Notes on A(nother) Cowardly Lion

A Conversation with Ken Page, the Voice of the Muny

Ken Page is in his second season as the official “voice of the Muny.” But Ken also has become the un-official face of the Muny. As one who first sang in the ensemble in 1973 and who has only missed appearing onstage in three summers since 1994, Ken cannot go anywhere on “the campus,” as he calls the Muny grounds, without staffers and performers alike rushing up to greet him like the old friend that he has become.

In August Ken will return to the Muny stage in Aida, repeating the role he played in 2006. But of this season’s seven offerings, the show with which he has enjoyed the longest association is The Wizard of Oz. That association extends back to his childhood. Every year when the 1939 M-G-M movie aired on television, the next day Ken and his pals would re-enact the film on the school yard. Ken would do his best imitation of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion.

In 1969 when John Lahr (Bert’s son) wrote about his father in the memorable biography, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, Ken was a high school student trying to summon up the courage to audition for his favorite theater, the Municipal Opera in Forest Park. “I fell in love with musicals seeing shows at the Muny,” he says. “But until I started working here, every show I saw was from the free seats.”

That dream of moving from the free seats to the huge Muny stage was realized in 1973. Then, after two summers in the chorus, Ken was off to New York. He soon found himself playing the Cowardly Lion for real – in the Broadway hit, The Wiz. Heady stuff for a 22-year-old newcomer, but also a role not without peril. “Forty years ago costume designers did not have the tools that they have today,” he explains. “The Lion costume in The Wiz was like a thick, heavy rug. The only open place was my face. At one point I started to get toxic poisoning. I went to the doctor and told him I was feeling sick but couldn’t figure out why. He said,

‘Because all your sweat is going back into your pores. There is nowhere for your sweat to escape.’

“I went to the management and said, ‘You’ve got to find somewhere for the sweat to come out. I’m dying, literally.’ So they put mesh under the arms, and it made all the difference.”

After nearly two years of easing down the road in The Wiz, Ken moved on to Ain’t Misbehavin’, the airy Fats Waller musical revue. But in 1982 he was back in whiskers-and-tail for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway megahit, Cats. (Granted, Old Deuteronomy is not a lion, but he hails from that same feline family.)

Cats led to one of Ken’s treasured theater memories: “Truth to tell, when awards season arrived I was disappointed when I did not receive a Tony nomination. But Andrew asked if I would accept his Drama Desk Award for him, which I did.

“Then Gerald Schoenfeld [chairman of the Shubert Organization] came and said, ‘Kenny, we’ll hold the award till Andrew comes to town.’

“I said, ‘No, he asked me to accept it. I want to give it to him.’

“So indeed I did give the Drama Desk Award to Andrew. I said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to accept it. It was an honor.’

“And he wouldn’t take it. He said, ‘No, no, you hang on to that. I’ve got lots of awards, you hold on to that one.’ It took me a while to realize that Andrew Lloyd Webber felt that I deserved something I didn’t get, so he took it on himself to see that I got it. I still have that Drama Desk Award. It means a great deal to me.”

When it came time to videotape Cats, Webber asked Ken to reprise Old Deuteronomy: “He told me, ‘I didn’t really consider anyone else.’” Ken Page is the only actor from the original Broadway cast to appear on the Cats video.

When Madison Square Garden mounted The Wizard of Oz, Ken was back on the Yellow Brick Road, this time in Velveteen: “Gregg Barnes, who has gone on to win the Tony Award, designed a costume that was light as a feather and so comfortable.” Ostensibly, the big Madison Square Garden draw was the stage debut of Rosanne Barr as the Wicked Witch of the West. Suffice to say, her emoting did not open new doors for Rosanne as a theater performer.

“She was a hoot,” Ken says, “but what she was doing on that stage had nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz.” When the Madison Square Garden production took to the road, Eartha Kitt was the new Witch and iconic movie veteran Mickey Rooney played the title role.

“He was a perfect Wizard,” Ken enthuses. “For starters, he had the connection to Judy Garland through all their M-G-M movies.” But Rooney experienced some shaky moments on the stage. “We were in Detroit,” Ken recalls. “At the end of one performance the Wizard was getting ready to fly off in the balloon. And he said, ‘I leave Oz in the hands of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow…’ And he looked at me and said, ‘…and the Bear.’

“The Bear?! I could see in his expression that not only did Mickey Rooney not know who I was, he did not know what I was. All the other actors onstage were shaking with laughter. I took my tail and waved it around as a sort-of reminder that bears don’t have tails.

“That story spread fast. In no time at all, everybody in New York knew the bear anecdote. I’ve had people tell me that story, not knowing that I was part of it.”

But perhaps Ken’s most memorable journey to Oz occurred on the same Muny stage where his career began more than three decades earlier. In 1997 he again played the Cowardly Lion. Then in 2006 (the last time the Muny staged The Wizard of Oz) he ascended to the title role.

“For an actor,” Ken says, “it is a really interesting trajectory to begin as the Lion, a character who needs and finds courage, and then to play the Wizard and be the bestower of these human attributes. One night when I was the Wizard, I got very emotional. I thought to myself, Ken, look where you’ve come from. Back when I was a teenager, I auditioned for the Muny three year in a row before I was accepted. Rejection hurts, and it took courage to go back each spring and audition again. I’ll never forget the first time I stood on the Muny stage and said to myself, ‘I made it. I’m finally here.’

“When I went into The Wiz on Broadway, I had the fascinating experience of living a role while I was playing that role. I was only 22, and I absolutely needed courage to be able to go onstage every night and uphold the standards of that show. But two years later when I left The Wiz, I felt accomplished and confident.

“So ten years ago when I was back on the Muny stage playing the Wizard, that experience felt real to me. These were not just lines in a script. By this point in my life, I understood what the Wizard was saying. ‘Your heart is not measured by who you love, it’s measured by how much you are loved by others.’ I have lived that. ‘Your courage is what you demonstrate every day.’ Every show I’ve ever been in has required personal courage.

“Right now I’m doing Ariadne on Naxos at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. After all these years, I’m appearing in my first opera, which I have learned is a very different animal from musical theatre. I had to say to myself, ‘Ken, have courage that you will get into the rhythm of this production and all will be fine.’ And it has been. But it took that conscious act of summoning courage to make it work.

“So for me The Wizard of Oz is much more than just another musical. The Wizard of Oz has been like a partner throughout my entire career.”

* * *

SPEAKING OF COURAGE … That historic first Muny staging of The Wizard of Oz occurred in August 1942, eight months into America’s entry into World War II. On opening night, even as the Muny’s first Cowardly Lion (Edmund Dorsey) was seeking courage in Forest Park, in the South Pacific Allied forces under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur were attacking Japanese troops in the Solomon Islands. (The epic Battle of Guadalcanal began three days prior to the opening of The Wizard of Oz, while Jerome Kern’s Roberta was holding forth on the Muny Stage.)

In the playbill The Wizard of Oz title page shared its credits with theater evacuation information under the heading of AIR RAID WARNING. To wit: “We have assurance from the authorities that there will be at least 30 minutes of warning before a hostile plane can pass over the city.”

We now know that no Muny performance was interrupted by a hostile plane. But especially in that first summer of confusion after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we can surmise that many a Munygoer was showing a brave demeanor for the children in the audience. While one eye was gazing upon the yellow brick road onstage, surely the other eye was perusing the black night over Forest Park, hoping to ward off the lions and tigers – and even bears – of that uncertain sky.

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