It ends in the city where it began.
The national touring company of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera concludes its run, fittingly, on Halloween night at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. It is a costly production that has criss-crossed the country, using 19 tractor trailers to pull its original sets and props from city to city.
Michael Crawford, the original Phantom whose voice lingers on the London cast recording (there is no US cast recording) and whom Lloyd Webber discovered during Barnum, remembers it as “a wonderful time. People would queue up around the block and sleep overnight to get tickets. It was extraordinary to come to the theatre and see so many people wanting tickets. This went on for months and months.”
It isn’t that people are no longer buying tickets. “The technology is so old and so expensive to move,” says Tim Martin Gleason, seemingly the last man to cause the chandelier to collapse in Los Angeles. He took on the role of the Phantom full time in 2009 after playing Raoul for seven years. “After 20 years, and with the economy the way it is, the cost of moving it is becoming a liability.”
“Phantom,” he says, “is never going away, obviously.” And to end it in Los Angeles? “That was planned. We were just there a couple years ago so to come back so soon wouldn’t normally be the case. It’s symbolic and they [Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh] are sentimental about it closing here.”
It is the end of what many consider the most remarkable touring run in history. “Personally, what it means to me,” says Gleason who did not study acting and singing until he was 27 and exited the corporate world, “is unemployment. I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve been gainfully employed by Phantom for the past nine years. It’s kind of ridiculous and unprecedented.”
Well, nearly unprecedented. “I have done this big mastodon of a show for 20 years now,” says DC Anderson “save for three years off in the ’90s. I’m a little nervous.”
While Gleason intends to remain in Los Angeles and pursue film and television work, Anderson is “excited about going back to New York and auditioning. Phantom‘s been my life and given me so much. It’s a cliché to say that it’s become a family but it has. The thought of not seeing these people every day hasn’t really hit me. But it will.”
Anderson began his run in LA with Crawford in the title role. “This is where I got up one morning in October, 1988 at 4 am and walked over to the First Methodist Church on Franklin where they were having auditions. I was third in line,” he recalls. “I didn’t get a call back but I knew I was going to be in this show. I went to the callbacks anyway and convinced them to see me again. Luckily, they did and hired me.”
Anderson started in 1989 as Monsieur Reyer. Four and a half years later he took a break and later was called to join the cast in Detroit. “That’s where I learned 13 of the male tracks (characters) and did swing for a number of years, filling in for guys on vacation or who were sick. Then in 2001 the role of Andre came up and I threw my hat into the ring. They asked me to do it.”
Anderson has seen Phantoms come and go: Michael Crawford, Robert Guillaume, Davis Gaines in the early years. Dale Kristien, the longest running Christine Daae, has put up with each of them singing in her ear over the course of more than 1,700 performances.
“Michael was pathetic,” she says, “so very sensitive. He was heart-wrenching. He just broke my heart every night and made me cry because he was so hurt. Robert played him more angrily, angry at the way life treated him. Davis wasn’t on either extreme. He was more in the middle. He played the Phantom as a very strong man, more in control and,” she adds with a laugh, “when things weren’t going his way, it certainly irritated him!”
It could not have been easy maintaining her character when transitioning to a new Phantom. “If someone is playing it one way, you can’t react the same as you do with someone else. You have to react to what they’re doing. It was eye-opening for me because I didn’t realize I would have to change so much.”
Kristien recalls a particularly challenging time. “They rehearsed these guys in New York so they never even rehearsed with me until the week before they went into the show. We had just three or four rehearsals – maybe not even that many. It was like Jekyll and Hyde for me because I’d see what a new Phantom was going to do and then have to go back that night with my regular guy. It was awkward.”
Schizophrenic? “Yes, schizophrenic. Very.”
The role has not evolved so much as the actors who take it on make initial discoveries and grow within them. Today’s touring Phantom Gleason says, “I don’t have a specific ‘approach’ for the character. The only thing I make sure I am aware of as I approach the scenes is to stay honest. That being said, the feedback I always seem to get is that my Phantom comes across as a wounded child. A hurt, wounded child.”
While Kristien, as Christine Daae, had a very personal reaction to each Phantom she played against, audiences, too, wonder what drives the man behind the mask.
“Love,” says Gaines. “Love is his primary emotion. He desperately wants to love and be loved. But given what he’s been through and what he looks like, he’s been shoved aside. That’s what leads him to become bitter and angry. When Christine comes along, that’s what he’s been waiting for all his life.”
The man is no innocent. After all, he hangs one man and stabs another to death. “But I didn’t see the killer in the Phantom,” Crawford declares. “I saw the love and the passion.” For him, this is where the Phantom’s voice originates. “I grew up listening to Julie London and Peggy Lee and dreamed of them as my first loves. They had this lovely breathiness in their singing that came from the depths. It was quite sexy and heartfelt.”
Crawford won’t say this was necessarily his intention, “but it apparently appeared. I loved the reaction to it because I’m not sexy myself!” When he put that breathy approach to work, he found success. He jokes, “Oh, I have to take this out into my own life and try it!”
Gaines first auditioned for Raoul on Broadway. “I was replacing Kevin Gray who was taking a leave of absence to do another Hal Prince show, Kiss of the Spider Woman. I didn’t have to sing for Hal but I sang for Mackintosh.” He popped into a Miss Saigon audition and sang “All I Ask of You.” “I got the job right away. I played Raoul for about four months on Broadway and broke my ankle jumping off the bridge. I finished that show on my knees. Six months later I got a call to audition for the Phantom.”
Prince was putting together the Canadian touring company in Toronto, so Gaines flew there. “It was between me and David Cassidy. I was asked that day if I’d like to go to Los Angeles.” He had never worked in LA so the Floridian agreed. “I learned the show in New York, went back to Toronto to show Hal what I was doing, and they shipped me out here. I had probably one rehearsal with the cast. When Crawford finished on a Sunday night, I opened the following Tuesday. I believe it was April 30, 1991.” And in what has proved to be a recurring theme, Gaines admits, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
He laughs. “I signed for nine months at the time. That was the longest I’d ever done a show up to that point. I just didn’t realize the power of that show, the mystique of it, and what a big deal it was in LA. It had already run here for two years. I stepped into some big shoes and a big responsibility. It kept getting better and ran for two and a half more years.”
To Crawford, “Andrew wrote a modern kind of opera. It felt special in rehearsals as it developed. I’m not sure if everyone was aware of it. The tragedy of the character was deep in my heart. I felt it when I first heard the overture. The hair stood up on the back of my head.” In that moment, “I could feel his stance, the beginning of the physicality of the man.”
Crawford believes he found surprising depth in the character owing to his work with children in hospitals. “I had seen this extremely deformed child in a London hospital. He was literally under the stairs with his mother. He moved me so much. I thought this is his life – he can never mix with other children because of the natural bullying that comes out of so many kids. He had a profound effect on me.”
For a character who is on stage nearly half an hour (27 minutes, according to Kristien; 35, Crawford asserts), the Phantom has a profound effect on the audience. “You’re always wondering where he is and what’s going to happen next,” Crawford explains. “He makes an impression so early. In fact, he does something antithetical when he sings this most beautiful song, ‘Angel of Music,’ so early in the show. I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of me!’ But I worked with wonderful people who encouraged me to explore the role.”
Most directors and actors, Crawford says, have great egos. “As they should but this group was so different. It was very congenial.” He points to a costume decision. “I was so lucky to work with Maria Bjornson [who died in 2002]. When I would lean forward over the organ and lift a shoulder, I wanted the tailcoat to come halfway down my calf – not too long and not too short. I didn’t want to look like a waiter. It allowed the hunching to show a kind of loneliness. She made that possible.”
Crawford also credited Bjornson with allowing him a personal affect. “I remember my grandfather, who worked on the docks in England, would come home wearing these lace-up boots. They made me feel so sad, so I asked to have lace-up boots and I’d wear them from beginning to end. You could never ask Edith Head to craft your costume a certain way! I was very lucky to work with Maria.”
Later Phantoms may owe a debt of gratitude, however small, to Crawford as he was indebted to the late Lucille Ball. “In the beginning I worked with make-up people for weeks before we opened,” Crawford recalls. The Phantom wears so much more than merely the white mask. “You still have to hear out of both ears and I certainly couldn’t put any kind of prosthesis up my nose – that would sound terrible to the audience. It was Lucille Ball who came to see the show and told me to get that opaque lens out of my eye. ‘We can’t see what you’re looking at!’ she said.”
“It’s a very complicated thing,” Gaines remembers. “We wear first the bald cap. On top of that goes three different prosthetic pieces: a head piece, a nose piece and a lip piece. On top of that goes two wigs: the alopecia wig and the Phantom wig. Then there’s makeup and paint. Plus a lot of glue and the white plastic mask but under it is all this deformity.”
It was never easy to sing through all of that, he says. “It’s difficult. You have to get used to that, especially the mask. Just having the rubber on your face is a hindrance because it’s hot and sweaty. You get used to it; really, it’s the least of our problems.”
Gaines’ most memorable night was his final performance on Broadway. “I remember ripping off my rubber prosthesis during the curtain call. I pulled it all off, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the stage management. But the audience really got a kick out of it.”
FROM ONE TO THE OTHER
It is not uncommon for actors to move from Raoul to the Phantom. The late Steve Barton, who originated Raoul, moved into the mask when Davis Gaines joined the cast. Gaines admits, “I love Raoul. Every entrance is a matter of life or death, really. It’s a highly charged character. The Phantom, of course, is so much deeper, darker and richer. In the libretto, there really isn’t much for an actor to pull from – you have to dig deep as an actor and bring your own stuff to it.”
Gleason played Raoul for seven years while understudying the Phantom. “The transition was over a period of time,” he says. “There were times on a two-show day when I would play Raoul at 2:00 and the Phantom at 8:00. I felt I was the luckiest guy on Broadway.”
The role of Phantom is arduous. Gleason says, “I had done it about 150 times before taking it over fulltime. The real transition was physical, needing the stamina to do it eight times a week, four shows on a weekend. That was a bear. It was tough and frustrating for a while.”
There were times when Gleason felt his Sunday night show was not as good as his Tuesday performance. “That broke my heart. So I learned to pace myself. I got stronger each week.” Stronger physically; stronger vocally. “The physical fatigue was contributing to the vocal fatigue. When you’re tired, it takes more to create the physical structure to prepare for a note in terms of using the diaphragm and lifting the palate.”
When Gleason was playing Raoul on Broadway, he took a date to an Irish pub. “I told her I’d go to the bar and get us another drink. This gentleman was sitting at the bar about 10 feet away from us and said, ‘This is going to sound weird but are you an opera singer by chance? You just have this voice that makes me convinced you’re an opera singer’.”
It must not have been a typically noisy Irish pub. “No,” he said, “But I am in Phantom of the Opera.” Gleason says the other man blinked and just stared for a moment. “He said, ‘My name is Davis Gaines’ and I’m like ‘Davis Gaines!?’ That was a pretty fascinating night.”
The Christine to so many Phantoms, Kristien took an aggressive path toward her audition, much as DC Anderson did. “I knew they were doing the show in LA in about a year and needed a replacement for Sarah Brightman. It took me about three weeks to talk my agent and [the production team] into seeing me. They said to wait until they brought the show to LA and I said, no, no, no, no, no!”
She suspected that to do so would imperil her chances. “I just knew they’d hire someone in New York. So I went there. When I finished singing, they asked if I could go to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s apartment the next day and sing for him.” Of course she would.
“I sang one song for him and he thought Hal should hear this so I went back to the theatre the next day and sang for Hal. I’d contrived to stop in New York on my way to a vacation in London. Hal had heard I was going to Europe and asked if I could do my dance audition in London. I said of course, thinking to myself now I could take the whole trip off my taxes!”
Kristien auditioned for the dance captain across the pond, traveled for a week and learned upon her return to London that she had landed the part. “But they wanted me to do it on Broadway and I said I only wanted to do it in Los Angeles. They said, ‘No, if you’re already wearing the dress, there’s a better chance you’ll keep wearing it in LA. So I went to New York, actually saw the show and had two weeks to get ready for it on Broadway.”
It took her no time to recall what she sang for Webber. “Of course I remember! They wanted to hear the beginning and end of The Phantom of the Opera song called ‘The Journey.’ They wanted to hear the low G and high E. They wanted to hear the cadenza of ‘Think of Me’ and all of ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’.”
The cadenza at the end of ‘Think of Me’ is infamous. It is sung a cappella and reaches heavenward. “I had so much fun with that. It really evolved over the five years that I worked on it. A cadenza means the orchestra has to wait for you. I sometimes got carried away with myself and held that high C for a long time.”
Not out of ego, Kristien says, “but because I can! Every once in a while I’d get a note that it had gone on a little long so when the stage management team was there, I’d shorten it a little bit. When they left, I would… well, there’s no other way to express why I did it. It was just bliss to be in that moment, singing that note to all of those people.”
Crawford remembers a night when he kept a note of smoke from going on too long. The boat used by Christine and the Phantom in the lake is operated remotely by a stagehand who often had difficulty steering it among the candles and fog. “The boat would go awry, especially in the early days. It weighed tons!” Its rather large battery was placed mid-ship. “One night, Sarah Brightman’s dress began to smoke. Something in the battery shorted and sparked the fabric. She was married to Andrew at the time and I thought I’d lose my job if I didn’t put it out!”
A mastodon of a show, as Anderson put it, will have issues, particularly when it relies on 20-year old technology. The ramp that move vertically and transport actors down into the labyrinth is known as the travelator. “It was very tricky,” Crawford says. “It’s a moving walkway that’s very heavy and if you’re not in the right place at the right time, it could take your legs off. It was not a place to stand and share the day’s gossip.”
The stage, he adds, “was like Swiss cheese, full of holes for the candles to rise through. One night I was six inches off my mark and a candle came up my trouser leg. The bulb was red hot. I thought, bloody hell, my leg’s on fire! The Phantom, of course, has a very precise way of moving but I had to lift my leg high enough to get the candle out of my trousers. It was so unnatural I thought the audience wondered if I was a dog looking for a tree.”
While Gaines broke his ankle early on in New York, finishing the show on his knees, he also succumbed to food poisoning one night, stranding Christine to finish “All I Ask of You” without him.
Kristien remembers wanting to see the production for herself, with her in it. “Absolutely I bought a pirate video! It was totally illegal and I’m sorry but nobody has seen it but me. Michael was the Phantom. And because we got along so well, we both asked for and got permission for me to do all eight shows per week.”
Normally, there are two Christines, “but as long as I didn’t tell anyone in public, they let me do it. I don’t think they’re going to fire me now for telling you this. We did start with an alternate in LA but when Mary D’Arcy left, we did all eight ourselves. We just didn’t tell anybody.”
“When the Phantom descends from the top of the proscenium in the angel as Act II begins,” Crawford tells, “he’s hidden. Well, there wasn’t much rigging in the angel. I’d wedge my feet around a steel support inside the plaster of Paris cast. When I finally revealed myself, I leaned out. Hal was always shouting at me to get back inside before I killed myself.”
Crawford apparently thought his director was serious when he told him to wear stilts as he descended the 1.5 ton staircase during the song “Masquerade.” One day, Kristien says, Hal was watching a rehearsal “and down the steps comes Michael on stilts! Hal had a fit, afraid he’d fall head-first. Michael said, ‘Well, you told me to.’ Hal said, ‘I wasn’t serious!’ ‘Well now that I’ve learned how, you’ll have to put up with it!'”
British as he is, Crawford described how he would dress up for holidays. He would attend a cast party on the 4th of July in Los Angeles, for example, by coming out in costume “waving a white flag of surrender! And on Christmas, I’d dress as Santa Claus with the big belly, red suit, white beard, and my deformed mask. Dale has a life-size picture of that.”
Indeed she does. On it, Crawford had inscribed “Just remember – no noise in the wings! And I might be down your chimney next year!! XOX” Kristien admits that, where there are divas, there always is noise in the wings.
To say that Phantom of the Opera has been a game changer for its cast and crew would be akin to suggesting the 99-seat waiver has played a minor role in Los Angeles theatre.
Crawford recently spent a few years living in New Zealand where he enjoyed fishing and sailing. He agreed to star in The Wizard of Oz at the Palladium in London where Webber spotted him all those years ago in Barnum. “Andrew called me up out of the blue and asked me to do it,” he says.
“My doing that show has a lot to do with my grandchildren wanting to see me in something. Andrew said they had already cast Dorothy,” laughing and implying that, if not the girl, then what role did he want Crawford for? “The new music blends with Harold Arlen’s score in a lovely way. Tim’s [Rice] lyrics are brilliant.”
Kristien says she is very grateful to Webber. First, she played a woman who was being manipulated by the men in her life, “but she wakes up and takes control. I think that more than anything helped me in my life. I appreciated that this was not a stupid woman.” And second, she considers herself lucky. “I still get to sing Phantom music and make a living with it.” She appears frequently on luxury ocean liners.
Anderson has crafted a musical life apart from the show. He will take off the nights of Sunday, Oct. 20 to perform at the Coffee Gallery in Altadena, then at the Gardenia Club in Hollywood on the 21st. “I tend to write in a style that combines musical theatre and folk.”
Gaines has enjoyed his own life after Phantom, performing recently in Musical Theatre West’s production of 1776 and the Mark Taper Forum’s Parade. He’s a staple at Staples Center and local baseball stadiums where he’s often invited to sing the National Anthem. “I’ve just tried to keep working and pushing the envelope,” he says. “I’ve tried to do roles I could grow from. I like to learn something from my work. Phantom made me a better actor and that’s the goal – to learn something and get better.”
Last year, Gaines auditioned in London for the lead role in Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. “I obviously didn’t get it but it was an amazing opportunity to be in a room with Andrew after all these years. I could look him in the eye and thank him for changing my life all those years ago. He may not have cared or known but his work and what he offered me really made a difference in my life.”
That the national tour ends in Los Angeles is fitting for Gaines. “We were on the front page of the LA Times when we closed in the ’90s. We’d come out the stage door and sign autographs for people lined up along Temple for an hour-plus after the show. And since LA’s not known as a theatre town, it’s remarkable that a show could run nonstop for four and a half years.”
“It was magical here,” Kristien says. “We once had a guy in the audience. The light was reflecting off him. We were all wondering what the heck it was. He was at the stage door after the show, dressed in full armor as Sir Lancelot. He had brought his two daughters who were dressed as princesses and picked up his wife with a horse and carriage as an anniversary present. People got engaged during ‘All I Ask of You.’ It was all so special.”
The future of The Phantom of the Opera may lie in the hands of colleges and universities. Anderson points to roughly a half dozen productions last year at schools with strong musical programs. One of those schools is his alma mater, Baldwin-Wallace in Ohio. “I think they might have given some schools permission just to see what they’d do with it, and to see what the future of the show is in the hands of others.”
One thing is certain, says Gleason. “You will never see this replication of the Broadway show ever again.”