By Joseph Hurley
Rusty Magee can do just anything, so long as music, particularly music for the theater, is involved. That’s the impression made by the wide-ranging spate of recent activity on the part of the 46-year-old Michigan native, most recently the luminous songs he composed for the Moonwork Theatre’s “Voices from the Hill,” the group’s resonant adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’s American classic, “Spoon River Anthology,” produced at the Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street.
Before that, Magee was responsible for much of the brightness and bounce in two Irish Repertory theatre revivals, first Frank McCourt’s “The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way,” and then Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
Magee has been the Rep’s musical director for nearly a decade, and it would be difficult indeed to overstate the value of his contributions to the ongoing success the group has enjoyed since he became allied with them.
The musically educated Brown University graduate first brought his irrepressible presence to the Irish Rep in 1992, when the company’s founders, Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly, were in the throes of preparing what still stands as the Rep’s single most ambitious venture, the mammoth, “environmental” production, “Grandchild of Kings.”
Adapted and directed by Broadway titan Harold Prince, for whom it had long been a pet project, “Grandchild” was carved from the first three volumes of Sean O’Casey’s classic six-part autobiography.
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Magee was the show’s musical coordinator, in addition to which he performed as onstage piano player, underscoring transitions and accompanying the production’s many numbers, most of them ballads and street songs that would have been familiar to Dubliners in the years of O’Casey’s youth.
Magee’s duties in “Grandchild of Kings,” which was staged at Theatre for the New City on First Avenue, before the Rep moved into its regular home on West 22nd Street, more or less resembled his participation in the company’s two most recent revivals.
The McCourt collage played a strikingly successful four-week return engagement last fall, while artistic director Moore’s stage adaptation of the charm-heavy Thomas classic memory of his Welsh boyhood came alive again to brighten the Rep’s downstairs space for two weeks over the holidays.
“When I was approached about “Grandchild of Kings,” Magee recalled, “they needed an onstage piano player for this huge production. Charlotte and Ciaran were familiar with the work I’d done over the years at a little place called the Downstairs Theatre Bar at the Westbank CafT on West 42nd Street. I was kind of the musical director there for most of the ’80s.”
Magee had come to the Westbank from the Yale School of Drama, where he’d been employed for three years. “I played piano for shows at the Yale Repertory Theatre and at the Yale Cabaret,” he said.
“I came down to New York with a couple of people I’d met in New Haven when I worked at Yale,” he said. “We had a vision of a place where people could come and do one-act plays, stand-up comedy, and music. In the 1980s, we produced literally hundreds of one-acts, usually for three or four nights each. That’s where I was when I got the offer to work with the Irish Rep.
Since then, Magee has recorded music for several Rep productions and, at one point, three or four seasons ago, worked with his son Nat, then 8, in one of the group’s first stagings of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
Nat is actually Nathaniel Fraser Magee, and his mother, to whom rusty Magee has been married for 17 years, is musical theater actress and singer Alison Fraser, a standout in such Broadway successes as “The Secret Garden” a few seasons ago.
Magee, the son of a neurologist father and a social worker mother from Ann Arbor, has been in New York for exactly 20 years. When his schedule allows, he does a one-man show that’s partly music and partly comedy, using the mimetic skills he demonstrated in “The Irish . . . and How they Got That Way,” in which he did spot-on impressions of James Cagney and JFK.
And then there’s his ongoing working relationship with Moonwork, most recently “Voices From the Hill,” and, earlier, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for which he provided music and played Peter Quince, and, just last year, “What You will,” the company’s version of “Twelfth Night,” in which he played Feste, and, as always, co-wrote the score with Andrew Sherman and served as musical director.
Magee is a featured announcer on the Sundance Channel and has written music and lyrics for NBC, Comedy Central, the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and spinthebottle.com.
For the American Repertory theatre in Cambridge, Mass., he wrote music and lyrics for “UBU Rock,” Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters,” and Moliere’s “Scapin.” For the last-named production, which starred Stanley Tucci, Magee was awarded the New York Outer Critics’ Circle James Fleetwood Award for most promising composer when the show transferred to a Manhattan venue.
He arranged and performed music for Lincoln Center’s Tony Award-winning revival of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” If all of that weren’t enough, Rusty Magee played a small but effective role in the Woody Allen film “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Nat Magee is 12 now. His mother is in demand, most recently appearing in the Prince Musical Theatre production of “Lady in the Dark,” by Moss Hart and Kurt Weill, in Philadelphia.
Things would appear to be going swimmingly for the Magee family. There is, however, a problem, and a serious one and Rusty Magee, a man with a candid and generous spirit, was willing and even eager to talk about it.
“My journey began with the fact that I’d suffered from ulcerative colitis most of my adult life,” he said. “It’s an inflammation of the colon. I would get a colonoscopy twice a year, and everything seemed fine.”
Then, in October 2000, Magee learned that everything wasn’t fine. A sleepless, painful night sent him to the emergency room.
“They eventually figured out that I had a pretty large cancerous tumor in my colon,” he said. “It had spread through the wall of the colon and to the surrounding lymph nodes.”
In mid-October, he underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and, a month later, began a course of chemotherapy. He was still receiving the treatments when he was appearing onstage in “What You will” off-Broadway.
Right after that production closed in late April 2001, he said, “I started experiencing dizzy spells and moments of disorientation, and it very much worried me. When I told my chemotherapy and cancer doctors about it they suggested an MRI.
The tests disclosed a brain tumor in the back of Magee’s head, but it proved operable. “In Mid-May,” he said, “I had brain surgery to remove a two-and-a-half centimeter tumor from my brain. The good news was,” Magee added optimistically, “that it was not a new cancer. It had metastasized from my colon to my bran. The same cancer had spread. So, rather than having to fight two different types of cancer, we were confronted with just one enemy.”
In July of last year, Magee underwent a day of radiation on his brain. “They do a pinpoint blast of radiation right where the tumor was to try to get rid of any errant cancer cells that are still up there.”
He emerged optimistic. “I do feel great,” he said.” I have the love of family and friends. I have a great support group. I have a loving wife and son and I’ve been reading books and listening to anecdotal stories of survivors.”
Magee particularly likes the story of Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who, after undergoing treatment for cancer, returned to win the Tour de France.
“I like to do the things that make me happy because I think that helps to cure me.” Magee said. “I feel as though I’ve been blessed, because this has been mild, compared to what a lot of other people have gone through, with life-threatening, inoperable forms of cancer.”
Still, Rusty Magee’s future is uncertain, and he’s well aware of it.
“Sometimes it’s the little things I do that help,” he said. “Buying the morning paper is good. It’s good to be in plays. It’s good to write a song. It’s good to perform and do stand-up comedy. Those things are good. They’re a part of my life that I want to continue.”
With courage, which Magee clearly has in abundance, and a certain measure of luck, he’ll go on.