wow!”
When he moved, he invited me to his son’s birthday party. I spent the whole afternoon with him. He was so amazingly nice to me. He listened to my songs. He gave me advice. He said, “You have something there. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t get disappointed.” I asked him about drugs and sex, how he could be so religious and still do these little “extra curricular” activities. He said, “God gives us allowance. If you’re going to do those things and not report back on it in your art or not own up to it, then that’s the sin. If you’re going to write about it, talk about how you overcame it, or warn people against it, then that’s the bartering we do as artists. It’s the price of our talent.” That struck a chord. It made sense to me.
That’s a profound connection to have shared with him. Around that time, you faced a reckoning in your own recording career. What’s the backstory of you signing with EMI?
A friend of mine, an amazing keyboard player named Phil Ramacon, was playing with Lene Lovich. He had a publishing deal with EMI Publishing. Phil Sharp, who was Adam Ant’s publisher, asked him, “You know a fellow who can sing?” He said, “I got a friend Ray Shell that I’ve been working with.”
Phil Ramacon then brought me into EMI to meet Phil Sharp and I got signed to EMI … which I thought stood for Evil Men Incorporated! [Laughs} They gave me a record deal. The advance was only 250 pounds!
That’s a pittance!
I said, “I got a family.” They called me in for a meeting. They said, “Ray, we’re going to give you a publishing deal for 5,000 pounds. In 1980, 5,000 pounds was like 50,000 pounds! They didn’t know if I could write a song. I learned that if the record company wants you, they will give you anything you want! They said, “Okay you got a record deal, now write some songs!”
Phil Sharp was trying to make hits out of EMI’s back catalog. I had seen Prince at the Bottom Line in New York — that was the shit! — and what they were giving me wasn’t Prince! I did a beautiful Freddie Mercury (Queen) song, “Love of My Life”, and then they gave me “Them Heavy People” (1981) by Kate Bush. It was produced by Don Snow from Squeeze. The record company loved it. They released it on a Friday. On Monday, it was on Radio 1. I thought, Of course they’ll play it! [Laughs] I was taking these things for granted.
The head of press for EMI came to have dinner with me. I made him fried chicken. I’ll never forget him sitting there. Katryna, Krystin, and Charita had flown back over to New York for Krystin’s christening. I couldn’t go because I had to promote this freakin’ record. The phone rings. It’s Marc Shaiman. He says, “Andrew Loog Oldham is producing the Dementos live album at Studio 54. We’ll send you a ticket to come back over to do it. Can you?” I said, “Yeah!” It meant that I could go home and be at my daughter’s christening. That’s where my heart was. That’s where I wanted to be and the Lord provided it for me.
I got off the phone and told the guy from EMI, “I got to go to America”. The promo tour for my single would have been with Kim Wilde, who had “Kids In America” (1981). I was only gone about two or three weeks. When I got back to London, I said, “Right, I’m ready to promote”, but the window had closed. I realized if you’re going to commit yourself to a corporate schedule, then you have to commit to their schedule. Without that machinery, you’re anonymous to the public. EMI had faith in me so I recorded another single, “Take My Heart, Take My Soul”.
Photo: Flying Perfect Media
Oh, Ray. Guess who also recorded that song in 1981 — The Pointer Sisters!
You’re kidding! It was a wicked record. That was going to be my second single for EMI, but I told them not to put it out. I wanted to have attitude. I didn’t think the music I was doing was black enough. I wanted to do R&B and gospel and they wanted me to be a pop star. They wanted me to wear shiny shoes and smile.
I didn’t understand the politics of the record industry, that pop budgets are bigger than R&B budgets. I didn’t appreciate what Prince and Michael Jackson had to go through to be pop and here I was jumping to pop on the first single. I didn’t realize that black artists don’t get that chance handed to them. If I had a manager, I would have known.
For me, theater was glamorous. Rock ‘n’ roll was all smokey lounges. It does not get glamorous until you start making money and even then, it’s not that glamourous. I was like, “Child, I ain’t going through all that stuff.” Now that I think back about it, I just wasn’t impressed. I really was not grateful because I wasn’t happy, but I had every reason to be happy.
It all worked out, in a sense. Had you pursued a pop career then Starlight Express might never have happened for you. In the mean time, it seems like teaching and establishing TAIP (Total Artist in Production) at Pineapple Studios nurtured your creativity.
It was the happiest period of my life because I only had to teach three times a week and I made enough money to take care of my kids. I could be there, read them their stories at night, and take them to school. I still had my band, Street Angels, but being in theater was on the back burner.
I remember seeing the posters for Starlight Express downstairs in the basement of Pineapple. They wanted very young people who could roller skate. I thought, Why can’t this man write a show where you just stand up and sing! [Laughs] I’d auditioned for Cats. I am no kind of dancer! I said to (Cats choreographer) Gillian Lynne, “Don’t you have a part for a crippled cat that can just sort of sit on the side?” She said, “No darling. These are all very strong cats.” I realized later on that Deuteronomy didn’t do all that dancing.
One of my students, Richard Welford, went to audition for Starlight Express. He said, “Mr. Shell, you’re always telling us to go and audition. Why don’t you go?” I thought about it. I talked it over with Charita. I had a pair of rollerskates that EMI had used for some sort of promotional thing. I made sure I didn’t tell my students I was going because I figured if I didn’t get the part then they wouldn’t want me to teach them!
I went to the audition. I remember Trevor Nunn asked me to take my hat off. He wanted to make sure I didn’t have a tape recorder underneath my hat. Four auditions later, Trevor and Andrew came and put their arms around me. I thought, They’re going to tell me “no” nicely … but they offered me the lead!
Starlight Express was about discovering your inner self. For me, it was a resurrection of everything. It changed everything. That’s why Phoenix is another kind of resurrection.
The title song to your show is also the title track to Phoenix (1975), one of Labelle’s classic albums from the ’70s. “Phoenix (The Amazing Flight of a Lone Star)” is truly one of the most compelling tracks that Nona Hendryx ever wrote for the group. What is your history with that particular song?
Oh, man. I’d been a Labelle fan since Pressure Cookin’ (1973). When “Phoenix” came out, I thought the lyrics were so profound. That became my warmup song in Starlight Express because it let me know what condition my voice was in. I realized that being the lead in the biggest show in the world at that time meant I had to be perfect every night. I couldn’t have bad shows. I figured where Patti, Nona, and Sarah are singing on “Phoenix” is higher than anything I’ll have to sing in the show. If I can get there, then I can do anything in Starlight.
What is it about Nona’s writing that resonates with you?
Her metaphors — “Hiding thoughts of new ways in old mason jars.” Her allusions. Her cadences. Just the images and her words. “The amazing flight of a lone star.” All of us are lone stars. Everything that’s on this earth came from the stars. It’s not just about being “a star” it’s about being a part of everything.
Along that continuum, you’ve written a new musical with Chris Van Cleave called Starboy. I know you’re showcasing some of those songs in Phoenix, but what sort of life has Starboy had so far?
Well, the “WhatsOnStage” Awards were being hosted by James Corden. They said, “Ray, we’d like you to perform.” I said, “Cool, but I don’t want to sing an Andrew Lloyd Webber song. I want to sing one of my own songs.” They said, “Sure!” I wrote this song, “More Love to You”. I used my friends Victoria Wilson-James, who replaced Caron Wheeler in Soul II Soul, Coree Richards, who was the lead singer for Damage, a guy called Nathaniel Morrison, and Siam Hurlock, who appeared as Diana Ross in Dancing in the Streets. We sang “More Love to You” at the awards. The place erupted! It was like pandemonium.
After we performed the song, a producer called Ollie Stone said, “We gotta have that show!” I’d only written that one song, so I wrote a script. I wanted to write something about the show business of gospel families.
I sent the script to Adam Twiss, the Director of Theatre at Barton College. He said there should be some music in it, so I went to Chris Van Cleave. We were in Jesus Christ Superstar together. That was the first show I did after Starlight Express. He’s a wicked guitar player, singer, and composer. We wrote and recorded all the songs in the space of two or three months.
We did the workshop down at Barton in February 2017. They have a “New Works Festival” every year. Adam established a night where we could perform it. It went down like a storm! The President of Barton was there. They bankrolled the show. They paid for the recording. They’re paying for the CD. I’m very thankful to them. Because they helped start it, they will always be a part of it.
Later that year, you were one of several guest performers in Michael Boyd’s concert presentation of the beloved Broadway show Inner City (1971) at 54 Below. That brought you back into the New York circle. What was the genesis of your involvement?
Michael Boyd had been talking about Inner City for years because we were part of the kids who were mystified and inspired and awed by Delores Hall, Carl Hall, Linda Hopkins, and all those singers who sang that stuff night after night. We’d run from Hair and catch the last few minutes of Inner City. We’d just stand there.
When Michael and I saw the 40th anniversary of The Wiz in Central Park, Larry Marshall (from Inner City) was also there. Michael said, “We got to do Inner City!” I said, “If you do this show without me, I’m going to have a fit. I will fly back from London to be in this!” In the beginning of 2017, Michael said, “Ray, it’s going to be on.” That’s how it happened.
It’s been 25 years since you wrote and published your first novel, Iced (1993), which addresses crack addiction. Upon reading the book, Dr. Maya Angelou said the story “won’t let me go”. I read Iced recently and it still holds up. It guts the soul. I know people who’ve read the book are looking forward to hearing you read an excerpt during Phoenix.
Iced came from the opportunity of performing The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1992. I was on tour in the U.S. with Michael Crawford. I saw the crack epidemic on a national level, going from city to city on the tour.
I met Terry McMillan, who wrote Waiting to Exhale. Her agent became my publishing agent. Random House published the book. The reading I’m doing for Phoenix will be the first time I’ve done a public reading of Iced since a promotional appearance that Random House arranged for me at PS 122 in the East Village. I also wrote a screenplay of Iced with Chris White. Lee Daniels has the rights to the film and television series.
The word “remarkable” doesn’t do justice to all you’ve seen, experienced, and brought into this world. If you could say one thing to Ray Shell 40 years ago before he left for London, what would you tell him?
You’ll be back!
Did you doubt that?
I thought we were going to go to London, do Little Willie Jr’s Resurrection, and come back. The show closed so early that we weren’t ready to come back!
I was a kitchen porter at Joe Allen’s and Charita was a housekeeper. I thought, Lord, is this really why you brought me to London? [Laughs] I’ll never forget that first Christmas, Charita had this one little frying pan. She cooked our entire Christmas dinner in that one pan. We didn’t have a refrigerator. It was so cold, that we kept the milk and the eggs on the window ledge!
You not only survived, you thrived. That’s a recurring motif in each chapter of your life.
I remember when I was five-years-old, I told my mother that I saw this person standing at the foot of my bed. I was laying on my back and this person was looking down at me, smiling, almost saying, “It’s going to be alright, it’s going to be cool”. I knew I wasn’t dreaming. My mother said, “You might have seen an angel.”
Angels have always been a part of my life. I believe that we’re all angels to each other, which is why I call my company Street Angels. Sometimes you need to be told it’s going to be okay. I believe that time is fluid. It’s a continuum. When the day comes that I move on to the next realm, I will go back and tell that boy Ray Shell that it’s going to be alright. It’s going to be cool.