Broadway, Film Star Returns to Webster

Nathan Lee Graham, musical theater '91, who has starred in several Broadway and Hollywood hits, is headlining the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of "Cabaret."

Nathan Lee Graham in CabaretST. LOUIS - In the two decades since Nathan Lee Graham, Musical Theatre '91, has been on the Webster University campus, he's had a career that Conservatory students dream of – he's walked the catwalk with Will Ferrell, he's visited Alabama with Reese Witherspoon, he's performed in a drag show in the remote Australian desert, and he's helped Lisa Kudrow with her comeback.

But the native St. Louisan is back now, and in a very big way. Graham is in rehearsals for his leading role as the Master of Ceremonies in the upcoming Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “Cabaret,” which runs Sept. 11 through Oct. 6.

Graham is an all-around singer, dancer and performer, with stage, cabaret, television and film acting credits to his name, experience as a writer and director, and even a Grammy Award for Best Classical Album in 2005. His feature film credits include Todd in “Zoolander,” Frederick Montana in “Sweet Home Alabama” and Geoff in “Hitch.” On Broadway, Graham has played Phil D'armano in the Tony- and Grammy-nominated “The Wild Party,” and Miss Understanding in the Tony Award-nominated “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” (Small-world sidebar: Graham worked with another Webster Conservatory alum, Tony Award winner and choreographer/director Jerry Mitchell, in “Priscilla.”)

Graham credits his versatility and success to the training he received at Webster's Conservatory of Theatre Arts.

“I've done everything – Broadway, film, television and classical – all as a result of Webster,” he said. “Webster is known throughout the industry for consistently turning out working actors who can sing, dance and act. Since graduating from Webster I have always worked; I've never waited a table.”

Graham said the Conservatory's very strict training has stayed with him to this day. Professor Byron Grant was a particularly memorable – and discipline-focused – mentor to Graham. “He was a huge influence on me. He saw something in me and nurtured it,” Graham said.

He recalled being on the second floor of the Thompson House Music Building in a voice lesson with Grant. Grant put adhesive tape on Graham's forehead to restrict his eyebrow movement and had Graham sing with a pencil in his mouth. The idea was to master control of his facial muscles.

“My dear friend, the late Eartha Kitt, who was a master of control, once asked me how I developed my own control, because it's not an easy thing to learn,” he said. “I told her I learned it at Webster. It is that kind of focus on discipline that has served me so well in everything I do.”

Graham says his best memory of Webster is the way he got into the University's Conservatory in the first place. Growing up, Graham spent time both in St. Louis and in California. After graduating from Hazelwood Central High School in north St. Louis County, Graham spent the first semester of his freshman year at San Francisco State University, majoring in vocal performance.

His grandfather, who had attended Eden Theological Seminary, suggested that he consider Webster University instead. Graham's grandfather died suddenly one week later. Graham then returned to St. Louis with his grandmother and auditioned for acceptance into what he thought was Webster's vocal performance program. Instead, he found out he was actually auditioning for acceptance into the Conservatory. And because he had no monologue prepared, Graham didn't make the cut.

He then auditioned for the vocal performance program, was immediately accepted, and transferred to Webster for the second semester of his freshman year.

That spring, the Conservatory was performing the musical “Sweeney Todd.”

“They needed great singers to be part of the large ensemble cast, so they invited Webster's vocal performance majors to audition,” Graham said. The Conservatory had hired Ann Denise Ford, from New York, to be the guest director of the show. Ford cast Graham not as a member of the ensemble, but in the coveted role of Adolfo Pirelli, a role that typically would have gone to a Conservatory student.

Byron Grant and Leigh Gerdine School of Fine Arts Dean Peter Sargent then asked Graham to audition for the Conservatory; he joined the program that summer.

Graham calls his return to Webster a full-circle moment. “I believe our jobs as Webster Conservatory alums is to continue to do good work to reflect on everything that Webster gave us, “ he said. “In turn, I think Webster's job is to continue to train as it always has, developing working actors who can do it all.”