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Rusty Magee, 47

Actor, composer of musical comedies

By Tom Long, Globe Staff, 2/22/2003

Rusty Magee, a lyricist and composer who made it his mission to put the comedy back into musical comedy, died of colon cancer Sunday in New York City. He was 47.

Mr. Magee was a versatile composer who contributed to the American Repertory Theater's Cambridge productions of the classic farces ''Servant of Two Masters'' and ''The Imaginary Invalid'' as well as its contemporay adaptation, ''Ubo Rock.''

He wrote music for the 1997 off-Broadway show ''The Green Heart,'' which was billed as a ''musical black comedy, romantic thriller,'' and ''The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss,'' a cable television show for kids. He performed for countless cabaret shows and musical revues at the West Bank Cafe, a theatrical hangout on 42d Street in New York City, where he was music director for 14 years.

''He came in here as a composer and left a comedian,'' Steve Olsen, owner of the club, said yesterday.

Mr. Magee also performed a one-man show. In a 1997 interview, he decribed his act as ''a standup performer who amuses from the piano.''

Olsen was one of the many he tickled. ''He could play a song in one key on the piano and sing it in another key,'' he said. ''I know it sounds ridiculous but it was very funny. He was a music man and a composer and he was very, very funny.''

Mr. Magee was no Tin Pin Alley tunesmith performing on a wing and a prayer. He was a classically trained musician who graduated from Brown University and was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Yale University after serving as a musical consultant to the school and its reportory theater for three years.

He performed and arranged music for the Tony Award-winning play ''The House of Blue Leaves'' and co-wrote the musical ''The Czar of Rock and Roll'' with Lewis Black.

In 1993, he was awarded the New York Outer Critics Circle Award for most promising composer, for the music he wrote for Moliere's ''Scapin.''

Benjamin Rush ''Rusty'' Magee was born in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

When ''The Green Heart'' opened in 1997, 40 years after the heyday of musical comedy, Mr. Magee said he saw his role as a composer as putting ''the fun back into musical comedy with a '90s twist.''

''He never said no, he always said yes, and he always showed up,'' said Olsen. ''He was always working and I think some people took advantage of him.''

About a year before his death, Mr. Magee's friends at the West Bank Cafe held a musical tribute to the man and his music. They billed it as a ''Sweet Appreciation'' of the composer.

''It was pretty much a `living wake,''' said Olsen. ''Everybody knew he was going to die and it gave them a chance to say goodbye when he was still in relatively good health. It was quite a night. I think I've kept one friend from childhood. I think he kept them all.''

Mr. Magee, who also acted in the Woody Allen film ''Hannah and her Sisters,'' laughingly called dying his ''longest role.'' The cancer, which started in his colon, eventually spread to his brain.

His wife, Alison Fraser, who decribed him as ''an incredible performer, a wonderful father and a terrific husband,'' was at his bedside when he died. She said he had a smile on his face.

Besides his wife, of Natick, he leaves a son, Nathaniel; his mother, Bettie Morris Magee of Natick; and two brothers, Kenneth of Portland, Ore., and James of Natick.

A memorial service is being planned.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 2/22/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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