When it comes to musical theater Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera was the gateway drug for most. Having never heard a musical before, I still recall listening to a cassette of the 1986 London Cast recording in my third grade music class and being mesmerized. Being a horror fan as a child, its tragic story, infectious music and flawed antagonist, Phantom taught me to love musicals and I have been a fan ever since. However, I’ve had never seen the production live. That is until Friday night at the Academy of Music where they unveiled Cameron Mackintosh’s spectacular new take on the classic currently running through Sunday, November 12th.
Needles to say I was not let down. I was transfixed as I experienced the show for the first time live, starring Derrick Davis who is the first African American touring Phantom. While there are a few differences compared to the original version I was more familiar with, this new Phantom still stands 30 years later as a masterpiece in this stunning presentation.
Before the show I got to meet who would be my Phantom and ask him a few questions. I found out not only a few interesting bits about the show itself, but like me his first musical love was Phantom as well.
Were you a fan of the musical when you were younger and what got you into opera?
Well, this was my first love in musical theater. This was the first show my parents took me to see as a child. I feel like this is the show that birthed my love for musical theater. Subsequently after that I saw it about 15 times before I even considered being a part of it.
And my love for opera, on Sunday mornings my mother would always play gospel music before we went to church. So it was gospel music every Sunday morning and then when we came home she would play classical music, while they read the newspaper and just relaxed. Then we would go into jazz at night that my father would play.
So that after church moment of listening to classical music, birthed in me the love for opera and then I studied opera collegiately.
Growing up who would you say was a role model for who or someone you admired?
The first one that comes to mind is James Earl Jones. There’s a stillness and an ease to his confidence and a limitless supply of talent that just comes out of him effortlessly. It’s absolutely beautiful to see and I can say we both played the same role, Mufasa in The Lion King. (Laughs)
I know you’re breaking a lot of barriers in this particular show; you were the first African American Phantom on the national tour. How does that feel for you?
It’s an honor especially in the current climate of the country. You know to be able to go around the country, number one to see how receptive the entire country is to a person of color playing a role that is traditionally played by somebody not of color is so beautiful. The media is fantastic and they give us glimpses into what the county looks like, but it’s not altogether accurate from what I’ve found. We are a unified country we really are on so many fronts and I wish everyone could see that.
See it through the eyes that I got to see it, from state to state and city to city. To be able to be afforded the opportunity by the creative team, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh all the way down the list to step into the role and for them to recognize the excellence beyond the color of my skin. It’s a beautiful testament to where we are as a country.
It has to be daunting taking over such an iconic role, what was the audition process like?
Well as you can probably imagine finding the person to fill this role, they have to go through the paces. It was incredibly intense. Not to go into the entire length of it, I didn’t have to do the “cattle call” so to speak, audition process because I was coming out of Lion King and I already had a body of work behind me.
When I got to the audition itself, I auditioned in front of casting and the directors and then I had to go back a few other times and more of the creative team came in. I had to do more material from the show and ultimately I had to perform in front of a huge camera crew, and about 14 people because they had to capture that portion of the audition and send it to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh in London for them to approve. At that point they decided I was the guy for the job.
So what was it like when you got that call and who did you call first?
You don’t believe it at first. I fell to my knees sobbed and thanked God and then the first person obviously was my mom. (Laughs) If she was number two or anything after that I would be dead. It was an amazing moment though.
What is something about the character that you only realized after you took the role?
Oh my gosh. I didn’t realize how similar I was with this man. Our director Laurence Connor, he directs this production, in a very human, very real way. You know its very dark. In reading the Leroux novel and in studying the character, breaking him down to the basis of his elements there are things that we have all experienced and things that have been very much a part of my life, like unrequited love, wanting the world and society to see a part of you and the excellence and greatness inside of you before they see the exterior. I mean, I could go on and on and on; there are just so many different characteristics that he holds that are universal to humanity. I think that’s why the show has had such a long run; whether people realize that consciously or subconsciously.
People are seeing themselves reflected back at them, through all these incredible characters and not just the Phantom.
Finally, what do you think this production brings that we haven’t seen before in previous productions?
Like I was saying before, it’s a lot more human, a lot more honest. The interaction between the characters isn’t sensationalized. Its brought back to a very honest place and that to me, makes it explode even more, because you get sucked all the way into the drama and honesty of the performances that it moves you incredibly.
The 30 years that the show has been around, technology advances in a heartbeat. Today you get an iPhone 8 and pay $1000 dollars and tomorrow there’s an iPhone 9 and 10 on the way, you know. So technology has moved forward in great strides so this production the sound system is incredible, we travel around with our own surround sound system we put into each house. The Lighting design has moved forward in tremendous ways. The pyrotechnics, I mean we blow up everything. (Laughs) It’s unbelievable. It’s really a more advanced version of the production.