Among the hundreds of roles the late Broadway actor Kevin Gray ’80 played during his career, there was none he treasured more than the title character from Phantom of the Opera.
Gray, who died unexpectedly in 2013 from a heart attack, took on the show’s leading role in 1990, becoming the youngest actor to play the part on Broadway. In all, he appeared in more than 8,200 Broadway and national- touring performances of hit musicals such as The Lion King, Miss Saigon, and The King and I. But it was the role of the misunderstood and reclusive phantom that held the deepest meaning for Gray, who grew up the son of a Chinese mother and Russian-German-Jewish father in Connecticut in the 1950s.
“Phantom resonated with him very personally because he felt like he was an outcast himself and he didn’t fit in,” says Gray’s wife of twenty years, Dodie Pettit. “He could find that in himself to bring to the character.”
At a public concert in Baldwin Auditorium on campus during Reunions Weekend this past April, two former Phantoms, Craig Schulman and Cris Groenendaal, with whom Gray toured in a Broadway musical showcase called The Three Phantoms in Concert, took to the stage before nearly 200 alumni and Durham residents. They sang “Music of the Night,” the song that closes every performance of The Phantom of the Opera—paying their own vocal tribute to Gray on what would have been his 35th class reunion.
The show was organized by former classmates Charles Randolph-Wright ’78, Jack Coleman ’80, and Jamie Wisser ’80 to honor Gray’s legacy and to help pave the way for those wanting to follow in his footsteps. Codirected by Randolph-Wright, the director of Motown: The Musical, and Coleman, a professional actor who has appeared in Heroes and Scandal, the concert featured Broadway performers from Phantom, Les Miserables, The Lion King, and other big hits, as well as current and former Duke students pursuing theatrical arts. In lieu of an admission fee, organizers accepted donations to the Kevin Gray Foundation, a nonprofit fund established in 2013 to support scholarships for students interested in musical theater.
The foundation will disperse grants of $5,000 to rising sophomore, junior, and senior students at Duke and The Hartt School of music, dance, and theater at the University of Hartford, where Gray taught throughout his career, enabling recipients to pursue summer musical theater programs.
“He decided to devote his brilliance and craft to sharing with others,” says Wisser. “This was Kevin’s passion as an educator, and we are continuing his commitment to educating students.”
Gray’s penchant for teaching blossomed from his desire to help others discover the best within themselves, says Pettit. “If he saw a student trying to sing a song, he would want to help them,” she says. “[He would] want to try to transform their performance, double and triple it.”
Pettit says that because she and Gray never had children of their own, Gray’s students “became his kids.”
“They idolized him as a dad,” Pettit says. “He didn’t want to go home.”