The first time Toronto-born soprano Rebecca Caine met Broadway star Byron Nease she was in her 20s and he in his 30s. They were to play the romantic leads in the Canadian premiere of The Phantom of the Opera. She was Christine to Nease’s Raoul. The two became fast friends, remaining close until his death last week at his California home, age 59. Speaking from Britain, Caine talked to The Globe and Mail about her memories of Nease, and why the singer’s death, 28 years after being diagnosed as HIV-positive, has left such a hole in so many lives.
A Dickensian life
“I first met Byron, an immensely tall, strong, handsome man, at Sardi’s, the famous New York theatrical restaurant, in the spring of 1989, just months before the opening of Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. At first, I found him overwhelming, holding my hand immediately as we walked down the street. Then, as I got to know him, I realized that for Byron the need to be loved was paramount – not in a narcissistic way, as can be levelled at some performers, but because of a desperately unhappy and difficult childhood in which the love received had almost always been conditional and confusing, which was outlined in his autobiography, Behind The Mask … No More.
“His life was Dickensian in its struggles. A child caught in a war between parents, he was initially raised by his mentally ill mother, who subjected him to beatings so severe that at 14 he rode his bike to the police station, took off his shirt to show the bruises, and asked them to ring his father. The police returned him to his mother. When finally the law was involved, he was taken into his father’s family, where he had several happy years.
“The shining light of his childhood was his granny, whom he moved from Los Angeles to New York, including all her bedroom furniture, which he set up in his living room. He cared for her until she died. He used to tell a hilarious story around the time he was doing Annie Get Your Gun. He’d tried to get granny into a bathing suit, but couldn’t, so eventually the two of them just went skinny dipping.”
An emotional reunion
“My last performance with him was at the Green Door Cabaret in Toronto last summer. We sang All I Ask of You, a duet we did nightly in Phantom. It was the first time we’d sung since I left [Phanton] 22 years ago, and it was incredibly moving and meaningful for us. We did it without microphones because we’re both old-school singers with big voices. A lot of people who were there had been children when we did the show, and grew up with the cast album. There was a young man there, who is now a Church of England vicar, and he said he was thrilled we’d come together because he had come through childhood cancer listening to the album. After that, he and Byron corresponded, and when the vicar heard of his death, he put a sign up in his church that quotes from one of our songs, ‘Nothing can harm you … Your fears are far behind you.’”
“So many people thought of us as being a couple. I guess that’s because we were sort of like the Mama and the Papa of the company. So many have written to me like they would to someone’s wife. I can’t begin to describe how inclusive, warm and generous Byron was, almost to the point of insanity. Between shows in Toronto, he’d often scoot out to the Eaton Centre, and I’d say, ‘I bloody well don’t need another set of coasters with the CN Tower on them. So don’t buy me anything.’ But he’d always be coming back with trinkets for the cast.
“He was kind. He was funny. And just fantastic company. One woman wrote to me that she remembers her daughter standing in the queue for Phantom, and Byron walking up and giving her a ticket. He constantly did things like that. It pains me that, in his final days, the problems were becoming insurmountable.”
A singer both funny and stoic
“Working with him was so incredibly joyous; we would laugh till we cried. I particularly remember him deftly returning one of my errant breasts to my bodice mid-scene, his irritating habit of eating Caesar salads at the Silver Rail, then kissing me and laughing at the same time, whilst enjoying the stream of un-ingenue-like invective I was hurling at him sotto voce. He once scraped his air miles together when I was singing in Prague and my life was falling apart, just to spend two days taking care of me.
“Cancer took part of his nose. Insurance paid for the reconstructive surgery, but not the medication, which was $2,500. He gasped to me, ‘I nearly fainted, but somehow it went through on my credit card. But then they said I’d need another tube!’
“He made his peace with both parents before their deaths with a grace that was breathtaking. When he told me any dreadful news, he would always put on his stoical leading-man voice and quote the line he sang to me nightly, ‘No more talk of darkness.’”