by Ellis Nassour

    Like The Greatest Show On Earth [the circus], The Phantom of the Opera has never been short on hyperbole. But unlike another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, it hasn't gone quite so far as to boast POTO: Now and Forever. However,
    16 years [as of January 26] and counting on Broadway and, as of February 4th, 6,681 + performances under that dangling chandelier is a sort of "forever" in the world of theater.

    Just over a week ago, when POTO became the second longest running show in Broadway history, overtaking the record of Les MisÈrables, which, incidentally, opened more than 10 months before in March, 1987, it has only one other long-run champ to beat, the now shuttered Cats [with its record of 7,485 performances over 18 years.]

    Phantom and the other two shows, though they couldn't be more different, share a similar pedigree: Sir Cameron Mackintosh is lead producer and, with POTO and Cats, Sir Andrew, composer.

    According to its own research, and who can argue with that, POTO is already the most successful stage musical of all time. It would seem the public can't get enough of it. In some cities, theatres have had back walls ripped out to extend their stage houses so they could accommodate the musical. The New York production won seven 1988 Tony and Drama Desk Awards, including Best Musical, and has been seen by more than 10 million people [with a gross of over $530-million]. Worldwide sales have surpassed $3.2-billion. It's estimated that over 100 million people have seen it.

    In the U.S., vacations and overnight bus tours have been organized to cities hundreds of miles away for the eager to see touring editions. In several foreign counties, people traveled thousands of miles to whichever lucky city had a production to experience this musical that to a lot of people is not only a phenomenon but also a beloved and exciting entertainment.

    It is also a marvel of marketing. The Phantom of the Opera is literally a household term. It still maintains the sort of buzz that, more recently, The Producers produced. Before that show opened, seemingly everyone everywhere knew something about it. But POTO was there long before. After nearly a year in London, the hype was so intense, the show, capitalized at $8-million, opened here with a then-record advance of $18-million.

    The New York production, which not so long ago shamefully raised its top price to $100, has had some rough spells. Management has pulled out stops to keep seats filled during the bleak months of January and February. Like so many other shows in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, it suffered, but one might be a bit suspect of the news at that time that the show was in danger of folding because of the drop in tourism. It has bounced back, consistently on the list of the Top Ten grossing shows. Tourists help make that happen, but there's also an immense amount of repeat business. And, believe it or not, as I found out about six months ago, not everyone who loves going to theater has seen it.

    Some credit for keeping the show going has to go to the Japanese, who originally came in such droves the Infrared Sound people introduced a new interactive product: a sort of Cliff Notes version of the musical in that language and, eventually, in two others.

    But POTO wouldn't still be running if the production team hadn't been doing something right. The show has been well maintained and, whether or not you are a fan, you have it admit, it is tight and never sagging. They say that director Harold Prince takes a peek now and then, but the real credit for the fine-tuned day to day attention to detail goes to the production supervisors and choreographer Gillian Lynne, who does more than look in on the dancers a few times a year.

    Right now, another reason for the shape the show's in is its leading man, Hugh Panaro, one of the youngest actors to play the title role. It's not his first time under the mask. He was the 10th actor in the part, then left and recently returned to become the 12th. Before that, in 1991, after making his Broadway debut as Marius in Les Miz [after originating that role in the first national company], he joined POTO in the second male lead, Vicomte de Chagny Raoul. He also created roles in Side Show and Jules Styne's last musical, The Red Shoes. He made his West End debut as Ravenal in the London company of Prince's revival of Show Boat, and later played the part on Broadway and in Toronto. At Avery Fisher Hall, he performed in a concert of Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel .

    Panaro says he is back this time "because of a perfect alignment of the stars. It was timing and luck; being back in the right spot at the right time. I was having the most wonderful time in 1999, but I only played five months and then I was gone. I left just finding my mark. This time, thanks to the foundation I laid, I got into it much quicker."

    The actor, who gives the word "personable" new meaning, explains he's a people-pleaser and, for some reason, blames the fact that he went to Catholic school. "That instilled in me the attitude to always try to do things right. When you join a long running show, there's a certain cadence in place, so you don't want to rock the boat. In the beginning, when I was supposed to hit a certain mark by a certain word, I made sure I did it. Then, one day, Peter von Mayrhauser, our resident director [production supervisor] said, "Take your time. If you don't get there by that word, who cares. You're the Phantom!"

    He knows it sounds so simple, "but when I gave myself the freedom to take the goal post out and just feel each moment, it felt so much more natural, more fluid -- almost as if I was swimming. Of course, Hal came in, Gillian came in. They gave me a lot of valuable stuff. Hal was saying that some of the things he gave other Phantoms, he didn't have to give me. I'm still thinking on that one. He also paid me a nice compliment, saying -- incorrectly -- that there had been guys old enough to be my grandfather playing the role. He still thinks of me as the age I was when he cast me as Raoul. He also gave me the best advice, and it was just a word: gravity. He felt that in certain moments I had to give my movement more gravity because that would give me more age."

    The fact that this very model of a major theatrical tenor was frequently playing handsome ingÈnues does belie the fact that he's approaching 40. Some claim my eyesight is going, but when I visited with Panaro, I easily thought he could be in his early 30s. His solid six-foot statue and boyish good looks, which unfortunately the audience never sees, and charm have helped him avoid those tell-tale signs of aging. And he quickly claims, "I haven't had any work done!"

    He's still learning, says Panaro, "which is what I think keeps every performance fresh. I feel like I'm in my skin more. I'm finding things to refine, but it's subtler now. There're no huge light bulbs popping off all the time."

    Just as well, because there are plenty of them in that huge chandelier that comes crashing down -- sometimes, such as at a recent performance, swaying within inches of escaping cast members.

    As the Phantom, Panaro undergoes quite a transformation. He's also had one in his personal life, one you might call an extreme makeover. "Growing up in Philadelphia,"; he relates, "I was chunky and teased constantly about my weight. I was made fun of and called some vicious names. It's something that stays with you, something you don't forget. I can tell you the name of every kid on my block who made fun of me! If I was as extreme as the Phantom, I'd probably have thrown darts of flame at them!"

    He adds that he considers that an asset to understanding the Phantom'character. "When people ask me how it is playing him, I reply, 'joyful.' Some are taken aback, but it is a joyful experience -- and free therapy. If you're having a bad or angry day, you can let it all out. Some days I'm thankful I'm not doing another show because then I wouldn't have any place to display my neuroses."

    In 1999, when it was suddenly announced he was leaving POTO, it created quite a frenzy. It was a snap decision. After auditioning two weeks before the start of rehearsals, Mackintosh tapped him to play the lead in the American premiere of Martin Guerre [by the composer team of Les Miz and Miss Saigon], which toured for a year [Minneapolis, Detroit, Washington, Seattle and Los Angeles] but never arrived on Broadway.

    "Getting me out of my contract was dicey," he recalls. "It was a great advantage that the shows' lead producer was Cameron. I didn't want to leave, but I knew I had to take advantage of the new show and creating a role. Being on the road a year, I knew I could save bundles of money."

    He's kind to Martin Guerre. He admits there were problems, "but no more so than with a lot of shows that were running then. But those shows had better marketing and filmed the right, snazzy commercial."

    But we're talking Cameron Mackintosh, so it's hard to reconcile that statement with Sir's track record for savvy marketing.

    "He did everything first class and right," notes Panaro. "The big problem, as I understood it, was that there was no Broadway theatre available and the show was having a difficult time developing an advance sale. Around the same time, there was Putting It Together starring Carol Burnett, a household name if ever there was one, that hadn't done well. I have a feeling the thinking went, 'How can we expect a musical with no stars to attract audiences when Carol Burnett, one of America's great comic icons, couldn't keep a show open?'"

    Los Angeles was MG's final sit-down and, on closing, Panaro made a big decision: West vs. East. "I stayed two years. I did some nice things [for the Reprise! series, Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along and Kenneth in Call Me Madam, for which he received an Ovation nomination], but I really missed New York. I'm Broadway, the stage; not Hollywood, TV and movies. Then I got to go to England to do a recording. A few days later it was September 11th and I got stuck. That was horrendously frustrating, not knowing how friends and family were doing. When I found a cyber cafÈ, I e-mailed my friend Rebecca Luker [at one time, his Christine in POTO] and she checked up on everyone and kept me posted."

    In 2002, during the Kennedy Center's "Summer of Sondheim," Panaro played Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd. "That was one of the best times of my life. The only thing that could have made it better is my playing Sweeney!"

    As far as an esteem-building experience, he looks back at a Dallas Theatre Center revival of Loot. "It was right after Red Shoes, and it was such a sad experience I told my agent I didn't know if I could do another musical right away. I wanted to concentrate on getting a straight play. At first, Dallas didn't want to see me or any musical theater actors. They wanted serious! So I got serious. And I got the job. It was six actors, no microphones. Simple set. One costume. It was incredible to just use your voice and project. It built me up again and gave me my drive back."

    It hasn't all been a bed of roses, however. He suffered quite a setback with the breakup of his marriage, which sort of surprised their friends in the business to begin with, to Tracey Shayne, who was a POTO Christine. "That was a difficult time, but I can honestly say I don't think there's anyone better. We are good friends. And there was never a better Christine! Unfortunately, we never got to play opposite each other. We only worked together once, in Les Miz. She's phenomenally talented and I'm her biggest fan."

    Backstage at POTO, unlike the opening months when Michael Crawford shut himself off in his dressing room and almost required you to have a visa to even dare knock on his door, there is a family atmosphere. There's no tiptoeing up and down the stairs and you can't help but notice the camaraderie. Panaro's dressing room is the site for a pre-show coffee hour with cast members and crew bringing different kinds of cookies each day.

    If anyone would get a prize for Lead Cut-up, it would be Panaro. But, he says, once he's out of the make-up chair, all that disappears as he's "transported and transformed into a totally different being."

    It's serious business onstage. "You really have to pay attention. There are dangers everywhere, with dogtracks and gaping holes that open with the stage shrouded in smoke. At various times, and in split seconds, and in the dark I scale some pretty great heights and run amok on a catwalk high above the audience. I'm a born daredevil, so I enjoy those moments. Sometimes, I hear gasps. But, knock on wood, I've never been injured. Of course, there are all sorts of safety precautions."

    He explains that the surprise element is vital for the show to really succeed with audiences, and Panaro has come up with various ways to disguise himself as he gets into various niches around and above the stage so audiences - especially those in the boxes - won't detect him before it's time. "It's like being in an MRI machine. You have to lay totally still and not move a muscle." In one spot, he's even rigged a water bottle he can suckle on.

    Panaro knows the musical has more than its share of detractors, "some even friends of mine. They say it's nothing but spectacle, but that's not what keeps audiences coming and coming back after all these years. The show has heart and soul. It touches people. My favorite scene is the last, because it's the only time you hear how the Phantom became this angry, violent, murdering man. It began in childhood when his mother slapped a mask on his face because he was so horrendously ugly and she couldn't stand to look at her baby."

    It's not unusual to see the hankies coming out during the show's final moments to dab at tears. "It is a moving experience," says Panaro. "It's almost impossible not to feel for the Phantom. For the majority of us, life is not that dramatic, but his character is a magnified version of all of us. We walk through life with that wounded child in us. Because of my emotional scars, I know I do. But, in the Phantom's case, as Christine says, it's in his soul where the real distortion lies."

    He points out there's also an emotional hook: "Other aspects aside, POTO is a love story, except in this case boy meets girl but never gets her."

    There have been big changes, at least backstage in the creative process. "Thanks especially to the ingenuity of our make-up supervisor Thelma Pollard, I'm done in a snap.. Previous Phantoms had to be worked on for hours, but thanks to Thelma's innovations with prosthetics, she has me stage-ready in forty-five minutes or less."

    Strangely, it seems that Panaro is having a ball. "Why wouldn't I be? I'm surrounded by wonderful, giving people onstage and off. I've come back revitalized. Funny thing, when you go away, your computer shuts down but, just like on a hard drive, it's always there. It just reawakens. It's incredible."

    Trivia: The 11 Broadway Phantoms: Michael Crawford [January 9, 1988], Timothy Nolen [October 10, '88], Cris Groenendaal [March 20, '89], [the late] Steve Barton [formerly Raoul, March 19, '90], Kevin Gray [December 3, '90], Mark Jacoby [February 22, '91], Marcus Lovett [May 24, '93], Davis Gaines [July 4, '94], Thomas James O'Leary [October 11, '96], Hugh Panaro [February 1, '99], Howard McGillin [August 23, '99] and Panaro [April 14, '03]

    More Trivia: Charles Hart, now seriously dating Jane Krakowski, the drop-dead gorgeous featured star of Grand Hotel and later TVs Ally McBeal and a Tony winner [Featured Actress] for last season's Nine, is the lead lyricist on Phantom. As a 25-year-old, he was plucked from obscurity [eeking out a living as a keyboardist and vocal coach] from to be wordsmith. And, in his little London flat where he could not open the windows because it was adjancent to railyards, he toiled away in the nude.

    And, there are five actors from the original cast still in the show, the best known being George Lee Andrews, who plays Monsieur AndrÈ.

    Statistic : POTO has raised over $1-million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.


    Thursday, February 12, 2004 at 11:00 PM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.